During the middle third of the 20th century historians turned a critical eye toward one of the great themes established on the occasion of the centennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition&151;the legend of Sacagawea. The mythmaking had reached its apogee in 1933 with the publication of Grace Raymond Hebard's Sacajawea: A Guide and Interpreter of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which became in turn the principal source for a host of trail guides, encyclopedia entries, textbooks, statuary, films, and popular publications. Though the original "centennial" legend would come unraveled, a new "bicentennial" myth took root late in the 20th century&151;Sacagawea as the quintessential Native American diplomat.
The essence of the original myth as told by a host of story-tellers had Sacagawea guiding Lewis and Clark not merely through her Rocky Mountain homelands but all the way to the mouth of the Columbia River. One account even had the young Shoshone girl showing the carpenters how to make the wheels for the carriages that were to transport the expedition's baggage on the portage around the Great Falls of the Missouri. Though Lewis and Clark did often refer to several Native Americans as pilots and guides, they only used the term once to describe Sacagawea. Hebard, the ultimate mythmaker, carefully avoided any mention of other Shoshone and Nez Perce guides in order to puff up the imagined role of her heroine.
C. S. Kingston, the first notable critic of the original legend, concluded, "Sacajawea had done nothing to guide or influence the course of the expedition" on its way from the Mandan villages to the Pacific and back to the eastern side of the Rockies. On the upper Missouri, as the expedition entered her native homeland, Sacagawea "had occasionally recognized certain landmarks," Kingston averred, but this did not amount to advice on which route to take. The genesis of the "Sacajawea as Guide" legend came on the return trip when Clark led a detachment, which included the Charbonneau family, down the Yellowstone River. At the Three Forks of the Missouri, Clark was presented with several possible courses through the mountains to the east that, once passed, would put him on the headwaters of the Yellowstone. In making a selection, as Clark noted in his journal, "The Indian woman who has been of great Service to me as pilot through this country recommends a gap in the mountains more South which I shall cross." She later also pointed to a road out of a beaver marsh.
Kingston asserted that Clark's comment about Sacagawea as pilot "is to be understood more as an expression of good natured and generous congratulation than a sober assertion of unadorned fact." Here the myth buster may have overplayed his hand. More equitably, Gary Moulton states that when Sacagawea discerned a route to the Yellowstone through what became known as Bozeman Pass, she "did indeed act as a guide, as legend has her doing much more extensively." Nevertheless, when William Clark finally separated company with Sacagawea at the Mandan villages in August 1806, he cited only her services as an interpreter.
Coming after Kingston, historian Ronald W. Taber analyzed the social and cultural context of the early 20th century that made the Sacagawea legend such a powerfully attractive story in the first place. Many of the earliest proponents of the Sacagawea-as-guide myth were activists in the woman's suffrage movement. Eva Emery Dye, who first popularized the legend in a historical novel published in 1902, was also chair of the Clackamas County chapter of the Oregon Equal Suffrage Association. It was Dye, Taber argued, who conceived the Sacagawea tactic that was to be incorporated into the larger strategy aimed at securing women the right to vote. Sacagawea was foremost among several "strong women of the past" (including Pocahontas, Molly Pitcher, and Susan B. Anthony) who were envisioned as heroines for the movement. In her book, The Conquest: The True Story of Lewis and Clark, Dye said she "created Sacajawea" and posed her as "that faithful Indian woman with her baby on her back, leading those stalwart mountaineers and explorers through the strange land."
The notion of Sacagawea as a woman whom suffragists might emulate in their "efforts to lead men through the Pass of justice" was more fully explicated by Anna Howard Shaw. The National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) met in Portland in conjunction with the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition. This was one year before a scheduled statewide ballot on a voting rights amendment to the Oregon constitution. Shaw, president of NAWSA, seized on the virtues and accomplishments of Sacagawea in her address to the convention. She stated: "At a time...when the hearts of the leaders had well nigh fainted within them, when success or failure hung a mere chance in the balance, this woman came to their deliverance and pointed out to the captain the great Pass which led from the forks of the Three Rivers over the Mountains." Hyperbole of this sort sustained the effort to install a monument to Sacagawea on the grounds of the exposition.
