When the Corps of Discovery left Fort Mandan in April, 1805, they were leaving the known world. Explorers and traders had ventured to that area of the Missouri River for several decades, but anything further west was off the map.
You might expect that as they paddled and poled their way into western North Dakota and Montana that Lewis and Clark would have encountered lots of Indians. You would be wrong. In fact, once they passed out of Hidatsa hunting grounds, the Corps would not lay eyes on any fellow human beings for some four months. On a number of occasions, they saw tracks, found recent hunting camps, and found the remains of slaughtered buffalo, but throughout many adventures and hardships they had no encounters with the elusive people of the plains.
While they were just as happy to avoid the warlike Assiniboin people during the summer’s hard traveling, Lewis and Clark knew that the Continental Divide lay ahead of them. And while they didn’t know how rugged it would be, they did know that they were going to run out of Missouri River by the time they got there. They expected mountains, and knew they would need horses to carry the Expedition and its baggage to the other side.
The Shoshone (Snake) Indians were known to reside near the Continental Divide, and Lewis and Clark’s whole plan depended on finding and befriending these Indians and buying horses from them. It was for this reason that they brought Sacagawea along. The young woman was a native Shoshone who had been kidnapped by the Hidatsas when she was about 12. Lewis and Clark were thrilled to find her, not because she could act as a guide through the country, but because her fluency in the language would be of critical help in communicating with her people, who had never before made contact with whites.
But before Sacagawea could do her stuff, they had to find the Shoshones, which proved to be a much more stressful ordeal than Lewis and Clark ever anticipated. The unexpected back-breaking portage around the Great Falls cost the Expedition a solid month. By the time they entered Shoshone country, they were exhausted and behind schedule. And the shy Indians, so often the victims of other more powerful tribes, were nowhere to be found.
As July turned into August, and the Corps neared the mountains, the Missouri narrowed into a rocky, twisted, shallow channel. Every day was filled with very hard labor and mishaps born of fatigue and tormenting anxiety. Winter comes early in Montana. Would they have to face it stranded on the wrong side of these mountains, and without the friendly Indian support they’d enjoyed from the Mandans?
On August 11, Lewis and a party of men finally encountered a lone Indian riding his horse in the mountains. However, they botched the greeting and the man galloped away in apparent alarm. Lewis was in despair. What if the man went and warned his band about the strangers and they all vanished into the mountains? The Corps couldn’t go forward much longer without horses, and it was too late in the season to go back. Had he led his men into a trap? Had they come all this way only to fail, and perhaps die, their fate forever unknown to their loved ones back home?
Well, as everyone knows, that didn’t happen. The very next day, Lewis and his scouts stumbled on three Shoshone women foraging in the Lemhi Valley. The terrified women expected to be killed, but when they realized the strangers were friendly they agreed to take them to the Shoshone encampment. Within no time, Lewis was surrounded by sixty armed warriors; and in even less time, he was being hugged and greeted warmly by the entire camp.
In the days to come, Clark and the rest of the party caught up and were also greeted as friends by Sacagawea’s people. By an incredible coincidence of fate, the band’s leader, a chief named Cameahwait, turned out to be Sacagawea’s brother, and he was only too glad to help these strangers who had brought his sister back. The men rested at the place they called Camp Fortunate for almost two weeks, repairing their equipment and making friends with the Shoshone women. Sacagawea got reacquainted with her family, and apparently made the decision at some point to continue on with Lewis and Clark rather than spend the winter with her relatives. Meanwhile, Lewis and Clark haggled with the chief and his men over horses, tried to arrange for guides and porters to help the Corps cross the mountains, and scouted possible routes.
The peripatetic Lewis also found some time to do some writing and observation of the Shoshone culture. As he had proved earlier during the stay with the Mandans, he had a great flair for describing the unique physical artifacts of the Indians, such as their clothes and weapons. He also tried to describe the Shoshone character. He found himself torn between admiration for the rugged equality, good cheer, and generosity shown by these impoverished people, and frustration that they failed to grasp the urgency of his mission and make it their number one priority.
In fact, Lewis and Clark had come at an awkward time for the Shoshones. Cameahwait saw the advantages of making friends with these white chiefs who promised to bring trade and guns to his people, and his people genuinely enjoyed the unexpected carnival afforded by the strangers’ visit. Nonetheless, they must have heartily wished Lewis and Clark would shove off over the mountains. It was time to travel to the plains to hunt buffalo before the winter closed in. The Shoshones lived hand to mouth, and they couldn’t afford to miss any of the hunting season.
The tension led to an angry confrontation between Lewis and Cameahwait, and finally a flurry of horse trading. The Shoshones by this time had realized the desperate position of the Corps. By the time the Corps of Discovery rode out of Camp Fortunate, their supply of trade goods like clothing, knives, and iron axes was much lighter, and even irreplacable guns and ammunition had been traded away. And as Clark wrote:
at the time we Set out from the Indian Camps the greater Part of the Band Set out over to the waters of the Missouri. we had great attention paid to the horses, as they were nearly all Sore Backs and Several pore, & young Those horses are indifferent, maney Sore backs and others not acustomed to pack, and as we Cannot put large loads on them are Compelled to purchase as maney as we Can to take our Small propotin of baggage of the Parties. (& Eate if necessary)
The Shoshones must have smiled as Lewis and Clark rode out of sight. The whites had turned out to be a lot of fun, and had even taken the castoffs from their herd off their hands. Now it was off to hunt some buffalo.
Next in this series: Lewis & Clark Among the Nez Perce