One of Many Scenes of Visionary Enchantment
in the White Cliffs of the Missouri River
© 1999 VIAs Inc.
N ear the mouth of the Knife, in late October of 1804, the expedition settled down for the winter. There they would find plenty of time to consolidate the information they had already gathered, pare down the troupe, and learn what they could about the west from their new neighbors. They were part of a multicultural, multiethnic community, for they were at the international crossroads of the Northern Plains, the commercial center for Indian tribes from far and near, as well as for Spanish, French, and British traders.
It was cold at Fort Mandan that winter, sometimes more than 40 degrees below zero. Hunting expeditions courted danger, especially if they stayed out overnight. The Indians amazed Lewis and Clark; they dressed lightly and carried only one buffalo skin for a blanket. Members of the Expedition helped the natives hunt for food, repaired tools, and treated frostbite and illnesses. They participated in ceremonial dances and other activities.
Not everything went smoothly. The captains were unable to prevent an Arikara raid on the Mandans, intertribal jealousy among the river tribes, and a bit of commercial jostling. But there were no major flare-ups.
On November 4, an independent trader named Toussaint Charbonneau, who had lived among the Hidatsas for several years, offered the captains his services as an interpreter. He was unpredictable and unreliable—"a man of no particular merit," Lewis was to remark later, though Clark was somewhat more tolerant. Charbonneau's principal asset was the wife he proposed to bring along, Sacagawea. (Her name is also sometimes spelled, and pronounced, Sakakawea or Sacajawea.1) She was a Lemhi Shoshone girl,2 perhaps 12 years old, who had been abducted from her tribe's hunting camp by Hidatsa raiders near the Three Forks of the Missouri about four years before. It has been a persistent American legend that she was the expedition's indispensable guide, and as such she has been the subject of more commemorative sculptures and paintings than any other woman in American history, many of them showing her "pointing the way."
Although Sacagawea's role has often been debated, there is nothing in the expedition's journals to even hint that she guided the Corps of Discovery to the Pacific Ocean and back. The facts are before us; there is little or nothing to debate. But in no way does that diminish either the importance or the drama of her participation. At the outset the captains preferred her over Charbonneau's other current wife because Sacagawea was a Shoshone. They envisioned a need to secure horses from her tribe for the portage from the Missouri's sources to the headwaters of the Columbia, so her presence might have made those negotiations easier. Yet Lewis did not even include her in his own reconnaissance detail that made the initial contact with her people.
She had been on seasonal buffalo-hunting trips from her Lemhi valley home to the Three Forks of the Missouri and the prairies of Crow country, but nearly all of the territory the expedition went through was foreign to her. Clark once called her an "interpretess," but she spoke only Hidatsa, and one dialect of Shoshone. Nevertheless, when the Corps of Discovery approached her homeland, her recognition of some key landmarks "cheered the spirits of the party." The land that Lewis and Clark explored was anything but a pristine wilderness. It was laced with Indian "roads," as the captains termed them, and there were several critical junctions where a wrong turn could have led to considerable inconvenience, if not tragic consequences. Thus Captain Clark readily acknowledged her "great service . . . as a pilot" through the Big Hole and Gallatin valleys in July of 1806—two widely separated places that she happened to be familiar with. Occasionally she brought the captains edible plants and natural medicaments to help resolve minor problems. At more critical times, her mere presence was enough to convince surprised strangers of the expedition's peaceful motives, and that was of incalculable value. Of equal importance, on the rare occasions when a Shoshone-speaking person was encountered among non-Shoshone tribes or bands, she was an indispensable link in the chain of translators leading to and from the captains.
By all of these means together, Sacagawea was what the American mythologist Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) might have called a "spirit guide." She was a guardian figure of mysterious birth and uncertain destiny who, often without being asked, provided her heroes with the advice and assistance they needed in order to cope with some of the dragon forces they encountered. To the Corps of Discovery she was, in the poet Dante's words, "the living fount of hope."3
At Fort Mandan on a sub-zero February day in 1805, Sacagawea gave birth to a son. The fact that only one man died during the hazard-filled voyage is no less remarkable than that little Jean Baptiste Charbonneau survived, not two years old at expedition's end. From that auspicious beginning the child, later nicknamed "Pomp" by someone in the party, was to enjoy a long and varied career as a frontiersman in the white man's West.
Near the end of March, the river-ice broke up. The men readied the keelboat for its return to St. Louis, with zoological, botanical, geological, and ethnological specimens and artifacts collected up to that point. Letters, maps, and other reports went to President Jefferson, and Secretary of War Henry Dearborn. Six new dugout canoes, each about thirty feet long and up to three feet wide, were carved from cottonwood logs. At four o'clock on the afternoon of April 7, 1805, the two parties set out in opposite directions.
Leaving Fort Mandan, Saturday, April 7, 1805:
Our vessels consisted of six small canoes, and two large perogues. This little fleet altho' not quite so rispectable as those of Columbis or Capt. Cook were still viewed by us with as much pleasure as those deservedly famed adventurers ever beheld theirs; and I dare say with quite as much anxiety for their safety and preservation. we were now about to penetrate a country at least two thousand miles in width, on which the foot of civillized man had never trodden; the good or evil it had in store for us was for experiment yet to determine, and these little vessells contained every article by which we were to expect to subsist or defend ourselves. . . . entertaing as I do, the most confident hope of succeading in a voyage which had formed a da[r]ling project of mine for the last ten years, I could but esteem this moment of my departure as among the most happy of my life. The party are in excellent health and sperits, zealously attached to the enterprise, and anxious to proceed; not a whisper of murmur or discontent to be heard among them, but all act in unison, and with the most perfect harmony.
