Among the Shoshones
Thus it was that Lewis found Cameahwait's band of Shoshones and urged them to go with him back to "my brother captain" and the party that included "a woman of his nation." Reluctantly, fearing a Blackfeet ambush, Chief Cameahwait and some of his people did agree to go—when Lewis and his men promised to switch clothing with the Shoshones. On the morning of August 17, Clark was walking behind Sacagawea and Charbonneau when Lewis and his men appeared in the distance, their Shoshone clothing recognizable before their faces were.
Lewis wrote that
The whites could understand only the display of universal human emotions before them when greetings, news, and introductions of husband and baby were exchanged in the Shoshone tongue. That evening, serious discussion began, with a translation chain—from the captains to Francois Labiche to Charbonneau to Sacagawea to Cameahwait, and back. The "interpretess" was now at work, beginning her most significant contribution to the expedition.
The Shoshones' aid was more than generous, selling horses, carrying cargo, sharing knowledge of the Bitterroot Mountains and the Columbia River's highest waters, and supplying a guide to take the Corps to and across the Nez Perce trail over the Bitterroots.
Token of Peace
During that harrowing, starving trek, the journals are silent on how Sacagawea and her infant fared. Her leave-taking of her own people also went unrecorded. She is absent from the captains' journals until October 13, when the Corps is on the Columbia below the Palouse River, and Clark writes, "The wife of Shabono our interpetr we find reconsiles all the Indians, as to our friendly intentions[.] a woman with a party of men is a token of peace"
He gave a more detailed example on October 19, when Clark, Drouillard and the Field brothers were walking on the Columbia's Washington side ahead of the canoes. Reaching a village of Umatilla people near present Plymouth, the whites found men, women, and children hiding in terror. Clark emptied his pockets and made gifts, but could not persuade the men to come outdoors and smoke with him—an invitation given while freely entering their woven-mat lodges as if asked! Only five men ventured out, saying that the whites "came from the clouds &c &c…and were not men &c. &c." Then the canoes hove into view, and the Umatillas came out of their homes—
After reaching the Columbia's estuary and exploring the Washington side for a winter site, the captains held the third of their advisory polls, on November 24.5 The choices were to cross and see what the Oregon side offered, or go back upstream, specifically to either The Dalles or the Sandy River. Only Charbonneau expressed no opinion. York was for checking the Oregon side, and Sacagawea's comment—recorded below the individual and totalled ballots that included York's—Clark wrote as "Janey[:] in favour of a place where there is plenty of Potas ["potatoes," or edible roots of any kind]." Were the captains socially forward-looking? Definitely not. But this "vote" suggests how the small band of interdependent companions existed on the practical level for its own survival, temporarily outside of time and culture and army regulations. And practical the young mother was in her suggestion. "Janey"? The warmth of a nickname is stunning in Clark's journal pages, but no explanation comes. Nor is the word ever repeated in the journals.6
Most of the Corps stayed at a base camp on Tongue Point, Oregon, while Lewis and some men scouted for a wintering site in early December. On the 2nd, Joseph Field brought in the marrow bones7 of "the first Elk we have killed on this Side the rocky mounts," and the next day Sacagawea rendered the fat from them. Clark, who was ailing from the diet of pounded salmon, said the "Grease…is Superior to the tallow of the animal." It would make a nourishing broth, but Clark did not say how he came to taste it, and whether Sacagawea prepared it for him.
While mentioned a few times as gathering wild plants for food, Sacagawea is portrayed as cook only twice. A few days before the marrow bones, on November 30, Clark had written
Going to the Ocean
On November 20, Sacagawea played banker for the Corps. The Clatsop chief Coboway visited, and one of the people with him displayed a "robe" made of sea otter, "more butifull than any fur I had ever Seen" (Clark). Both captains offered several trade articles for it and were turned down (Ordway noted that the Clatsops would accept only blue beads, and Whitehouse that these were the most valuable to them). But "at length we precured it for a belt of blue beeds which the Squar…wore around her waste" (Clark). The next day, her loan was repaid with "a Coate of Blue cloth."
Clark wrote on Christmas 1805 about the "pore" celebration dinner, and also listed the gifts he received, including "two Dozen white weazils tails of the Indian woman."8 Where and how she obtained them is unknown. It seems likely that she had observed how French and British traders visiting or living among the Hidatsas celebrated their winter holiday, and she may have learned more about Christmas from her Catholic husband.
On January 5, 1806, Alexander Willard and Peter Weiser returned from helping set up Salt Camp. They brought in some blubber obtained from Tillamook Indians, who were butchering a beached whale near Salt Camp. After Fort Clatsop residents cooked and ate some, Clark decided to take twelve men and try to trade for a supply. This drew a reaction from Sacagawea that Clark recorded the next day, preserving a glimpse of her personality and curiosity about the world:
Of the trip, Clark waxed romantic about the ocean—"the grandest and most pleasing prospects which my eyes ever surveyed, in my frount a boundless Ocean…the Seas rageing with emence wave and brakeing with great force from the rocks"—and described the hardship of climbing over Tillamook Head burdened with blubber, but did not mention Sacagawea or her reactions.
5. The earlier ones were on August 22, 1804, for nomination of a sergeant to replace the deceased Floyd, and June 9, 1805 on which "fork" at the Missouri-Marias confluence to follow.
6. Clark used the name again when writing to Toussaint Charbonneau from the Arikara villages on the Missouri on August 20, 1806, to reiterate his invitation: "...bring down you Son your famn [femme] Janey had best come along with you to take care of the boy untill I get him." Donald Jackson, ed., Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Related Documents, 1783-1854; 2nd ed.; 2 vols. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 1:315.
7. Long bones of the upper leg, which are filled with fatty connective tissue where blood cells are produced.
8. Moulton identifies these as likely from the long-tailed weasel, Mustela frenata, 6:138n2.
Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge Cost Share Program.