Who then was Sakakawea? It is, at this remove, impossible to know. The records of the Lewis and Clark Expedition suggest that she was a nearly accidental member of the company, that she played an important, albeit minor, role in the success of the expedition, that she brought some skills and energies to the expedition that were available to Lewis and Clark in no other way, and that she had won the respect and affection of William Clark, and perhaps others, by the time the Corps of Discovery said farewell to her and her husband and her child on the plains of North Dakota on August 17, 1806.
There is no adequate biography of Sakakawea. Grace Hebard’s Sacajawea (1933), Eve Emery Dye’s The Conquest (1902), and Anna Lee Waldo’s Sacajawea (1979) are unreliable. A recent study of Sacagawea, Donna Kessler’s The Making of Sacagawea: A Euro-American Legend (1996) is the only book that attempts to explore the way in which the biological Sakakawea became the figure of American mythology. The best narrative analysis remains Harold P. Howard’s Sacajawea (1971). Remarkable oral traditions exist in Hidatsa, Mandan, Dakota, Comanche, and Shoshone cultures. Although some of them are mutually exclusive, they are increasingly regarded by historians as possessing cultural validity, even when they challenge existing understanding of Sakakawea’s life and achievement. The best treatment of Sakakawea is the journals themselves, now available in the definitive edition published by the University of Nebraska Press, edited by Gary E. Moulton.