Ascending the mighty, muddy Missouri at a rate of up to twenty-five miles on good days, the expedition's journalists remarked on the rolling, treeless Great Plains grasslands, the weather and the river, and always the profusion of game. "We can scarcely cast our eyes in any direction," wrote Lewis,"without perceiving deer Elk Buffaloe or Antelopes."
There were increasingly numerous, and threatening, grizzly bears, which Lewis and Clark usually called "white bears." Bighorn sheep, wolves, coyotes, and beaver were abundant, as were geese, ducks, eagles and swans. The Corps grew fat on the fat of the land.
"The high country on either side of the river," they wrote, was "one vast plain, intirely destitute of timber," extending "back as far as the eye can reach." Across these plains swept violent winds, stirring up waves, blowing dust and sand, bringing at times the rain, snow, ice and fog of spring on the high plains. One week after leaving Fort Mandan they passed the highest point on the Missouri River that any Euro-American had ever reached. Confronting strong, shifting winds, collapsing riverbanks, and capricious currents, they proceeded on.
On April 25, ranging ahead of the rest of the party, Lewis and his big, handsome Newfoundland dog, Seaman, along with four of the men, arrived at the mouth of the "Roche Jaune," or Yellowstone River. The Indians had told them about it, and the captains foresaw that it might become, for a short time at least, a key landmark in the geographical, political, and commercial topography of the Northwest.
At the Yellowstone River, Friday, April 26, 1805:
after I had completed my observations in the evening I walked down and joined the party at their encampment on the point of land fromed by the junction of the rivers; found them all in good health, and much pleased at having arrived at this long wished for spot, and in order to add in some measure to the general pleasure which seemed to pervade our little community, we ordered a dram to be issued to each person; this soon produced the fiddle, and they spent the evening with much hilarity, singing & dancing, and seemed as perfectly to forget their past toils, as they appeared regardless of those to come.
Westward the terrain changed. Central Montana, they noted, was "truly a desert barren country." Clark couldn't imagine that the part of it he could see could ever be settled; it was deficient in water and timber, and was too steep to be tilled. Much of that territory now lies submerged under the waters of the Fort Peck Reservoir, but some of it remains unchanged along the Wild and Scenic Missouri, especially the 40-mile stretch now called the White Cliffs of the Missouri Breaks. "A most romantic appearance," rhapsodized Lewis, as his imagination perceived "a thousand grotesque figures," "the remains or ruins of eligant buildings," and other "seens of visionary inchantment." Lewis also was excited by his first glimpse, on May 26, of the distant Rocky Mountains, feeling "a secret pleasure" in finding himself so near the head of "the heretofore conceived boundless Missouri."
Thomas Jefferson, more concerned over relations with the Spanish to the south and west of Louisiana Territory, told Lewis to learn all he could about the southern tributaries of the Missouri. "The Northern waters," he avowed, "are less to be enquired after." Yet one of those "northern waters" presented the expedition with a serious dilemma. On June second they arrived at a major fork in the river, in north-central Montana, an estimated 465 river miles upstream from the mouth of the Yellowstone. It shouldn't have been there. No Indian informant had mentioned it. There was not even a hint of it from anybody. Yet it posed the most significant geographical question of the entire Expedition. Which of these rivers was the Missouri?
The issue was fraught with danger. They needed to reach the Rockies, find the Shoshoni Indians, get some horses, portage to the head of the Columbia, and reach the Pacific before winter closed in.
To choose the wrong route would consume twice the time it would take to correct the mistake, and would, Lewis declared, not only lose them the whole of the present travel season, but "would probably so dishearten the party that it might defeat the expedition altogether." Most of the men were thoroughly convinced that the river Lewis was to call Maria's, after his cousin, Maria Wood, was the main river, but the captains reasoned differently. In the first place, the one major northern tributary they'd heard of, the one the Indians called "the river that scolds at all others," which they took to be the Milk, was nearly 300 miles behind them. Second, Maria's River was muddy, but a river draining the Rocky Mountains should be clear. Finally, Maria's flowed in from the north, whereas the true Missouri was supposed to turn southwest, toward mountains they already could see. Hunches, however, were insufficient bases for this momentous decision.
Accordingly, the captains sent search parties up both rivers. When the results proved inconclusive, they set out to see for themselves. Clark went forty-five miles up the Missouri, found that it ran swift and true to the west of south, and returned persuaded. Lewis went nearly eighty miles up the Maria's, confirmed that it headed from too much to the north for their route to the Pacific, and made his way back. The captains' findings represented the triumph of field observation over hypothetical image; they corrected their maps and, sure of themselves, chose the true Missouri.
1. "Sacagawea" is William Clark's phonetic transliteration of her Hidatsa name, which he and Lewis invariably spelled with what they clearly meant to sound with a hard g in the third syllable. In English the name means "Bird Woman." Whether it was a Hidatsa translation of her Shoshone name is not known. If she was only 12 when she was carried off from her peoples' hunting camp, she might not yet have had a permanent name. The Hidatsas pronounce both the c and the g in the captains' Sacagawea with a throaty, aspirate k, and they spell it that way—Sakakawea. The third version of the name was the invention of Nicholas Biddle, who edited the captains' journals for publication in 1814. For some unknown reason he replaced the captains' hard g with a soft g and spelled it with its phonetic equivalent, j.
2. The Lemhi Shoshone band belonged to the Northern division of the Shoshone nation. Early EuroAmerican traders, including those Lewis and Clark met during their winter at Fort Mandan, called the Shoshones "Snake" Indians, perhaps from the gesture by which they were identified in Plains sign language.
3. Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (New York: MJF Books, 1949), 69-74.