February 11, 1805
On the banks of the Missouri, 1,200 miles
upriver from St. Louis
All afternoon her cries could be heard throughout the small
wooden enclosure they called Fort Mandan, winter quarters for
the expedition across the river from one of the tribe's villages. Two
rows of huts faced each other at an oblique angle within the stockade,
and from one of these the guttural shrieks emerged with a grim regularity.
In and around the other huts the men kept to their business—
skinning game, cutting wood, cleaning guns—but each flinched
inwardly when the next cry reached his ears.
"It's her first," René Jesseaume said as he ground an ax blade on a
whetstone inside his hut. "She can't be more than fifteen; it's no wonder
she has been at it for so long."
"All you can do is wait," said the young soldier across from him,
shaking his head. He continued to dress the elk meat they had hunted
two days before.
"Maybe," Jesseaume said. He put down the ax, oiled the stone, and
let himself out into the biting cold.
He crossed the central space enclosed by the palisade. On the river
side the American flag snapped fiercely on its pole above the roughhewn
gatehouse, its edges already frayed. Hunched against the bitter
cold wind, he approached the door to the captains' quarters opposite
his hut. As he prepared to knock, the door opened and Charbonneau,
the squaw's husband, emerged in a daze. His eyes were rheumy, his
look distracted; he passed Jesseaume without appearing to see him.
Jesseaume knocked lightly on the half-open door and let himself in to
the close confines of the room.
Captain Lewis looked up from where he sat by a low pallet covered
with a buffalo robe. His features were worn. The young woman lay
beneath a woven blanket, her face turned away from the candle at
Lewis's side. Lewis began to say something but the woman cried out
suddenly, a long howl that paralyzed both men before it tapered off in
a whimper. Jesseaume approached and knelt by Lewis's side.
"Captain, my wife' s tribe has a potion in such cases where the labor
is long and difficult." Lewis nodded for him to continue. "They crush
the tail of a rattler, mix it with water, and have the woman drink it. I
have never seen it fail."
At length Lewis said, "I have given her as much tincture of laudanum
as I dare. I don't suppose the Mandan remedy you propose can
keep nature from taking its course."
He rose and walked to the other side of the hut, its interior dank
with the smell of sweat, blood, and wood smoke. On one wall a profusion
of pelts, tails, snakeskins, and bones hung on the rough timber.
He produced a knife from his pocket and snipped the rattles from the
tip of a snakeskin. Then, setting his cup on an adjacent plank, he ladled
out a quarter measure of water and returned to where Jesseaume
crouched beside the woman.
"Will this serve?"
"Very well, Captain. I thank you."
Jesseaume neatly snapped two of the rattles from the tail, dropped
them into the water, and broke them into tiny pieces, using his thumbnail
as a mortar to the tin cup's pestle. Kneeling low to the pallet, he
raised the young woman's sweat-drenched head in one hand and whispered
in her ear in Mandan, "New Mother, the power of the snake will
tell your body how to work. Drink this, and let the snake show your
baby the way out." He held the cup to her lips then, and she raised her
head to drink it, her matted hair stretched across her mouth. Gently,
he pulled the strands clear and she drank the cloudy liquid, slowly at
first, then in one long swallow. She lay down as if the effort of drinking
was a new source of exhaustion. A short while later her body contracted,
her knees rose to her chest, and she let out a shriek.
Lewis said, "I am going out for a short while. I fear our vigil may yet
"It may, Captain," Jesseaume whispered. "But in case it is not, could
you ask my wife to attend? She is at the gatehouse with Black Moccasin
and his squaws."
A quarter of an hour later the girl they called the Bird Woman,
Sacagawea, brought forth a fine and healthy boy. Charbonneau was
found dozing in one of the soldiers' huts. He returned, tearful and
smiling, and cradled the infant, wrapped in a blanket of fox fur, as he
announced proudly to all, "We will name him Jean- Baptiste, like my
His father called him Baptiste, but his mother called him Pompy, "Little
Chief," the Shoshone name she chose to honor the tribe into which
she had been born. Her knowledge of the Shoshone language was the
reason Charbonneau had been hired as an interpreter for the expedition,
after all. He didn't speak it, but her girlhood had been spent with
the Shoshone, the Snake tribe, at the foot of the Great Stony Mountains
to the west. They were the only tribe in the area with horses to
trade, and the captains and their men would need horses to cross the
mountains on their way west. She would be the go- between when they
left the river and started to climb.
