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 in North Dakota 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.