The Interpreter's Wife

A Woman of "Fortitude and Resolution" (ca. 1787—1812)

She appeared in the captains' journals four times before her name was given. She was with the expedition for just over 16 of the 28 months of the official journey. Speaking both Shoshone and Hidatsa, she served as a link in the communication chain during some crucial negotiations, but was not on the expedition's payroll. She traveled nearly half the trail carrying her infant on her back. And, despite artistic portrayals of her pointing the way, she "guided" only a few times. Still, Sacagawea remains the third most famous member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

In the fall of 1804, Sacagawea was around seventeen years old, the pregnant second wife of French Canadian trader Toussaint Charbonneau, and living in Metaharta, the middle Hidatsa village on the Knife River of western North Dakota. Born into a tribe of Shoshones who still live on the Salmon River in the state of Idaho, she had been among a number of women and children captured by Hidatsas who raided their camp near the Missouri River's headwaters about five years previously. Both of Charbonneau's wives were captured Shoshones.

Not long after the captains selected their winter site for 1804-1805, the Charbonneau family went a few miles south to the Mandan villages to meet the strangers. Clark's journal entry of November 11, 1804, mentioned them impersonally: "two Squars1 of the Rock Mountain, purchased from the Indians by . . . a frenchmen [N(icholas) B(iddle): Chaboneau] Came down."

The captains promptly hired Charbonneau as their Hidatsa translator, and Rene Jusseaume as their temporary Mandan translator. Both men and their Indian wives moved into Fort Mandan. At dusk on February 11, 1805, Sacagawea's difficult first childbirth produced a healthy boy, who would be named Jean Baptiste after his grandfather.2 In the late stages of her labor, Jusseaume mentioned that a little rattlesnake rattle, moistened with water, would speed the process. Lewis wrote:

having the rattle of a snake by me I gave it to him and he administered two rings of it to the woman. . . . Whether this medicine was truly the cause or not I shall not undertake to determine, but I was informed that she had not taken it more than ten minutes before she brought forth . . . I must confess that I want faith as to it's efficacy.

We see that Lewis neither was directly present at nor assisting in the birth, as he often has been credited, and that the scientific question raised was of more interest to him.

On April 7, 1805, as the Corps set out from Fort Mandan, Lewis listed all those in the permanent party, including "an Indian Woman wife to Charbono with a young child." In his duplication of the list, Clark added "Shabonah and his Indian Squar to act as an Interpreter & interpretress for the snake Indians . . . & Shabonahs infant. Sah-kah-gar we a"

Historian Gary Moulton speculates that the name may have been added later, after Clark became better acquainted with her. It is appropriate that Clark was the first to refer to her by name, because he developed much more of a protective friendship with the young mother and her child than did Lewis. The captains and Drouillard shared the Charbonneaus' leather tipi until it rotted away late in 1805, so both captains knew her well. While Lewis admired Sacagawea's poise in crisis, caring for her during a serious illness happened to fall to Clark. That seemed to initiate a special friendship between Clark and the Charbonneau family—one with lifelong consequences for Jean Baptiste.

Assistance on the Trail

Only two days out from Fort Mandan, Sacagawea began sharing her knowledge of native foods, to the Corps' benefit. Lewis wrote:

when we halted for dinner the squaw busied herself in serching for the wild artichokes3 which the mice collect and deposit in large hoards. this operation she performed by penetrating the earth with a sharp stick about some small collections of drift wood. her labour soon proved successful, and she procurrd a good quantity of these roots

On May 8, Sacagawea gathered what Lewis labeled "wild Likerish, & the white apple [breadroot]4 as called by the angegies [engagés] and gave me to eat, the Indians of the Missouri make great use of the white apple dressed in different ways." The year before, only York was reported to have gathered fresh vegetable food, some "cresses," to vary the Corps' diet.

When Charbonneau panicked during a boat upset on May 15, Lewis credited Pierre Cruzatte with saving the boat itself. The next day he added:

the Indian woman to whom I ascribe equal fortitude and resolution, with any person on board at the time of the accedent, caught and preserved most of the light articles which were washed overboard

Four days after that entry, the captains named "a handsome river of about fifty yards in width" the Sacagawea "or bird woman's River, after our interpreter the Snake woman."5 The Sacagawea River empties into the Musselshell a few miles south of where the latter joins the Missouri in northeastern Montana.