As she lay with her newborn and suckled him in those first few
days, she thought of the new paths that lay ahead for her and her baby,
one of which might lead to the place where she had been born. Four
summers earlier she and three other Shoshone girls had been carried
off during the seasonal buffalo hunt by a Hidatsa raiding party. They
were after horses and young women, in that order of importance, and
after killing several hunters and their squaws, including her parents,
they galloped off with Sacagawea and the others tied to their mounts.
They rode eastward for many days, through land that was different
from anything Sacagawea had seen, broad and open, with swift rivers
cut into the ground and tall grasslands in every direction. When they
reached the Hidatsa and Mandan villages on the river they called the
Knife, she had not seen mountains for a long time. She knew that her
kinsmen could never rescue her from this powerful tribe so far away
from their lands. She wondered if she could live the life that had now
In a dream her bird spirit came to her and pecked at her tongue,
sharp and insistent, and she woke with the taste of blood on her teeth.
Sacagawea must speak with a new tongue, the bird told her. She
clutched the small obsidian figure her mother had placed in her medicine
bundle, a tiny bird, all that was left to her from her first life. "I
must do this," she said, over and over, in those first months of captivity.
"I must do this."
Gradually she met other girls who had been stolen from their tribes
in that summer when all followed the herds: a pair of Assiniboin sisters,
several Crow and Gros Ventre, even a Nez Percé girl from across
the Stony Mountains who wept for weeks until the brave who had captured
her beat her into a watchful silence. Each of the Mandan and
Hidatsa villages was far bigger than any Shoshone encampment she
had known, with thirty or forty large earth-and- timber lodges grouped
around a central clearing. Both tribes kept extensive fields of corn,
squash, and beans. It was a dark time, a time of silences when Sacagawea
understood almost nothing of the new language she would have
to learn, but she noticed right away something that set these people
apart from the Shoshone: no one went hungry. As large as the villages
were, there was food for all.
She held Pompy close and looked in his eyes, gray-blue like his father's,
and thought, You are the only thing I can truly call my own, little
one. Soon we will leave this place and you will have neither tribe nor village.
You and I will be part of this band of wanderers, headed to the far
edge of the land, to the place the Shoshone call The Big Lake That
Smells Bad. The Pacific, the captains name it. So begins your first life, on
rivers and trails. Will it always be so?
Two months after she gave birth, Sacagawea set off up the river as part
of the Corps of Discovery together with Charbonneau and her infant,
strapped to her back on the cradleboard she had fashioned at Fort
Mandan. Its cedar slats gave forth an aroma that pleased her with its
sweetness. She felt like a mother.
There were better men than Charbonneau, she knew, but far more
who were worse. A year after they were taken, he had bought Sacagawea
and another Shoshone girl from the Hidatsa warrior who had
captured them. They became Charbonneau's squaws, maintaining a
lodge for him in the Mandan village and sharing in the women's work
of the tribe. He took his pleasure with them by turns, sometimes for
long hours, but never roughly like the warrior from whom she had
learned what it was to lose one's body. Over time she came to accept
his ways, but she was often glad that Otter Woman was there, too,
when it suited Charbonneau.
She was jealously protective of her right to accompany Charbonneau
on some of his trading trips along the river. He didn't often take
her, but when he did she felt more alive than at any other time, delighting
in the departure from her routine chores in the village and
keen to see what the world looked like elsewhere. She worked doubly
hard to be sure he knew her worth, gathering firewood, cleaning the
trade goods, brushing the pelts, cooking his food. The presence of a
woman, she knew, was by itself a message that men of all tribes understood:
no fighting was intended. She took pride in her role as the
companion of the white trader, a free agent who could pass from tribe
to tribe without causing alarm.
