(Note: This essay was originally published in the Newport Daily News on September 30, 2021.)
Two hundred fifteen years ago this month, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, leading some thirty men and one woman of the “Corps of Discovery,” completed its expedition from St. Louis, up the Missouri River, across the Rockies, to the mouth of the Columbia River on the Pacific Ocean, and returned.
Shoshone indigenous woman, Sacagawea, and York, William Clark’s enslaved man, were members of the expedition.
In the early stages of the expedition, Lewis and Clark realized that they would need translators to communicate with Indian tribes. Therefore, when French Canadian Toussaint Charbonneau, who had been trading with the Indians for years and who had Indian wives, presented himself at the Mandan villages in November 1804, they quickly hired him. He was allowed to bring one wife; he chose Sacagawea, a Shoshone Indian, about 15 years old and pregnant.
Lewis needed her to remain healthy and to serve as translator once they reached the mountains, Shoshone country, as it was this Indian nation which possessed horses they needed to cross the Rockies.
Three months later Lewis, serving as the Corps’ medical doctor, helped her give birth to a son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, who made the trip initially bundled to a cradle board on his mother’s back.
Once on the trip, Charbonneau and Sacagawea slept in Lewis’ teepee. (It was probably she and the enslaved York who erected it.) Stephen Ambrose in his book, “Undaunted Courage,” indicates that this sleeping arrangement was done to remove any temptation toward her from the rest of the men.
With her knowledge of the natural world, Sacagawea would often find edible plants to supplement the sometimes scanty food supplies. In his journal, Lewis indicated on April 9, 1805, that “…the squaw busied herself in searching for wild artichokes ….” On May 8, she found wild licorice and dug up white apple root.
During a storm on the water on April 13, she showed tremendous self-control. When the storm suddenly hit, her husband happened to be in charge of steering one of the pirogues (large canoes). He became confused and lost control of the canoe. It began to sink. Lewis remarked on her behavior. “The Indian woman to whom I ascribe equal fortitude and resolution, with any person on board at the time of the accident, caught and preserved most of the light articles which were washed overboard.”
Once they reached the mountains, they were hard pressed to find any Shoshone. However, Lewis was determined to make contact because of the vital need to obtain horses and also knowledge of routes through the mountains.
Ambrose is surprised and critical of Lewis and Clark for apparently never truly interrogating Sacagawea on her tribe. In August 1805, when Lewis set out with a small party to make contact, he did not bring or even interrogate her, something which Ambrose calls “inexplicable,” this despite the fact that in Ambrose’s words she was the “most valuable intelligence source they had available to them.”
The expedition eventually made contact with her tribe, and Sacagawea’s role as translator was invaluable. The desperately needed horses were obtained.
York, Clark’s enslaved man, described by Ambrose as “big, very dark, strong, [and] agile…,” about the same age as Clark, and Clark’s lifelong companion, was given to him by his father.
York proved to be “a sensation” with many of the Indian tribes, who had never seen an African before, often dancing as Private Cruzatte played the violin.
In August 1806, the expedition returned to the Mandan villages; the long journey was essentially finished. Lewis and Clark settled accounts with Charbonneau; Sacagawea received nothing.
In a letter to Charbonneau on August 20, 1806, Clark offered this tribute to Sacagawea: “Your woman who accompanied you that long dangerous and fatigueing rout to the Pacific Ocean and back diserved a greater reward for her attention and services on that rout than we had in our power to give her.”
As for York, he demanded his freedom as a reward for his services during the long trip, which separated him from his wife in Louisville, Kentucky. Clark repeatedly refused and became irritated by York’s persistence.
By May 1809, Clark complained about York in a letter to his brother: “he is here but of very little Service to me, insolent and sukly, I gave him a Severe trouncing the other Day and he has much mended.”
A retired Army officer, Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University and a regular columnist.