Illness and Other Danger

During the portage around the Falls of the Missouri, Sacagawea was quite ill for ten days, and Clark was her caregiver. His delicate description of what he took to be a female complaint leads modern physician David J. Peck, D.O., to consider pelvic inflammatory disease—from a venereal infection transmitted by her husband—but Dr. Peck also points out that the recorded symptoms could match those of a Trichinella parasite infection from recently consumed grizzly bear meat. (Lewis suffered a "violent pain in the intestens" at the same time, which he treated on June 11 by brewing some chokecherry-bark tea.) Clark utilized state-of-the-art, if useless, bleeding and purging techniques on Sacagawea, but antibiotics were needed. He believed that Sacagawea's health improved after he had her drink water from the nearby sulfur spring.6

On the 20th, Lewis was able to write that she was "walking about and fishing." She had been well the day before, then gathered some breadroot and ate the roots

heartily in their raw state together with a considerable quantity of dryed fish without my knowledge . . . she complained very much and her fever again returned. I rebuked Sharbono severely for suffering her to indulge herself with such food he being privy to it and having been previously told what she must only eat.

While Clark was walking on the prairie near the falls with the three Charbonneaus on June 29, they were caught in a rain-and-hail storm and its resulting flash flood. After recounting how their shelter in a ravine turned into a trap when flood waters rolled in, and how Charbonneau froze while Clark pushed his wife up from the ravine, Clark's concern turned to her baby and her still-fragile health. He sent men—themselves just caught in the open transporting cargo, and cut and bruised by hail—rushing to Portage Camp to grab replacements for lost clothing:

I directed the party to return to the Camp at the run as fast as possible to get to our lode where Clothes Could be got to Cover the Child whose Clothes were all lost, and the woman who was but just recovering from a Severe indisposition, and was wet and Cold, I was fearfull of a relaps

Recognizing—not Guiding

As the Corps worked hard poling the boats up a stretch of Missouri now under Canyon Ferry Lake north of Townsend, Montana, on July 22:

The Indian woman recognizes the country and assures us that this is the river on which her relations [the Shoshones] live, and that the three forks are at no great distance. this peice of information has cheered the sperits of the party who now begin to console themselves with the anticipation of shortly seeing the head of the missouri yet unknown to the civilized world. [Lewis]

Welcome news, indeed—but not quite "guiding." Lewis was not quite ready to trust Sacagawea's six-year-old memories. After all, the Hidatsas who told about the Great Falls portrayed them as a single fall that took one day to pass around. On July 24, he admitted,

I fear every day that we shall meet with some considerable falls or obstruction in the river notwithstanding the information of the Indian woman to the contrary who assures us that the river continues much as we see it. I can scarcely form an idea of a river runing to great extent through such a rough mountainous country without having it's stream intersepted by some difficult and gangerous [sic] rappids or falls.

On the 30th, near today's town of Three Forks, Montana (a few miles southwest of the confluence of the Missouri's headwaters), Lewis was walking with the Charbonneaus when Sacagawea suddenly stopped and said they were exactly where the Hidatsas had captured her.

While Lewis never commented that her headwaters information had proved correct, the next time Sacagawea recognized a landmark, on August 8, he was ready to act on her knowledge. The Corps were now moving up the Beaverhead River in southwestern Montana, when

the Indian woman recognized the point of a high plain to our right which she informed us was not very distant from the summer retreat of her nation on a river beyond the mountains. . . . this hill she says her nation calls the beaver's head from a conceived resemblance. . . . she assures us that we shall either find her people on this river on the river immediately west of it's source. . . . as it is now all important with us to meet with those people as soon as possible, I determined . . . to proceed tomorrow with a small party . . . until I found the Indians.

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge Cost Share Program.

  • 1. See also Discovery Path Shades of Meaning, Defining 'Squaw'.
  • 2. Larry E. Morris, The Fate of the Corps: What Became of the Lewis and Clark Explorers After the Expedition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 188, lists Toussaint Charbonneau's parents as Jean Baptiste Charbonneau and Marguerite Deniau.
  • 3. Actually hog peanuts, Amphicarpa bracteata, which meadow mice or voles collect and store. Moulton, ed., Journals, 4:18n6.
  • 4. The large Indian breadroot, formerly known as Psoralea esculenta, is a member of the pea family now known as Pediomelum esculentumpee-dee-oh-MEE-lum "plain apple" and ess-kyu-LEN-tum "fit for eating."
  • 5. Although it was known as Crooked Creek for many years, the name Sacagawea River has been restored. Ibid., 4:175n5.
  • 6. David J. Peck, Or Perish in the Attempt: Wilderness Medicine in the Lewis & Clark Expedition (Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2002, 161-62.