In this, she realized that Charbonneau possessed a quality that the
French voyageurs often showed but that was rare among the American
and British traders: he was persistent, and infinitely patient. When, in
the heat of negotiations over furs or beads, horses or guns, the chiefs
would use hard language and refuse to be moved, more often than not
Charbonneau knew what words to use to veer away from an ending, to
hear "maybe" when the chiefs had said "no." He was like water in a
stream, finding its way around a boulder, and then another and an-
other, mindful that suppleness was more useful than speed, keeping
the talk going until everyone had something he wanted. He was sometimes
criticized for it by other whites, usually the English. Even the
captains had called him "unreliable" or "unprincipled" at times because
he would not confront an adversary directly. But his ways were
more like Indian ways, and the proof of his effectiveness was that he
continued to be welcome where the path had been closed to other
whites by many tribes. He was three times Sacagawea's age when
Pompy was born, a man who had seen more than forty-five winters.
She knew that despite his faults he was far more likely to see many
more than some of his rash counterparts, who believed that confrontation
and strength were the best way of dealing with the tribes.
June 16, 1805
Below the Great Falls of the Missouri
"If we lose her, the baby dies, too."
"I know it," Lewis said grimly. "He is not even close to being
weaned, and he would not last a day on what we eat." He looked at
Clark and gave voice to the thought that passed between them. "So we
must do all we can to make sure she lives." What was foremost in their
minds remained unsaid: if Sacagawea died, the negotiations with the
Shoshone for horses would be impossible. The Shoshone had had almost
no contact with white men. No one else spoke a word of their
language, and without horses the party would not be able to cross the
mountains. The expedition would fail.
Lewis continued his examination. Sacagawea lay on a deer skin in
the tepee under a light blanket, her breathing labored and irregular,
her skin hot to the touch. One of her arms twitched convulsively. She
grimaced as a wave of pain passed through her belly, an unfocused
stare in her half-open eyes.
"She won't bear being bled again," Lewis murmured, "but if we can
cause her to perspire, I think the fever may yet subside. I propose to
continue the bark poultice you commenced. I should also like her to
take some water from the sulfur springs we passed on the opposite
bank. Drouillard can fetch some this afternoon." His face was drawn,
his mounting concern apparent. "Perhaps you could tell Charbonneau
to occupy himself with the child while I change the poultice."
"I can watch the boy," Clark answered quickly, moving to lift the
baby from where he lay in the crook of his mother's arm. The infant
started to fuss as Clark lifted him gently, and the captain held him
close to his chest, looking down into the clear eyes that were inquisitive
"Come now, Pomp, come to Captain Clark and be a good boy. Captain
Lewis will help your mama feel better," he cooed, swaying lightly
as he stepped away from Sacagawea's prostrate body, his hair the color
of a fox pelt standing up from his forehead.
Sacagawea's menstrual flow seemed to be blocked, causing pain
throughout her pelvic region. While Clark talked to the infant in
soothing tones, Lewis set to work assembling his meager supplies on a
piece of elk hide spread open on the ground. He poured warm water
from the kettle into a shallow tin basin and tore several strips from a
length of clean linen. He then removed the blanket and cautiously
raised her knees, spreading her legs as he did so. Lifting away the
darkened mass that lay at the opening of her vulva, he wetted a strip of
cloth and carefully bathed the entire area with a steady hand. He fashioned
the new poultice as he kneeled at her side, placing three small
pieces of Peruvian bark on a clean strip of linen and rolling it into a
soft cylinder. Onto its surface he sprinkled twenty drops of laudanum,
the tincture of opium whose small bottle was counted among the most
precious medicines in the rudimentary apothecary he had assembled
for the expedition. Satisfied that her inner thighs had dried sufficiently
after his cleansing, he inserted the poultice and slowly lowered her
knees, covering her body once again with the blanket. When Drouillard
returned with a canteen of sulfur water, Lewis urged her to take
small sips until she had downed two cupfuls.
