This is what is actually known about Sacagawea’s early childhood and the customs of her people.
Sacagawea was a Lemhi Shoshone Indian born around 1788 between Kenney Creek and Agency Creek along the banks of the Lemhi River near Tendoy, Idaho. She, along with other female children of her band, experienced mistreatment in her Shoshone village because of their gender.
They experienced beatings, given only to girls, and did hard work not required of the male children. Boys in the tribe were never spanked because the Shoshone knew that severe punishment can break the spirit of their young braves. Shoshone males enjoyed a privileged lifestyle, while the females of the tribe were given a life of drudgery, as indicated by Meriwether Lewis in his log for August 19, 1805:
“They seldom correct their children particularly the boys who soon become masters of their own acts.” Lewis continued, “They give as a reason that it cows and breaks the spirit of the boy to whip him, and that he never recovers his independence of mind after he is grown. They treat their women but with little rispect (respect), and compel them to preform every species of drudgery.”
They watched as Shoshone women were prostituted by their own husbands, made to do all the work of the camp, while the males engaged solely in the excitement of hunting and war.
Although most of these pratices were widely held by other Shoshone Bands, Sacagawea’s people were in an unusually distressed state in the early 1800’s. Enemy tribes had been chasing them, robbing and decimating their particular group for many years. It had left them terribly poor and continually on the run, breaking down social values that would have provided the desperately needed unity and peace within the Band. Captain Lewis wrote of his discovery that they even hoarded meat which was killed during a hunt, letting other members of their own Band starve.
During the fall of 1800, while the Lemhi tribe were wintering near the three forks of the Missouri River, in what is now Montana, they were attacked by a band of Minnetaree Indian raiders from the Hidatsa village. They had killed most of her Shoshone Tribe and captured her to serve as a slave.
Sacagawea was then sold to the Mandan Indians who kept her enslaved. Sometime between then and 1804, she was gambled off to an irritable, abusive, middle-aged white French-Canadian fur trader named Troussaint Charbonneau. He forced her to become his dutiful wife after winning her in a game of chance with the Mandan Indians that he lived among.
A female Indian in the 1800’s had few freedoms. A girl of about 16 years old when Lewis and Clark met her at Fort Mandan in the North Dakota territory, she had been beaten by her own people, kidnapped by the Minnetaree, sold and enslaved by the Mandan, then gambled off to a very abusive fur trader.
Sacagawea had had no positive experiences with either the White or the Red Man. Instead of these harsh beginnings breaking her spirit, all of Sacagawea’s experiences contributed to the courage and strength she would repeatedly demonstrate on the expedition. Most importantly, Lewis and Clark’s attitude towards her would change over the course of the expedition with the Corps of Discovery, transforming itself from complete indifference into tremendous respect and admiration for everything she endured.