Shaw's themes were seconded by Susan B. Anthony, a veritable living legend, and Abigail Scott Duniway, arguably the Northwest's foremost women's rights activist. The men of Oregona state, Anthony asserted, "made possible by a woman"had a chance to reciprocate on "the assistance rendered by a woman in the discovery of this great section of the country." Duniway said Sacagawea was a "feminine Atlas" who had helped create "a Pacific empire" for America. Helpful as a rallying point in the short term, the Sacagawea strategy was not in itself capable of carrying the suffragist proposition at the polls. It did provide, however, a lifetime's worth of inspiration for Grace Raymond Hebard. Though Hebard's work, one replete with inventions and purposeful omissions, was in time largely repudiated by subsequent scholars, she gave sufficient propulsion to the notion of Sacagawea dying on the Wind River Indian Reservation of Wyoming in 1884 that this aspect of the early myth still has currency.
Oddly enough, Kingston planted the seed for the second, or modern, Sacagawea myth in his treatise that weakened the first. Crediting the young Shoshone woman as a useful "but not an indispensable" interpreter, Kingston went on to state that her "presence with the white men was of greater importance in that it confirmed the confidence of her people in the good intentions of Americans." Related to the Shoshones, this is indisputably credible, but the sentimentality of the notion has been expanded and much amplified in recent times. Even Thomas Slaughter, the most critical of modern Lewis and Clark scholars, posited that Sacagawea was "a symbol of peace who distinguished the explorers from a war party." The multicultural sensibility of the bicentennial era has recreated a market for indigenous heroines.
Much like the original Sacagawea myth that needed a ledge in the documentary record from which to sprout, so does its modern variantSacagawea as the "symbol of peace." A century ago, for the suffrage movement in need of model women who could lead men, it was Clark's comment about Sacagawea as "pilot" through Bozeman Pass. The modern legend is grounded in Clark's field note of October 13, 1805, when the expedition was on the Snake River. He observed that the presence of Sacagawea "reconsiles all the Indians, as to our friendly intentions. [A] woman with a party of men is a token of peace." What Clark had intended as a reflection upon a localized phenomenon has been conflated by scholars and popularizers in this bicentennial era to a generalized role for the entire extent of the journey. In one account an author suggests Sacagawea was brought along precisely because she would be perceived as a goodwill ambassador.
Contrary to modern Lewis and Clark lore that Sacagawea had a calming effect whenever native people saw the expedition, in fact its first appearance in the record is on the Snake River in southeastern Washington. And surprisingly so, because the expedition had encountered only a handful of Indians that day, indeed that whole week. Patrick Gass noted a typical Snake River village consisted of four or fewer lodges. On the day of Clark's famed inscription, October 13, they passed what Moulton's sources attributed to be the largest Palouse village at the mouth of said named river, but Clark himself implies, via a reference to "timbers of Several houses piled up," that the community was temporarily abandoned.
An intimation that Indian diplomacy was coming to the fore can be discerned in Joseph Whitehouse's journal for October 12, the day before Clark mentioned Sacagawea's capabilities as an incipient peacemaker. Whitehouse noted that the tour through the "flat head nation"i.e., the Nez Perce homelandshad ended. He deduced this from Twisted Hair and Tetoharsky, two Nez Perce chiefs guiding the expedition downstream, who told the Americans that in two more days travel they would "come to another nation at a fork which comes on the St[arboard] Side of the Columbian River." The riverine reference proved to be the main stem of the Columbia, an image of continental geography that had eluded Lewis and Clark until the shocking denouement upon their arrival at the forks.
Clark's description of Sacagawea's prospective role may well have been a function of the same discourse with the Nez Perce chiefs recorded by Whitehouse. The comment about Sacagawea's power to reconcile the newcomers to host tribes appeared on the same page as a map in Clark's field log depicting the shortly expected northern fork. On the 14th, Twisted Hair and Tetoharsky proceeded on ahead to the forks, Clark later recorded, "to inform those bands of our approach and friendly intentions towards all nations."
