The Sacagawea Golden Dollar and the Woman it Honors

US Dollar Coins
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The Sacagawea Golden Dollar (obverse designed by Glenna Goodacre), was first issued in 2000 as a replacement for the ill-received Susan B. Anthony dollar coin. The Sacagawea coin depicts a young Shoshone woman with her infant son, Jean-Baptiste, strapped on her back. Goodacre's primary model for the design was Randy'L Teton, a 22-year old Idaho Shoshone woman living in New Mexico at the time.

The metallic composition of the coin is complicated: a pure copper core clad with layers of metallurgically bonded outer layers of manganese brass (77% copper, 12% zinc, 7% manganese, and 4% nickel). It weighs 8.1 grams and has a diameter of 26.5 mm.

This coin was revolutionary in that it replaced the failed Susan B. Anthony dollar that was rejected by the American public. The United States Mint had high hopes for the coin given the recent success in Canada with the launching of their one-dollar coin nicknamed "The Loonie." However, Canada stopped producing paper dollar bills, which forced the Canadian public to use the new one-dollar coin.

However, the American people, given a choice, still prefer paper one-dollar bills over a one-dollar coin. Also, Canada introduced a small two-dollar coin that made making change even easier. For this reason, the Sacagawea one-dollar coin has never circulated widely in the United States. The Sacajawea dollar was followed by the Native American Dollar and then the Presidential Dollar. There are millions, if not billions, stored in warehouses that are not being used for daily commerce.

Was Her Name Really Sacagawea?

We don't know what name Sacagawea was given at birth by her Native American Shoshone mother. She was kidnapped by marauding Hidatsa warriors at the age of 10 or 11, and given the name Sacagawea. Sold into slavery a few years later, she was purchased by Toussaint Charbonneau, a French fur trapper, to be his "wife." Charbonneau had at least one other young, enslaved "wife" acquired at the same time he bought Sacagawea.

Pregnant at 14 and a Mother at 15

When Lewis and Clark were preparing for their historic expedition to the West coast of North America, they hired Charbonneau as a guide on the condition that he brought his Shoshone-born "wife" with him. Lewis and Clark expected to need to have to trade with Native Americans along the journey, especially for horses, and Sacagawea spoke several native languages. She was primarily expected to be a translator on the trip. At the time the expedition departed, she was 15 years old and six months pregnant.

Did Sacagawea Really Carry Her Baby Face Forward?

Sacagawea gave birth to her son, Jean-Baptiste, in a fort near the Hidatsa-Mandan villages in North Dakota, where the expedition wintered over. They departed again soon after, and Sacagawea carried her infant son slung on her back, Native American style.

People have debated the fact that that Sacagawea is carrying her baby face-forward on her back, as depicted on the Golden Dollar. A traditional Shoshone woman would carry her baby rear-facing. The U.S. Mint has previously admitted this depiction was selected for artistic reasons.

Statue of Sacajawea in Washington Park, Portland, viewed from the west.
Statue of Sacajawea in Washington Park, Portland, viewed from the west. EncMstr 

The Only Woman on the Expedition

Sacagawea was the only woman among the permanent 33 party members who completed the expedition. Her chores included laundry and mending, foraging for roots and berries, and even healing. Her knowledge of roots and plants enabled white men to eat many of the indigenous North American root-based foods for the first time. Sacagawea also showed the white men how to treat injuries and illnesses using herbs and other natural means. This skill may have helped the mission to be as successful as it was.

Sacagawea Defends the Expedition Against Attack!

William Clark, in the journals he kept during the expedition, credited Sacagawea's presence with preventing the hostile actions of the native people they encountered. Because Native Americans couldn't even imagine the notion of a war party traveling with a woman and a baby, they automatically assumed that the expedition came in peace. It is almost sure that her presence prevented many attacks and likely saved several lives.

The Chief's Sister

Among the many nations that the expedition encountered on its long journey, the very first Shoshone nation it met happened to be that of Sacagawea's childhood! Her brother was now the leader, and Sacagawea's important role on this trip was once again reinforced when the emotional reunion with her brother paved the way to favorable trading and good relations with the Shoshone peoples.

Sacagawea to the Rescue!

Yet another one of Sacagawea's remarkable acts was to save the maps, journals, and other records of the first year of the expedition. A sudden gust capsized the boat in which she was crossing a river, but Sacagawea kept her presence of mind and managed to bring the satchels containing these important records to safety. According to Clark, had she not acted as she had, the loss would have been tremendous.

An Equal Vote in an Important Decision

It is a mark of the high esteem in which Lewis and Clark held Sacagawea, that she was given a full, equal vote in the decision of where to winter over once the expedition had reached Oregon. In a time and place when women's voices were seldom heard, and if they were, it was through their husbands, Sacagawea had a full, equal vote in this important decision.

Sacagawea Finally Sees the Great Waters

While in Oregon, word came that a whale had washed ashore a few miles away. A party was to be sent to render the carcass for meat and oil. Sacagawea begged to go along, so she could finally fulfill a seldom-realized dream of her people: to see the Great Waters (of the ocean.) Sacagawea was granted her wish.

Once the expedition returned back home, Sacagawea's husband was paid $500.33 and 320 acres of land in exchange for his services. Sacagawea got paid nothing. She gave birth to a second child, a daughter, about 6 years later, but Sacagawea died of a fever soon after at the age of 25. William Clark felt such a debt of gratitude to this remarkable woman that after her death he adopted her children.

Sacagawea was considered by William Clark to have been so instrumental to the Lewis & Clark Expedition's success that he later claimed that there was no possible reward sufficient to repay her services.

Edited by: James Bucki