Sick Call

Sick Call

Over the River

To see labels, point to the image.

Interactive aerial photo of the muddy Belt entering the Missouri

© 2001 Airphoto, Jim Wark. All rights reserved.

By the fifteenth of June, 1805, Lewis had made several trips along the far side of the river, and undoubtedly had noticed the strong, familiar odor as he passed the little pothole, for he named it "Sulpher spring." Chemists later would identify the odor as that of hydrogen sulfide, which is produced by the decay of anaerobic bacteria in standing water. "The spring," Lewis wrote that day:

is situated about 200 yards from the Missouri on the N.E. side, nearly opposite to the entrance of a large creek; it discharges itself into the Missouri over a precepice of rock about 25 feet, forming a pretty little cataract. The water is as transparent as possible, strongly impregnated with sulpher, and I suspect Iron also, as the colour of the hills and bluffs in the neighbourhood indicate the existence of that metal. The water to all appearance is precisely similar to that of Bowyer's spring in Virginia.

As can be seen in the chemical analysis of the water, there is no sulfur in Sulfur Spring. Sulfate (SO4) is an odorless and tasteless compound. But Lewis was right about the presence of iron in the soil thereabouts. There is enough oxidized iron in the water of Portage Creek that they also called it "Red Creek." In Sulfur Spring, however, there is only six one-hundredths of a milligram of iron, which is insufficient to impart more than a slightly alkaline taste.

The location of Bowyer's spring Lewis uses for comparison is unknown today, but "medicinal springs" were popular everywhere. Thomas Jefferson listed a few of them in his Notes on the State of Virginia, remarking that some of them were "indubitably efficacious, while others seem to owe their reputation as much to fancy and change of air and regimen, as to their real virtues." Openly skeptical of modern medicine, he pointed out that none of the waters had been subjected to chemical analysis, "nor been so far the subject of observations as to have produced a reduction into classes of the disorders which they relieve."3

Lewis should have said the spring was on the northwest side of the river, since at this point the Missouri is flowing generally northeast. The aerial view above is due westward. The fields on the prairie beyond the breaks are laid out along section lines, which always run north-south and east-west. The field above center is dark green with rising winter wheat. The light-brown fields are fallow; the dark brown ones have been freshly ploughed. Farmers' access lanes snake down the draws.

After the rest of the Corps arrived at the place Clark selected as the lower portage camp, on this side of the river (see photo), Lewis remarked that one of the small canoes was left below the rapid opposite the mouth of Portage Creek "in order to pass and repass the river for the purpose of hunting as well as to procure the water of the Sulpher spring, the virtues of which I now resolved to try on the Indian woman."

—Joseph Mussulman

At the mouth of the Marias River on June 10, 1805, just before setting out to explore the "Southerley" fork of the Missouri, Lewis noted, "Sah-cah-gah, we a, our Indian woman is very sick this evening: Capt. C. blead her." Indeed, Clark's concern for her was conspicuous in his daily journal entries, which described her serious condition and his repeated bleeding therapy.

Moving the expedition upstream on June 13th, Clark again commented, "the Indian woman Verry sick I gave her a doste of Salts." On the fifteenth, Clark noted that Sacagawea was still "Sick & low Spirited," so he "gave the bark & apply it exteranaly to her region." By evening she was much worse and would not take any of the medicines he offered her.

On the sixteenth, returning to the party's main camp after his triumphant discovery and exploration of the Great Falls of the Missouri River, Lewis found that "she now lay gravely ill, delirious, and much reduced by her indisposition." He gave her "two dozes of barks and opium,"1 and soon noted an improvement in her pulse. He had his men cross the river "to procure the water of the Sulpher2 spring," "the virtues of which," Lewis asserted, "I now resolved to try on the Indian woman." The men who obtained this water were said to "drink freely of it."

Lewis may have recognized the smell and taste of this mineral spring because it reminded him of a medicinal spring back home in Virginia. Expecting a therapeutic benefit for Sacagawea, he "caused her to drink the mineral water altogether." In addition, Captain Lewis continued Clark's previous treatments of compresses of bark (Peruvian bark, or cinchona) over her lower abdomen, plus laudanum (tincture of opium) administered orally, and she seemed to improve.

Quick Recovery

The following day Lewis continued the same treatment course, and Sacagawea became free of fever and was at last able to eat some buffalo soup. With ongoing therapy she seemed to recover quickly until the 19th when she had a brief relapse. This time Lewis induced a therapeutic sweat with dilute potassium nitrate and relieved her pain with more laudanum. In a few days she was taking part in the difficult portage around the falls. Her illness was not mentioned in the journals again.

In considering Sacagawea's illness and the Captains' treatments, four questions arise: 1) What was the exact nature of her illness? 2) What minerals were in the Sulfur Spring water? 3) Did Lewis correctly anticipate the medicinal effect of the water? 4) Did the mineral water cure her illness?

There is general agreement by most who have analyzed Sacagawea's illness, which was manifested by prominent pelvic pain, fever, anorexia and delirium, that these symptoms represented an illness now known as pelvic inflammatory disease, or PID, an infection of the ovaries and fallopian tubes caused by a sexually transmitted agent such as gonorrhea or chlamydia. This is one illness known in the pre-antibiotic era from which a woman could recover spontaneously. Because it typically causes either temporary or permanent infertility, this might explain why it was several years until Sacagawea is believed to have borne another child–an unusual hiatus for an otherwise healthy young woman.


1. See Ronald V. Loge, M.D., " 'Two dozes of barks and opium': Lewis and Clark as Physicians," We Proceeded On, Vol. 23, No. 1 (February 1997), 10-15, 30. Reprinted from The Pharos of Alpha Omega Alpha, Vol. 59, No. 3 (Summer, 1996), 26-31.

2. Lewis's spelling, "Sulpher"—he meant "sulphur"—is the British form of the word.

3. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. William Peden (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1955), 34.

Funded in part by a grant from the Montana Committee for the Humanities