The adventures of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark hold an iconic place in early American history. Exploring over 8,000 miles of newly acquired US territory, Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery set out to ‘discover’ the land, people and natural properties of the areas acquired through the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. This expedition proved to be one of the most significant in American history, and its success is entirely owed to one extraordinary woman, Sacagawea. However, what do we really know about her? Sources from Sacagawea herself pose something of a historiographical nightmare: they do not exist. We rely instead upon the journals written by Lewis and Clark, who within these journals talk about her, not to her. Yet, these sources allow us to glimpse a key fact about Sacagawea; her role as interpreter and guide – and as a woman – facilitated the success of the Corps of Discovery. Only 16 years old, and while pregnant, Sacagawea’s contribution to American success in the West is an incredible story. This article aims to highlight her journey with the Corps of Discovery and will emphasise Sacagawea’s crucial role in its success.
Born around 1788 to the Lemhi band of the Shoshone tribe, Sacagawea lived the first twelve years of her life in what is now the state of Idaho, in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. When she was just twelve, Sacagawea was kidnapped by an enemy tribe – the Hidatsa – and taken to Hidatsa villages near what is now North Dakota and was claimed as a wife by a French trader named Toussaint Charbonneau. After this tumultuous early life, little is known of Sacagawea until she encounters Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on the 4th November, 1804.
Between 1804 and 1806, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set out to explore the territory acquired by the US government through the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Napoleon Bonaparte sold this territory to the US for $15 million, and the acquisition of this land nearly doubled the size of the US. indeed, the Louisiana Purchase allowed America the areas now covered by the states of Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma, as well as parts of Colorado, Louisiana, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming. It was President Thomas Jefferson who desired the discovery of these lands, with many goals in mind. The Corps of Discovery was in fact a US Army operation – though the men present were not as disciplined and regimented as we might imagine. About 50 men – and one dog named Seaman – set off on an 8,000-mile journey across the challenging Great Plains. It was near the villages of the Mandan and Hidasta where Sacagawea is first encountered by the expedition.
In Clark’s account of their first encounter, it is her husband, Charbonneau, who is asked to join the expedition, ‘a French man by the name Chabonah, who speaks the Big Belley language visit us (…) we engaged him to go on with us and take one of his wives to interpret the snake language’. The snake language, here, means the language of the Shoshone. The wife referred to here is Sacagawea. It is implied that Sacagawea did not have a say in whether or not she wanted to embark on the expedition. Indeed, the Corps of Discovery was not a group overly concerned with freedom. One man, York, was a black, enslaved labourer belonging to Clark’s family. Referred to as a ‘body servant’, York had no choice in accompanying the Corps of Discovery. Sacagawea was all but invisible at first; she was referred to four times in the journals of Lewis and Clark before being called by her name. She had to prove her significance – it was not automatically granted to her. But prove her significance she did.
While her language skills – especially her knowledge of the Shoshone and Hidatsa languages – were commendable and facilitated crucial negotiations between the Corps and local tribes, Ron McCoy argues that her significance lay elsewhere. Her memory of milestones, topography, and direction allowed for the successful navigation of the challenging terrain of the western plains. Indeed, Clark described her as a ‘pilot’ who had performed them a ‘great service’. More importantly, McCoy highlights that Sacagawea was the only woman to journey with the Corps of Discovery, as far as we are aware. Sacagawea’s status as a woman – evidenced by her pregnancy and the birth of her son during the expedition – added to the Corps, according to Clark, ‘a token of peace’. According to McCoy, war parties never travelled with women. The fact that Sacagawea was travelling with the Corps of Discovery served to convey ‘a nuanced yet readily understood signal: we are not a war party’. In this way, Sacagawea was indispensable to the Corps. Furthermore, Sacagawea had some crucial connections. For example, the Corps reached Idaho – exhausted and run down – and found themselves ‘more or less at the mercy of a Shoshone chieftain names Cameahwait.’ In a surprising turn, Sacagawea surprisingly revealed to Lewis that Cameahwait was, in fact, her brother. In having this vital connection, Sacagawea facilitated the continuation of the expedition with renewed energy.
Sacagawea’s story is a famous one. Yet, we have no written sources from her whatsoever. We base our story off of two men who had little knowledge of indigenous cultures; they did not even speak the same language as Sacagawea – she had to translate to her husband, who then passed on her words to Lewis and Clark. In this way, her iconic story has no indication of how she was feeling during the expedition, it has no idea what she thought of these American men surveying indigenous land. Sadly, there seems no way for us to attain this information. So, what to do next? Continue telling her story through the white male lens? This article argues that the gaps in Sacagawea’s narrative, while unfillable, need to be acknowledged, need to be given attention. If we keep the conversation of Sacagawea’s possible internal narrative open, we humanise and respect her story.
Written by Amy Hendrie
Nelson, Dale W. Interpreters with Lewis and Clark the story of Sacagawea and Toussaint Charbonneau (University of North Texas Press: Texas, 2003)
McCoy, Ron ‘She of Myth and Memory: The Remarkable Legend of Sacagawea’ The World & I vol. 13(3) 2002
Lewis, Meriwether and Clark, William The Journals of Lewis and Clark. Accessed 25th February 2022 https://www.gutenberg.org/files/8419/8419-h/8419-h.htm#link12H_4_0393