It is likely that Twisted Hair and Tetoharsky conceived what might be termed the "Sacagawea strategy" and first employed it to effect while the expedition was on the Snake River. Though the Yakama and Wanapum people who lived near the forks were Sahaptian-speaking like the Nez Perce emissaries, the latter were relatively far from home and recognized the obligation of establishing goodwill before entering the lands of others. They could have done this both for themselves and their new American friends. Twisted Hair and Tetoharsky simply apprised Lewis and Clark of the added value of having Sacagawea with the expedition, and as events unfolded they used the strategy when circumstances called for it. As Whitehouse shows, the rudiments of this were explicated prior to the expedition's reaching the forks of the Columbia.
News about the arrival of these apparently friendly newcomers from the east had preceded them. Apash Wya-kaiktalternatively known to the expedition as "We-ark-koomt" or the Big Horn chiefwho had paced the voyageurs on horseback, joined Twisted Hair and Tetoharsky at the forks and "harranged" the local villagers. Clark's colloquialism, which sounds more obnoxious to the modern ear than was conventionally meant by the term at the turn of the 19th century, meant that Apash Wyakaikt confirmed the "friendly intentions" of the expedition. We can thus see fully how the Nez Perce chiefs' role and reputation as ambassadors have suffered through history at the expense of the romantic story of Sacagawea. After the fires had been made (the Nez Perce chiefs gathered some willow and reeds to supplement the few pieces of driftwood about), Clark reported that hundreds of men from the neighboring village a quarter mile upstream from them on the Columbia visited en masse. Beating their drums, singing, and dancing by "keeping time to the musik," the natives formed a welcoming circle of song for an extended time.
On the expedition's second day down the Columbia below the forks, in the vicinity of present-day Plymouth, Washington, Clark called on a large Indian village. He stated that he "found the Indians much fritened, all got in to their lodges and when I went in found Some hanging down their heads, Some Crying and others in great agitation, I took all by the hand, and distributed a few Small articles which I chanced to have in my Pockets and Smoked with them which expelled their fears." Then, in a startling and, for William Clark, uncharacteristic passage, he wrote in his field journal: "I am confident that I could have tomahawked every Indian here."
None of the Indians would come out and smoke with Clark, to the captain's dismay&151;that is, until Lewis arrived with the larger party, which included the Nez Perce chiefs, one of whom hailed the native village "as was their Custom to whom all we had passed," Clark reported. Sensing the fear and distress on shore, Twisted Hair and Tetoharsky quickly pointed to Sacagawea in one of the canoes, reemploying a strategy that had worked on the Snake River. In his now-heightened understanding of the Nez Perce technique, Clark reported in his notebook, "This Indian woman...confirmed those people of our friendly intentions, as no woman ever accompanies a war party of Indians in this quarter." Donald Jackson once wrote of Sacagawea that her "valor and stolid determination" could not be doubted but her contributions to the expedition had been magnified out of proportion. Such seems to be the case relative to her role as an implied diplomat. Her service in this manner only worked when mediated by Twisted Hair and Tetoharsky.
Historian William Lang has offered two interpretations of this episode with the "Fritened Indians" (a term for the subject village that appears on one of Clark's maps). This "curious incident," as Lang calls it, may have represented "either braggadocio or perhaps an unfulfilled but genuine threat." More likely, Lang argues, Clark was evidencing frustration with the passivity of these Indians. Alternatively, but more speculatively, Lang suggests that life on the Columbia had "begun to take its toll on" Clark. Surely, as Lang writes, Clark's demeanor was "one of the most mysterious episodes of the entire journey," and it does beg for explanation.
Just prior to crossing the river to visit the Indian village, Clark shot a crane out of the sky. Afterwards, the frightened Indians believed he and his compatriots "came from the clouds" and were "not men" of this world-meaning, of course, that villagers thought them to be supernatural beings or, in James Ronda's phrase, "sky gods." Clark later told Nicholas Biddle, first editor of the expedition's journals, that this perception was enhanced by the fact that these Indians had never heard gunfire before. Plus, they were amazed at Clark's ability to light his pipe with a "burning glass." All of this was explained to Clark by one of the Nez Perce chiefs, "by whose mediation we had pacified them." With this statement alone, Clark places the credit for successful Columbia River diplomacy on the shoulders of the Nez Perce chiefs, not Sacagawea.
