Pocahontas and Sacagawea. Both, in their own ways, helped relations between Native Americans and the European explorers who ventured into their lands. They were both capable, independent women who showed their bravery in various circumstance. They’ve been immortalized on U.S. postage stamps, and yet one of these women has achieved fame at a level far beyond the other. Comparing their lives and deeds can give an insight into why.
Sacagawea was a Shoshone woman living in the late 18th and early 19th century. She was a woman of the American west who was captured at a young age by a rival tribe and ended up becoming the wife of a French-Canadian trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau. But what Sacagawea is most known for is the assistance she gave to the Lewis and Clark expeditions. While they were seeking a route to the Pacific, Sacagawea gave them the benefit of her knowledge of the land. She helped them find food and valuable herbs. She ensured that native tribes knew Lewis and Clark were peaceful and helped facilitate trade negotiations. Mostly she acted as an interpreter – with her child strapped to her back the whole time.
Pocahontas lived at a much earlier time in history, having been born in 1595. She was the daughter of a Powhatan chief and is known for befriending members of the Jamestown colony in America (the first permanent settlement). Not only did she act as an emissary between the Jamestown settlers and her own people but she helped the colonists by providing them with food when they were in danger of starvation. But her most legendary deed is saving the life of John Smith. He was found trespassing on native territory and sentenced to death, but Pocahontas intervened by placing her head upon his. She risked her life and saved his. Later, she married John Rolfe and was brave enough to journey to a different country – an entirely different world!
Both Pocahontas and Sacagawea showed that they were capable women who were willing to risk their own comfort and safety in order to assist others. And yet, for some reason, Pocahontas is more known a figure than Sacagawea. Why is this? Well, for many people Pocahontas has a more romantic edge to her story. She married John Rolfe and was willing to travel to his homeland in order to be with him. Sacagawea, on the other hand, was married off to a man at least three times her own age – who was rumored to be an abusive bigamist.
The fact is, Pocahontas’ tale is a better one. It has more success and less tragedy. Sacagawea overcame certain circumstances in her life, which makes her a definite heroine, but doesn’t translate as well to legends, novels, and movie adaptations. (And of course, the fake love story angle between John Smith and a too-young Pocahontas makes hopeful romantics sit up and take notice). But even though history has under-recognized one woman of the pair, both have proven that they are, indeed, legendary figures whose deeds deserve to be recognized.