That evening when he felt for her pulse as she slept, at her wrist
and again at her neck, it beat strong and regular to his touch. Her face
was covered with tiny beads of perspiration and her skin was not as hot
as before. The tremors in her arm had stopped, and her face no longer
bore the mask of pain that had covered it for days. When he withdrew
his hand she opened her eyes and looked into his, and put her hand on
his fingers. Neither spoke the other's language but all was understood
in that long moment. I will live and Pompy will live, she told him with
her eyes, and it is your doing. Your spirit is strong.
August 17, 1805
At the head of the Jefferson River
Four months after they left the Mandan villages, the party of thirtyone
men, one woman, and a baby boy reached the land of the
Shoshone, among the first hills of the great mountain range that stood
between them and the western ocean. To cross those mountains—the
Great Stonies, the Rockies, the Bitterroots—they would need to trade
for this tribe's horses.
"You talk to your people in Shoshone, then tell me in Mandan,"
Charbonneau said to Sacagawea as they approached the Three Forks
area early in the morning with Captain Clark's group of men. They
hoped to rendezvous with Lewis, who had gone ahead to join the
Shoshone. "Then I'll tell Labiche in French and he can speak English
to the captains." She agreed. Even compared to the parleys among several
tribes, this was a complicated arrangement, but it was the only
one they had. She was in a dream, she felt, seeing on this voyage, as if
for the first time, lands that she recognized, places she had known as a
girl. Who would be left from that time? What would they make of her?
What if they could not find her tribe?
They had not walked more than a mile when they saw several Indians
on horseback coming in their direction. Sacagawea and Charbonneau
walked slightly ahead of the others, and suddenly Sacagawea
threw up her arms and let out a wail of joy, circling Charbonneau with
little dancing steps as she looked from the mounted Indians back to
Clark and the rest of the party. These are my people! she signed again
and again to Clark, and he understood at once. She ran to the approaching
group and addressed one of the braves in Shoshone, and he
confirmed that he was a member of her childhood clan. Accompanying
them was one of Lewis's men, who explained that the others were less
than a mile distant. The Indians sang all the way to the nearby camp,
joined at times by Sacagawea whose red- painted cheeks glistened with
That afternoon Lewis had the men stretch one of the large sails
overhead as a shield from the sun, and robes were spread out beneath
it so that he, Clark, and the principal Shoshone chief, Cameahwait,
could confer and negotiate for horses. By now they had parleyed with
the chiefs of several tribes and they prepared the setting for these talks
with care. It was important that a sense of hierarchy prevail, that they
be seen as chiefs from the great nation whose distant father had set
them on their path. The three men smoked a pipe and made the formal
statements of respect and good will necessary before any bargaining
could begin. The chain of languages took time—Shoshone to
Mandan to French to English, and back again—but all was going well,
both captains agreed, in the first part of this negotiation that had to be
Suddenly Sacagawea rose up from her place, ran to where Cameahwait
was seated between Clark and Lewis, and threw her blanket over
his shoulders, wailing his name repeatedly as she embraced him. Although
his formal mien and the chief ' s ceremonial headdress of otter
fur and eagle feathers had masked his features, she had finally recognized
him. It was like the way one of the small mirrors the captains offered
as gifts—things like solid water—dazzled the eye with sunlight,
and in the next instant showed you your face. He was her brother.
The captains offered coats, leggings, ax heads, knives, tobacco, and
the usual mix of minor trade goods that often sealed the bargain:
beads, flints, handkerchiefs, and the like. Cameahwait was presented
with a medal bearing the likeness of President Jefferson who, he was
told, was now the Great Father to him and his people. On its reverse,
Clark pointed out as he placed it around the chief 's neck, the clasped
hands of an Indian and a white man stood out in relief beneath a
crossed pipe and tomahawk. Around these symbols were inscribed the
words "Peace and Friendship." In return the Shoshone provided
twenty-nine horses, all they would need.
During the several days of preparation for the trek across the mountains,
Sacagawea discovered that she was a curiosity to her tribe, a go-
between whom they asked to explain the white man to them. Why did
they have fur on their faces? Was the one they called York from the
spirit world, with his curling hair and skin the color of a beaver? They
wondered if Lewis's huge black dog was a kind of bear cub, they wondered
how the rifles and the air gun threw their power to any far place.
