Ask anyone to name a woman who was pivotal to the Corps of Discovery’s expedition out west, and one answer will be provided at a higher rate than any other: Sacagawea.
While an integral part of the group, however, the Lemhi Shoshone woman was far from the only female contributor to the exploration led by captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, as park ranger Sally Freeman explored during her presentation for History and Hops held April 25 at Seaside Brewery.
“There were a lot of women who were important in this chapter of American history,” said Freeman, who works for the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park.
From the start of the journey to it completion, their various contributions enabled and enriched the expedition. Some of the women had somewhat indirect influence, including Lewis’ mother Lucy Marks, a couple members’ wives and daughters, and Philadelphia seamstress Matilda Chapman, who sewed 93 shirts for the explorers. Others played pivotal roles.
Dolly Madison, the wife of James Madison, and other wives of then-President Thomas Jefferson’s cabinet members were captivated by the “grand, daring quest into the unexplored wilderness” and concerned for the welfare of the expeditionary force, Freeman said. When Jefferson’s congressional appropriation for the expedition fell short, Dolly Madison and the other women stepped up and “did everything possible to raise funds for the journey,” Freeman said.
As the trip got underway and the company moved west during the winter of 1804, they ran into the Hidatsa tribe and Lewis and Clark hired French-Canadian explorer Toussaint Charbonneau and his wife Sacagawea as interpreters.
The expedition also survived the winter by trading with the women farmers of the agricultural Mandan tribe, a neighbor of the Hidatsas. Private John Shields, a blacksmith, sharpened the farmers’ tools and crafted knives in exchange for produce. The Mandan also warned the group there were “big mountains” out west, making travel by boat infeasible, and encouraged them to get horses.
In August of 1805, Lewis went out with three other explores in search of the Shoshone Bannock people, who were bison hunters on the plains of what is now Montana. Sacagawea, a member of the Agaidaka band of the Shoshone, shared with Lewis ways of communicating that he was Caucasian and possessed peaceful intentions.
In mid-August, one of these excursions was at last successful when Lewis ran into three Shoshone women. The men bestowed gifts of paint, beads, and pewter looking-glasses upon the women, who then were instrumental in leading the explorers to the tribe’s camp and peacefully introducing them to the warriors and chief — incidentally, Sacagawea’s older brother Cameahwait.
The situation likely would not have resulted in such a positive outcome without getting “these women on their side and Sacagawea helping in the background,” Freeman said.
Do them no harm
Another remarkable woman who made a significant contribution to the Lewis and Clark story was Watkuweis, of the Nez Perce nation. Although she receives only a small mention in Lewis’ journal, her story is captured in a book titled “Do Them No Harm!: Lewis and Clark Among the Nez Perce,” by Zoa L. Swayne.
In her youth, Watkuweis was the victim of a raid and kidnapped by Blackfeet people. The following years were full of abuse and atrocities as she was traded further and further east and eventually lived next to “a big water,” which historians believe could refer to the Hudson Bay or Great Lakes, Freeman said. Watkuweis met and was married to a white man, gave birth to a boy, and lived in a white community. One day, a friend told Watkuweis that her husband was planning a journey across “the really big water,” Freeman said, adding, “She loves her husband, these people have been nice to her, but her dream has been to come back home and be with her people the Nimiipuu, or Nez Perce, in future Idaho.”
Watkuweis set off with her son to go back west, a journey that proved treacherous. The boy fell ill and died, and she eventually ran out of food, water and energy in the wilderness. She had collapsed and was dying when two hunters of an unidentified tribe came upon her. They nursed her back to health and assisted her on the next leg of her journey until she made it home.
As it turns out, Watkuweis “was in the right place at the right time when the Corps of Discovery comes straggling out of the mountains” and into Nimiipuu country, Freeman said. Inside the village, the men watched the soldiers emerging from the mountains and debated whether to be good hosts or overcome the strangers and take their guns and other goods.
Watkuweis, overhearing the villagers talking about “strangers arriving,” asked to see them. Identifying them as white men, similar to those who had treated her kindly, she commanded, “Do them no harm.” News traveled through the community and the Corps of Discovery met what Lewis considered “the most hospitable, honest and sincere people that we have met with in our voyage.”
Along with Watkuweis, the Mandan farmers, and Dolly Madison, several other white and Native American women took part in the Corps of Discovery’s journey in various ways.
“Even though most of the movies and books and statues and such that we see about the expedition tell us about one person, one woman who became famous, I think we can agree many women were a crucial part of this chapter in history,” Freeman said.
History and Hops is a local presentation series hosted by the Seaside Museum and Historical Society on the last Thursday of each month from September to May. The final presentation of this season will be held at 6 p.m. May 30 and Robert Moberg, who was born and raised in Astoria, will present on “Gillnetting: A Way of Life, All but Gone.”