Friday — January 21, 2022

The Human Trafficking Series: Sacagawea

by: Cesar J Segura

For years, images of Sacagawea have been associated with women’s freedom and independence. Ironically, the woman that is a symbol for hope, freedom, and American independence was also a victim of human trafficking.

Early records place the birth of Sacagawea (sometimes spelled Sakakawea or Sacajawea) between 1786 and 1788. As the daughter of a Shoshone chief, Sacagawea was expected to live a normal life with her tribe. However, at the age of 12 her life began to take a different path. While in a Shoshone camp, Sacagawea was kidnapped during a raid from the Hidatsa people. After the kidnaping, Sacagawea was forced to walk hundreds of miles to the Hidatsa camp where she was eventually enslaved. Later that same year, Sacagawea was sold by the Hidatsa people (other reports state she was won while gambling) into a non-consensual marriage with Toussaint Charbonneau. Sacagawea’s new husband was a fur trapper from Quebec who had previously “bought” another wife from another Native tribe. It is important to note that Charbonneau was well over 20 years older than the 13-year-old Sacajawea.

Shortly after becoming the second wife of Charbonneau, Sacagawea became pregnant with her first child. During this time (1803), the sitting United States President, Thomas Jefferson, purchased the Louisiana Territory from France. Shortly after the purchase, Jefferson tasked Meriwether Lewis to make maps and survey the land that was recently purchased. For this journey, Lewis chose to have his former friend, William Clark, accompany him. A year later after some initial planning and travel, Lewis and Clark reached a Hidatsa-Mandan settlement where they met a 6-month pregnant 16-year-old named Sacagawea. Upon meeting Sacagawea and her captor, Charbonneau; Lewis and Clark identified the benefit of having both accompany them on the remainder of their journey. Between the two they spoke not only English, but French, Hidatsa, and Shoshone. Lewis and Clark thought this linguistic combination would be invaluable as they were planning on purchasing horses from the Shoshone to complete the remainder of their journey.

On February 11th, 1805, Sacagawea gave birth to her son who was named Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau. Two months later Sacagawea, Jean-Baptiste and Toussaint left with the Lewis and Clark delegation to aid in their mission. During the initial portion of their trip, Sacagawea essentially saved the delegation by saving not only her newborn son but also important survival gear from a sinking boat while the rest of the delegation panicked. As a reward, a portion of the trip was named after her. A few days later, Sacagawea met with a Shoshone leader in attempt to purchase the horses for their expedition. To her surprise, the new Chief was her brother, Cameahwait. Along with procuring the horses for the expedition Sacagawea was said to have a very emotional reunion with the brother who she had not seen since her capture years earlier. Through her overall presence, Sacagawea was able to save the expedition many times through her knowledge of the earth. For his service to the delegation Charbonneau received 320 acres of land and $500.33. Sacagawea received no compensation for all her contributions.

A few years later, in 1812, Sacagawea passed away at the age of 25 after giving birth to her second child, a daughter named Lizette. Within a year of her death, William Clark became the legal guardian of both of Sacagawea’s children though their father lived until 1843.

In recent decades, the United States Government and history books have acknowledged the major role that Sacagawea has played in the expansion of the western half of the United States. With the mass telling of Sacagawea’s story, it is rare to see the true story of Sacagawea be told. One of a young woman who was not only kidnapped but bought and sold but a woman who was not compensated for the journey that would make her name synonymous with in American eyes with freedom and manifest destiny. As we continue the final portion of our human trafficking series next week, we will continue to explore the prevalence and anonymity that human trafficking survivors face in our world.