Where’s Sacagawea?

Have you ever gotten one of the new dollar coins in change? Most people haven’t, and it’s no surprise, because Americans have a long history of shunning dollar coins. Even in the nineteenth century, silver dollars rarely circulated except in Western mining districts. The rest sat in bags at the Treasury Department for decades until they were eventually melted down.

When a Sacagawea dollar does turn up, though, it raises another question: Who was Sacagawea? Vibe magazine, generally a reliable source of historical information, says the doughty Indian woman “led the Lewis and Clark expedition,” while many other publications, such as Science News and the Boston Globe , say she “guided” the explorers. What was her actual role?

“Helped guide” would probably be the best short answer. Among other things, she provided knowledge of local geography along the explorers’ route, acted as a translator in their dealings with Indians, found edible plants such as artichokes and gooseberries, cooked, and on one occasion rescued supplies from an overturned canoe. (The tables were turned when Sacagawea fell ill with a fever and Lewis nursed her back to health with bark and opium.) Most important, though, the presence of a woman toting a child served as tangible evidence of the explorers’ peaceful intentions. So while Sacagawea did not lead or guide the expedition, she was still an important part of its success.