And they asked about Pompy: why did he have his mother's hair and
skin, but eyes the color of the evening sky?
When she was alone in the tepee with her baby, she thought about
all their questions and her attempts to explain. They have not seen what
I have seen. How can I tell them? The joy of her return to the people
she had grown up with was tempered by a new awareness. These are
my people, but this is not my home anymore. Charbonneau was French,
she told herself, but he lived with the tribes and on the river more than
he did with his people. So did René Jesseaume and Georges Drouillard.
They were whites who didn't live like other whites. It was a path
they had chosen or, rather, two paths that made them something else.
I have two paths also, she thought. I am Shoshone and not- Shoshone,
Mandan and not- Mandan. And I travel with a voyageur. This is my life.
The day before the departure, when all was ready, Clark took her
and Charbonneau aside in the camp. He looked into her eyes and said,
"Cameahwait wants you to spend the winter with your people while
we cross the mountains to the Pacific. It would be safer for you and
She waited for Charbonneau to interpret Clark's statement into
Mandan, but she had understood its sense. Without hesitating she
said in English, "We go." She held Pompy in her arms and said the
words in Mandan that came without thinking. "We will go across the
mountains and back. Our path is with you."
January 8, 1806
In November the Corps of Discovery descended the Columbia River
and reached the Pacific Ocean, completing the outward-bound leg of
Jefferson's enterprise. They spent some weeks along the river's estuary,
battered in their makeshift camps by perpetual winter storms. In early
December they chose a sheltered cove and built a winter camp, Fort
Clatsop, where they would wait for spring before beginning the return
journey. Most of the men visited the coastal beaches on hunting parties
or to collect salt, but by January Sacagawea had not yet been to
the ocean's edge. One evening in that first week of the new year, Captain
Clark entered the hut where Charbonneau, Sacagawea, and
Pompy were quartered.
"A group of Tillamook report a whale has washed up onto the beach
south of our salt camp," he told Charbonneau. "Tomorrow I want you
to go with me and ten other men to see what meat and oil we might
take from the carcass." Understanding part of what was said, Sacagawea
pressed Charbonneau for details. Clark turned to leave but she
put her hand on his elbow and spoke rapidly, her eyes wide with anger
"She says she has traveled very far to see the Great Waters; she has
walked as swiftly as the others and carried her baby without complaint,"
Charbonneau told Clark, surprised at the forcefulness of her
words. "Now there is a huge fish lying on the very edge of the ocean. It
is unlike you, Captain, to keep her from seeing either. She would take
Clark met Sacagawea's imploring gaze, which was full of indignant
dismay. "Very well," he said. "Tell her to be ready to go with us at
When they reached the low sand flat where the whale had been
beached, they found not a carcass but a skeleton. The whale had been
stripped bare by the Tillamook, the structure of its bones intact on the
muddy inlet, but all the blubber, skin, and oil already taken away.
Clark overcame his initial disappointment and set to measuring the
animal's remains. "One hundred and five feet in length," he announced
with awe. He wrote all the numbers in his book, as he always
did. "It is so that the animals and plants we see can tell their story to
others," he explained to Sacagawea through Charbonneau. Then he
set out on foot to the nearby village to see if he could buy some blubber
Sacagawea stayed on the wide beach with Pompy and looked out
upon the water, constantly rolling toward her in blue and black waves
streaked with white, like an endless storm on the river. Some called it
The Big Lake That Smells Bad, others The Great Waters or the River
Without Banks, but to Sacagawea it was more like the sky: you could
stand at its edge and look at it, but you could never cross it. Before the
others returned she held Pompy in her arms and stood upright between
the whale's ribs, as one might stand in a sizeable room. She
talked to her child as she nuzzled and kissed him, turning this way and
that so his wide eyes could see what surprising creatures sometimes
emerged from the belly of the earth.