Lang's thesis that the troublesome environment of the Columbia Plateau is a necessary framework for understanding the experience of the Lewis and Clark expedition in the Northwest is generally credible. Nevertheless, the idea that an environmental encounter led to a destabilized psychological state for Clark&151;as evidenced in the present episode&151;or created a crisis in the captain's self-confidence or self-control is unproven. In fact, there is much evidence, in general and specific to the day in question, to the contrary. To begin with, in Clark's notebook recapitulation he stated that after shooting the crane he crossed the river to the lodges because he could see Lewis approaching the area, implying that his cocaptain could not see the village and was unaware of its existence. Accordingly, and now well-schooled by the Nez Perce chiefs, Clark determined to proceed to the other side of the Columbia precisely because he "was fearfull that those people might not be informed of us."
Furthermore, if Clark had desired to present himself as a real or feigned threat, then why, as he stated, was he relieved that the sight of the Nez Perce and Sacagawea gave the Indians "new life" or pleased that he and Lewis "Smoked with those people in the greatest friendship?" Albert Furtwangler, in his literary deconstruction of the Lewis and Clark journals, states unqualifiedly that it "was characteristic of William Clark to like Indians and be helpful to them." Ronda, citing Clark's experience as a frontiersman, said the captain was "an acute observer of native life and a confidant of chiefs and warriors.... In ways that are beyond easy explanation, he enjoyed the company of Indians."
Consider, too, Clark's most famous first contact with native people, coming upon some frightened Nez Perce boys when he wandered out of the Bitterroot Mountain wilderness onto Weippe Prairie. To "quiet their fears," Ronda explains, Clark "gave each one several small pieces of ribbon and then urged them with gestures to announce the arrival of friendly visitors to their village." Surely, if a formidable landscape encounter was going to test William Clark's capacity for psychological self control, emerging from the mountains at Weippe was a likelier occasion for failure.
Lang emphasizes that Clark's notebook did not repeat the phrasing suggestive of how easy it would have been to kill the "Fritened Indians," going so far as to say "Clark sanitized his journal entry." Clark may have thought the better of replicating that text, but as he said himself prior to his startling statement, he "took all by the hand" when he entered their lodges, an action that, combined with a few token presents, "expelled their fears." And though the incident with the crane precipitated the extreme reserve on the part of the Indians, Clark, Whitehouse, and Gass all noticed similar behavior by Indians on the river's islands and banks ever since they left their camp at the Snake-Columbia confluence. Gass's specific comments from the previous day that the Columbia River Indians seemed "shy and distant" and Whitehouse's that the Indians living in the gap "hid themselves" prefigured Clark's encounter of the ensuing day.
This phenomenon was not unknown in the history of exploration. The most famous instance involves Captain James Cook's arrival in the Hawaiian Islands in 1778, during his third voyage to the Pacific. As historian William Goetzmann has written, Cook received a tumultuous welcome at Keala-kekua Bay where, "to his bewilderment, he was made a god." Then, in 1811, just six years after Lewis and Clark ventured on the waters of the Columbia, David Thompson had a similar experience at the head of the Rock Island Rapids near present-day Wenatchee. When Thompson's party arrived at the large village of 800 Sinkowarsin people, he was greeted by five men who appeared distressed and confused by the explorers' appearance. Like Clark, Thompson conducted a few rounds with the pipe, which assuaged anxiety, and soon the whole village was invited to gather around. The initial nervousness eventually gave way to excitement and exultation. As historian William Layman has told it, the villagers placed presents of berries and roots before Thompson, "clapping their hands and extending them to the sky."
Indeed, Lewis and Clark themselves had a similar encounter a mere 11 days after the visit with the "Fritened Indians." When the expedition surprised a Chinookan village near the Cascades of the Columbia, yet another group of natives conveyed the observation via sign language "that they thought we had rained down out of the clouds." This was a pattern common to indigenous people with little or no contact with Euramerican explorers.
The last chapter of Indian diplomacy involving Twisted Hair and Tetoharsky occurred on the approach to the great falls of the Columbia at Celilo. Now in their third week of service to Lewis and Clark, the chiefs reported overhearing some Indians from farther downstream planning to attack and kill the members of the expedition that night in their sleep. This news spread quickly through the encampment as the commanders had all arms "examined and put in order." Clark testified that the corps was "at all times & places on our guard" and were "under no greater apprehention than is common." This view was confirmed by Whitehouse who said the party was alert "but we were not afraid of them for we think we can drive three times our nomber." Nevertheless, the captains had every reason to trust Twisted Hair and Tetoharsky, and so that evening, when the local Indians departed camp earlier than what Clark thought normal, he saw it as a "Shadow of Confirmation" of what they had learned. Clark ended his journal on a worrisome note. The "two old Chiefs," he said, "appeared verry uneasy this evening."
