The Lewis and Clark Expedition undertook an exceedingly difficult, dangerous and perhaps even superhuman mission. Most Americans are well aware of its exploits and success. What is less known is the fact that Indian nations and individual Indians provided crucial assistance to the expedition. Without the help of indigenous people and Indian tribes, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark may not have succeeded in their mission or even survived the attempt.
In fact, two very important members of the expedition itself were Indians— Sacagawea and George Drouillard. Drouillard was half Shawnee Indian. Meriwether Lewis hired him in November 1803 and paid him five times more than the expedition’s enlisted men. He was well worth the extra pay, and many experts have called him the third most important person on the expedition, after Lewis and Clark themselves.
Drouillard was valuable because he was the best hunter on the expedition and provided most of the food. Lewis wrote in 1806 that the expedition would not have survived “were it not for the exertions of this excellent hunter.” In addition, Drouillard spoke many Indian languages and was an expert in Indian sign language. At many crucial points of the voyage, Drouillard was the only person who could communicate with the native people. Lewis praised Drouillard’s useful sign language and woodsman skills and also wrote that Drouillard had been involved in “all the most dangerous and trying scenes of the voyage, in which he uniformly acquitted himself with honor.”
Sacagawea became part of the expedition in the winter of 1804–05 when Lewis and Clark hired her husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, as an interpreter.
That winter in North Dakota, Lewis and Clark learned from the Hidatsas and Mandans that they would need the assistance of many different tribes to reach the Pacific Ocean. Furthermore, the Hidatsas explained the absolute necessity of buying horses from the Shoshone Tribe, in what is now southwest Montana, if Lewis and Clark were to cross the Rocky Mountains. Thus, Lewis and Clark were delighted to hire Charbonneau and Sacagawea when they learned that she spoke Shoshone.
She fulfilled their expectations and performed her most crucial service for the expedition when she served as an interpreter with the Shoshones. This was arguably the most important juncture of the entire voyage for the success of the expedition. Lewis and Clark were desperate to buy horses to get over the Rocky Mountains before winter. Lewis wrote on Aug. 16, 1805, that if they could not buy Shoshone horses it might “defeat the expedition altogether.” During these negotiations, Sacagawea recognized that the chief of the Shoshone was her long-lost brother. What a lucky break for Lewis and Clark! Needless to say, they were able to buy the horses they needed.
Sacagawea also assisted the expedition by serving as a guide at different times when they were in southern Montana in 1805 and 1806. In addition, on May 14, 1805, she was involved in an incident that Lewis could only “recollect but with the utmost trepidation and horror.” On that day, one of the canoes was swamped and nearly lost. Sacagawea calmly saved the expedition’s most important supplies and tools, perhaps even including the Lewis and Clark journals, from floating away. Lewis applauded her action and ascribed to her “fortitude and resolution.”
Sacagawea and her baby also served as a living “peace symbol” for the expedition and greatly aided its safety and security in meeting new tribes. Indians that encountered Lewis and Clark did not fear that they were a war party since they were traveling with a woman and child.
Other Indians also assisted the expedition at critical times. The most obvious examples were when Indians guided Lewis and Clark over the Rocky Mountains. Lewis was so determined to fulfill his mission that he probably would have tried to cross the Rockies even without a guide. If so, it is certain that they would have perished or had to turn back. As it turned out, in 1805 Lewis hired an Indian they named Old Toby, and he led the expedition through the Rockies. The snow was deep and the trail so obscured that even Old Toby got lost for two days, and it took the expedition 11 days to cross the mountains. The expedition was nearly starved to death by the time it made it over.
On the return trip in 1806, the expedition impatiently tried to cross the Rockies against the Indians’ advice and without a guide. The expedition had to turn back in defeat. Later, five Nez Perce guided Lewis and Clark quickly over the mountains. Lewis and Clark appreciated this help and they both wrote in their journals on June 27, 1806, that “without the assistance of our guides, I doubt much whether we who had once passed [the mountains] could find our way.”
Early on in the voyage, during the first winter of the expedition in 1804–05, Lewis and Clark built Fort Mandan near the Mandan villages in what is now Bismarck, N.D. Historians agree that the expedition would not have survived this bitterly cold winter if not for the Mandan Nation. Roy Appleman of the National Park Service wrote “it was Mandan corn that got the expedition through the winter. Had the Mandan not been there, or had they had no corn to spare, or had they been hostile, the expedition would not have survived the winter.”
The neighbors of the Mandans, the Hidatsa Nation, also provided assistance. They traded food with Lewis and Clark, but their greatest gift was to provide information about the route ahead, the Great Falls of the Missouri, and in advising Lewis and Clark that they had to find the Shoshone Tribe and buy horses to be able to cross the Rockies.
Once they crossed the Rockies, Lewis and Clark were greatly helped by the Nez Perce Nation. Initially, the tribe thought seriously about killing Lewis and Clark because the expedition had stumbled out of the mountains nearly starved to death. Lewis and Clark and their men then unwisely consumed vast amounts of such Nez Perce food as salmon, camas roots and camas bread, and they got very sick on these new foods.
The condition of the men and the arms and valuable trade goods the expedition possessed tempted the tribal chiefs to destroy the expedition. If the tribe had killed the men and taken their weapons and goods, the Nez Perce would have immediately become the richest and strongest tribe in the region. Instead, an old Nez Perce woman, Watkuweis, saved the expedition, without Lewis and Clark ever knowing it. White people had once helped her when she was escaping slavery in Canada, so she told the tribal council, “do them no harm.” The Nez Perce Tribe listened to this advice, did not injure the expedition and helped them in numerous ways.
Several chiefs, for example, showed Lewis and Clark where to find trees large enough for canoes, and then showed them how to easily burn out the trees for dugout canoes. They also showed the expedition the branch of the Clearwater River that would lead to the Snake and then the Columbia rivers. The expedition left its horse herd in the care of a Nez Perce chief. Two other chiefs also led Lewis and Clark down the rivers as far as Celilo Falls in Oregon and introduced them to tribes along the way as peaceful and friendly visitors. This helped Lewis and Clark to proceed quickly downstream and to enjoy good relations with these different tribes.
Lewis and Clark used these good relations with Snake and Columbia rivers tribes to buy the food they needed and to travel quickly to the Pacific Ocean. They bought and consumed more than 250 dogs, for example. At Celilo Falls in Oregon, they bought dried and packaged salmon that they used for many months.
After arriving in the lower Columbia River and staying over the winter of 1805–06 at Fort Clatsop, in what is now Astoria, Ore., Lewis and Clark continued to benefit from their relationships with Indians. Most historians agree that the Clatsop and Chinook Indians in Oregon and Washington helped Lewis and Clark survive that winter. Stephen Ambrose wrote: “Obviously the Corps of Discovery could not have gotten through the winter on the coast without the Clatsop and Chinook.”
As historian James Ronda has written, it is clear that the “expedition’s success ultimately depended on friendly relations with the Indians.” Sacagawea, George Drouillard, Old Toby and the other examples of Indians and tribes helping the Lewis and Clark expedition demonstrate the truth of this statement.
The Lewis and Clark expedition is one of the great American stories of heroism, bravery and human endurance. The complete history of the expedition must include the undeniable fact that without the assistance of Indian tribes and individual Indians, the expedition would not have succeeded and perhaps would not even have survived the voyage.
Images for this article were provided by Joanie Barnes at the University of Nebraska’s Love Library and used with permission from the American Library Association.