Imagine a USA that, as you travel west, stops abruptly at St Louis, Missouri. No Denver, in fact no Rocky Mountains at all. No Grand Canyon, no Pacific coast. The lands that today contain San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, all under the control of Spain. From Montana in the north to New Orleans, a vast swathe of the centre is held by France.
That was the reality in 1802. Without Napoleon’s plans for war with Britain, coupled with an extremely well-organized rebellion by slaves in Haiti, both of which required the French to amass large reserves of cash, Thomas Jefferson would almost certainly not have been able to complete the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. This bargain buy, roughly doubling the size of the country for literally a few cents per acre, resulted in a vast new land to explore. It took nearly two and a half years for Lewis and Clark to get from St Louis to the north west Pacific coast and what is now Oregon, and it was a journey that would have been, if not impossible, immeasurably more difficult without the help of one young woman; Sacagawea.
As an interpreter for the expedition led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, she was invaluable, but, as is frequently the case with translators and interpreters, her diplomatic skills were also extremely important. Often, the simple fact that this band of strangers was traveling with a Shoshone woman (with a small child) was enough to convince the indigenous people that the strangers posed no immediate threat. Lewis and Clark’s expedition set out in May 1804, and encountered Sacagawea and her Quebecois husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, in November, initially with the intention of hiring him as a translator and guide. The journey ahead was not to be made easier by the fact that Sacagawea was already pregnant.
It’s possible that some of her feats have been exaggerated, particularly with regard to guiding the expedition across unknown country, but her contribution to the mission overall is difficult to overstate; three months after giving birth, for example, she managed to save Lewis and Clark’s now-priceless notes and journals after a boat got into trouble during a storm on the river that now bears her name. The expedition had multiple aims, including documenting the customs and lifestyles of the various peoples they would come across. As important was the gathering of a wealth of scientific information, including geological data and observations on the flora and fauna of the territories it passed through. Sacagawea’s bravery and quick thinking in rescuing part of this data contributed hugely to the success of the expedition, but her ability to communicate with the indigenous people was to prove her main asset.
As the team approached the edge of the mountain range now known as the Rockies, an astonishing coincidence occurred, which must have aided in the negotiations necessary to secure guides and horses for the arduous trip over the peaks. Sacagawea had been kidnapped as a young girl, and taken from her home in what is now eastern Idaho to an area north of Bismarck, North Dakota – a distance, even by road, today, of over 820 miles. Perhaps part of her willingness to return west with Lewis and Clark was down to a wish to return to her childhood home; in any case, when the expedition met a Shoshone tribe in the foothills of the Rockies, it became apparent that the chief was in fact her brother. The business of arranging horses and guides was made infinitely easier than it might have been.
Traversing the Rockies
The climb over the mountains was gruelling, and starvation was a real possibility at times. When the worst was over, Sacagawea’s familiarity with native plants allowed her to locate food for the party. The expedition reached the Pacific coast, in modern Oregon, but what was then (for Europeans) uncharted territory, in November 1805.
Today, Sacagawea is commemorated by an Educational Centre located in a large area of parkland near her original homeland in Idaho. There are numerous statues of her across the nation, from Texas to Washington State. Mountains and lakes, as well as the river in Montana, have been named for her, as have US Navy ships, one still in service. What would undoubtedly have amazed her more than all of these, though, is the fact that her name lives on beyond this planet; Sacajawea Patera is a caldera on the surface of Venus.