A Slow Realization

masthead saying 'We Proceeded On'

Reprinted from We Proceeded On1

The Fort Mandan Plan2

During the stay with the Mandan, numerous reports of Indian war parties stealing horses from each other dramatized to the captains how crucial horse trafficking had become amongst the natives. But as far as the corps itself was concerned, during these winter months the actual use of horses was occasional and incidental—not absolutely essential for the needs of the expedition.

It was at Mandan that the captains first seriously faced up to their ultimate travel needs. Almost immediately on arrival there, they began to hear about the mountains to the west and the need for guides and land transportation beyond the river route. On October 29, 1804, before they had even located winter quarters, they learned that a chief of the Minnetaree (the 'Big Bellies') was then on a war party (to steal horses) "against the Snake Indian who inhabit the Rocky Mountains . . ." Just a few days later, November 4th, Clark recorded that:

a french man by Name Chabonah who Speaks the Big Belly language visit us, he wishes to hire & informed us his 2 squars were Snake Indians, we engau him to go on with us and take one of his wives to interpret the Snake language.

During the long winter nights and days, as Lewis and Clark gained further information from their hosts about the westward route, those Snake Indians (i.e. the Shoshones) and their horses loomed ever larger in their plans. Lewis wrote to President Jefferson from Ft. Mandan, April 7, 1805, just as the Corps was to resume the journey upstream toward the mountains:

The circumstances of the Snake Indians possessing large quantities of horses, is much in our favour, as by means of horses, the transportation of our baggage will be rendered easy and expeditious overland, from the Missouri to the Columbia river.

Sacagawea = Horses

The horses would be not only "much in their favour," they would be absolutely essential-explaining why the captains would dare to include Charbonneau's wife, Sacagawea, a teenage girl with a new born babe, in a party entering upon such a hazardous journey. The theorem was self-evident:

  • To reach the Pacific over the mountains requires horses
  • The Snake Indians (the Shoshones) have horses
  • We must talk their language to acquire their horses
  • Sacagawea is a Shoshone and speaks the language
  • Sacagawea is our key to horses, and THEREFORE our key to success

But the captains almost lost the key. On June 6th, while Lewis was absent reconnoitering for the Great Falls, Clark recorded "our Indian woman verry sick I bleed her." She became progressively worse over the next several days. By June 16th Clark thought she might die. The urgency of the situation struck Lewis forcefully as he rejoined the party after locating the Great Falls: On June 16, 1804, he wrote:

about 2 P.M. I reached the camp found the Indian woman extreemly ill and much reduced by her indisposition. This gave me some concern as well for this poor object herself, then with a young child in her arms, as from the consideration of her being our only dependence for a friendly negotiation with the Snake Indians on whom we depend for horses to assist us in our portage from the Missouri to the Columbia River.

Fortunately Lewis had also discovered Sulphur Springs nearby, "the virtues of which . . . [he] now resolved to try on the Indian woman." His prescriptions were effective, and within a few days she had sufficiently recovered, able to proceed on—and later, to help in the horse talks with the Shoshones.