At the break of day on the 24th, the corps' third day in the vicinity of Celilo Falls, Twisted Hair and Tetoharsky apprised Lewis and Clark of their intention to return to their homes on the Clearwater. The reasons were several, but all revolved around the recently developing threat. They told the captains that their people never proceeded farther downstream than the falls and, accordingly, they were unable to converse with the inhabitants of the lower river. In short, Twisted Hair and Tetoharsky asserted that their days as interpreters were at an end.
Truly, the expedition had reached a linguistic divide between the Sahaptian-speaking tribes like the Nez Perce and the Chinookan-speaking people below the falls, every bit as important to an understanding of the peopled Columbia as the falls were to the physiographic one. This language barrier obviated any prospect of re-employing the Sacagawea strategy utilized with such success upstream, even presuming that the peaceful symbolism of a woman traveling with a party transcended the limits of the Columbia Plateau. Ironically, precisely at the juncture when Lewis and Clark seemingly needed a symbol to prove their peaceful intentions, neither Sacagawea nor any other device sufficed. As Clark phrased it, since "the nation below had expressed hostile intentions against us, [they] would Certainly kill them [the Nez Perce]; perticularly as They had been at war with each other." Clark carries this explanation in his notebook text as a direct quote. Associating with Lewis and Clark had now become dangerous to the health of the Nez Perce chiefs.
Lewis and Clark importuned the chiefs to stay with them for two more days with the ostensible purpose of enlisting their aid in making peace with the villagers below. Twisted Hair and Tetoharsky responded by saying they were anxious to return so they could see "our horses." From the way Clark inscribed this text, it is not certain the Nez Perce were fondly recalling their own herd or that left behind by the expedition, in which case they may have been attempting to finesse the captains. As a handy excuse for leaving, the Nez Perce may have been playing on Lewis and Clark's fears in relation to the horses the expedition left behind in the foothills of the Bitterroot Mountains and would need again for the return trip. Whether this concern was invented or genuine, the Nez Perce were nonetheless persuaded to stay two more days. The urgency in the captains' mind was threefold. They had learned that more rough water faced them in short order. Now on guard against native attack, Twisted Hair and Tetoharsky could also form an early warning system. Third, the commanders arrogantly presumed that they themselves could midwife peace between these tribes.
It has been suggested that Clark engaged in great risk in running the Short Narrows below Celiloa famed incident in Lewis and Clark loreas an act of bravado in the face of the news from Twisted Hair and Tetoharsky that the party was about to be attacked. Under this theory, Bill Lang argues, the explorers exemplified their courage "to establish their own combativeness both with potential Indian foes and with the environment." However, Clark states forthrightly that the expedition had no choice in the matter, as there was no prospect of a practicable portage around the rocks that created this "agitated gut."
Living up to their self-imposed obligation, Lewis and Clark mediated what was termed a "good understanding" between their Nez Perce guides and the chief of the Wishram village situated in between the Short and Long Narrows. Clark confided in his notebook that "we have every reason to believe...those two bands or nations are and will be on the most friendly terms with each other." The evening ended with Pierre Cruzatte in the spotlight, playing his fiddle, "which delighted the nativs, who Shew every civility toward us." This now enlarged community of residents and voyageurs smoked "untill late at night." The festivity of this evening suggests that the fear of an attack had now dissipated entirely. If, in fact, that prospect was ever real, evidence suggests that either Lewis and Clark had somehow forged a temporary peace that allowed them and the Nez Perce to pass, or that the chiefs had been manipulating the captains in their desire to leave the party on equitable terms.