June 30, 1806
They were over the mountains. The Bitterroots had still been covered
with snow, but on the return they had Nez Percé guides and never lost
their way. Their horses had grass on every day but one of the six it took
to get across. Now they were camped at the place the captains called
Traveler's Rest, a valley on the eastern slope that afforded the party
plentiful game in a series of grass- covered meadows along the mountain
We will live, Sacagawea allowed herself to think. I have not been the
cause of my baby's death. After this voyage we will return to the Mandan
and make our lives on the river with Charbonneau. She knew that perils
still lay ahead—dangerous rapids, unseasonable storms, hostile Indian
raiding parties—but the mountains had threatened them more than
anything else, and the fear had been lifted from their shoulders like a
heavy burden that had fallen away. Even the captains allowed themselves
to smile and walked with a light step.
The evening of their second day there, the warmth of the sun stayed
in the valley until dusk, and the men made a fire by the stream. They
sat along the banks and lay on the grass, talking and arguing in an easygoing
way. Captain Clark stood with Pompy at the water's edge, a shallow
stretch of back current with a gravel bottom. He was a robust
baby, almost seventeen months old, despite all the ordeals of the expedition.
He stood facing the small river, holding each of Clark's massive
thumbs for support, and ventured into the water, where he stamped
his feet in delight.
Cruzatte had begun to play his fiddle, one of the old Breton tunes
the men favored, and Pomp stamped half- rhythmically to the music.
He gave forth little squeals, surprised and pleased at the explosions of
wetness that his feet made upon the captain's leggings. It turned into a
dance as Clark lifted his feet and turned the boy back and forth. Seaman,
Clark's good- natured Newfoundland, barked and wagged his
tail, striding into the water to join in the fun. Everyone laughed, Clark
most heartily of all, and Sacagawea saw that more than one man had to
turn away to hide moist eyes. The winter had been wet, cold, and
cheerless, and they were still far away from home, but for the first time
they could taste the end of the voyage. This vision of the child's joy in
the surrounding warmth of others made each man conjure a memory
of his family. They needed to be among their own: sweethearts and
siblings, parents and elders. Each one missed his home most sharply
August 14, 1806
They reached the Mandan villages in the late afternoon, coming down
the river like boatloads of visitors appearing from the spirit world. It
seemed impossible to the Indians that all those who had set off sixteen
months before in search of a route to the Great Waters had reached
their goal and returned safely, including the squaw and her newborn.
It gave her and her voyageur husband a new status in the eyes of the
Mandan, and everyone agreed that the boy was destined to lead. "In
his first year he has been where none of us has been," the Mandan
chief Black Cat announced when the captains smoked a pipe to mark
the reunion. "His spirit has breathed in the trail to the west, and we
will learn from it."
The news from the tribes was not good. While they had been gone,
the Arikara had attacked white traders as well as Mandan and Hidatsa
canoes below the villages, making any travel south along the river extremely
hazardous. The Sioux, too, were acting warlike, and several
bands had raided the Mandan and Hidatsa lodges. Anxious to return
to St. Louis and to get news of the expedition's successful conclusion
to President Jefferson, the captains assured the Mandan of their support.
They convinced the Mandan chief Sheheke to accompany them
downriver and then continue to Washington to visit the Great Father,
the better to make known his people's grievances against the Arikara
and the Sioux.
Two days later the captains said their goodbyes and prepared to
leave. Charbonneau and Sacagawea had decided to remain with
Pompy in the Mandan villages, promising to journey to St. Louis when
river travel was safer. Lewis was ailing and gave a feeble handshake
from the makeshift litter on which he lay. As the last of the canoes was
being loaded, Clark drew the couple and their son to one side at the
"Do not forget, Toussaint Charbonneau, my pledge to you: bring
your darling boy to me in St. Louis and I will raise him as my own and
see to his proper education." He shook Charbonneau's hand and
turned to Sacagawea, who held Pompy close. During their sixteen
months together on the trail, Clark had formed a strong attachment to
the baby. "Let him learn the white man's ways," he said to her, pleading
with his eyes. His hand reached out and stroked the boy's hair
lightly, then he strode away quickly and the boats shoved off.