As they had done so often before, Twisted Hair and Tetoharsky next proceeded ahead of the expedition to a village below the Long Narrows "to Smoke a friendly pipe." The chiefs were returning upstream when they met Lewis and Clark at the last of the three "basons" that Clark depicted in his notebook map; the present location of Spearfish. (The Indians told Clark and Lewis that in this vicinity they could "take the Salmon as fast as they wish.") At this place the Nez Perce chiefs were having yet another smoke with a party of Indians who were in the process of returning to their home upriver from a hunting trip. This tribe had just brought their horses across to the north side of the river below the last in the series of narrows known through time as The Dalles, where the "old Chiefs," as Clark habitually called the Nez Perce guides, encountered them.
Lewis and Clark joined the parley, smoked with the chief of this new band whom they found to be a "bold pleasing looking man of about 50 years of age dressd. in a war jacket a cap Legins & mockersons." They learned from this chief about his recent encounter with a war party of "Snake Indians" in the watershed drained by the Deschutes River. But more noteworthy is that this intersection of trail, river, and tribal cultures proved the point of departure for Twisted Hair and Tetoharsky. Far from home, they found their chance meeting with a band of Indians with horses to be irresistible. They traded two robes each for their horses and, after a "parting Smoke," Lewis and Clark bid adieu to their "two faithful friends."
The unsentimental Clark did not take the time to elaborate on the contributions of the Nez Perce chiefs. Nor did Whitehouse, who said simply: "These Indians left us at this place, after taking a friendly leave." However, a close reading of the journals for the Snake and Columbia River voyage to The Dalles can only lead to the conclusion that Tetoharsky and Twisted Hair played a far more valuable role as guides than the vaunted Sacagawea of legend. Even her presumed role as peacemaker, first on the Snake and later on the Columbia below Wallula, was one the Nez Perce chiefs were required to explicate when it mattered.
Proceeding down river below The Dalles, Lewis and Clark came to the village of the "Chil-luckit-tequaw" (possibly Klickitat) Indians, one of the Wishram-Wasco bands of the Upper Chinookan language group east of present-day Lyle. These Indians would have been, if the Nez Perce chiefs were to be believed, the next candidate tribe presumed to be lying in wait to attack the party. To the contrary, William Clark found, "Those people are friendly." Clark recalled seeing the chief of the village fishing at the Long Narrows. The explorers were welcomed to land by the gift of fish, berries, nuts, and root bread for breakfast. The hospitality was so impressive that Clark wrote: "we Call this the friendly village." After buying twelve dogs, four sacks of pounded fish, and dried berries, the expedition "proceeded on." Compounding this goodwill was the reception granted to the newcomers at the next village four miles downstream. After smoking the pipe with the people of this village of 11 houses, Clark determined that "we found those people also friendly."
Clearly the Nez Perce warning above Celilo had heightened Clark's consciousness about equable relationships. But in retrospect, the whole notion of threats from "the nation below" Celilo proved chimerical. First, all the reports were second- or third-hand in nature. Upon close inspection, as Twisted Hair and Tetoharsky had themselves communicated, the Nez Perce did not speak the language of the upper Chinookan people who lived below The Dalles, nor did they travel into their country. In subsequent years the Wishram and other tribes near The Dalles would resist incursions from white fur traders who challenged their pivotal trade position. Indeed, on their return trip up the Columbia the following spring, Lewis and Clark would have a great deal of trouble with the natives in the vicinity of The Dalles. But on balance, the implied threat in the fall of 1805, Jim Ronda asserts, had less to do with Lewis and Clark than "relations between the Nez Perces and the Chinookans." Though the Nez Perce had a trading relationship with tribes from The Dalles at certain times of the year, there were off-season tensions and occasional raids between the tribes. In conclusion, Ronda submits, the "alleged preparations for an attack on Lewis and Clark may have been rumor-mongering or an effort to justify the desire of the Nez Perce guides to leave the party."
As for Sacagawea, she was, as C. S. Kingston phrased it, "a young woman of fine qualities." She has a well-deserved reputation for courage, presence of mind, endurance, inquisitiveness, and industriousness, to say nothing of her obvious competence as a parent. As a genuine historical figure she needs neither legends nor myths, whether as guide or ambassador, to make her a sympathetic figure.
David L. Nicandri is director of the Washington State Historical Society and executive editor of COLUMBIA. This essay is excerpted from a book-length manuscript he is developing: "Far Short of Expectations or Wishes: Lewis & Clark in Columbia River Country."