Lewis and Clark: How Two Women Saved the Corps of Discovery

SacagaweaIn May of 1804 the Corps of Discovery, led by captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark went on pursuit of a fabled Northwest passage. They’d be gone over two years. Along the way they’d meet dozens of Indian tribes, including the fierce Sioux and Blackfoot. They’d traverse on keelboat, canoe, horseback and by foot through some of the West’s most gorgeous and intimidating landscapes. They’d spend three long winters together–surviving brutal cold, blinding blizzards and relentless rain. They’d encounter grizzlies, elk, rattlesnakes, wolves and other dangerous animals.

Only the hardiest could survive such a journey.

And it’s a credit to the expedition’s resolve and fortitude that only one casualty happened (Charles Floyd)…and he died of appendicitis not from the elements or attack.

Nevertheless, the Corps of Discovery never would’ve made it past the Bitterroots of Montana had it not been for two Indian women.


The first one is as famously-known as Lewis and Clark themselves. But the second is largely lost to history and often overlooked in the stories about the Corps of Discovery.

The first woman to save the Corps of Discovery was a young Shoshone slave girl named Sacagawea.

She was only 20 years old when she served Lewis and Clark’s expedition, but she helped the men to survive the rivers, weather, hunger and other Indians. And she did it with a baby on her back. In many ways, Sacagawea was herself still a kid. A decade earlier, she had been enslaved by the Hidatsa Indians and taken far from her Lemhi-Shoshone homelands in southwest Montana and eastern Idaho.

The Shoshone were known for their collection of horses, but they were also bullied by other Indian tribes, particularly the Hidatsa and Blackfoot. Sacagawea was eventually sold to a French fur trader named Touissaint Charbonneau.  She was his second Indian wife and they wintered at the Mandan Villages in 1804 alongside the Corps of Discovery. Sacagawea was pregnant and Lewis delivered her baby only weeks before they set out for Montana. Her Shoshone heritage proved a godsend for the Corps. They needed horses once they reached the Missouri headwaters and the Shoshone were the dealers from whom to buy. But to get Sacagawea, the Corps had to hire Charbonneau too (whose his skills, attitudes and contributions proved far less desirable).

Many historians now believe Sacagawea and baby Jean Baptiste centered the young, rowdy explorers (who were prone to find trouble) and brought peace. And the presence of a woman and baby leading a pack of men calmed the Indian tribes they encountered. Indian women didn’t accompany their men into battle. Sacagawea’s presence (with child) was like a “white flag” of peace. It’s likely why many tribes embraced these white explorers.

In fact, the only serious scrape with Indians happened on the return trip, when the expedition broke into three different groups. That’s when Lewis encountered the dangerous Blackfeet Indians on the eastern edge of present-day Glacier National Park. It’s the only time the expedition fired a shot. On that day two Blackfeet Indians laid dead. And where was Sacagawea? She was with Clark on the Yellowstone river.

Sacagawea also helped Lewis and Clark to find her Shoshone people. She taught valuable skills for food foraging, helped navigate difficult terrains and, on one occasion, saved equipment, food and their journals when her husband accidentally lost control of his canoe.

But Sacagawea wasn’t alone. There was a second Indian who likely served a larger role. She literally saved the Corps of Discovery from being murdered.

Her name was Watkuweis.

She was an elderly Nez Perce woman who was present when the starving Lewis and Clark expedition stumbled down the backside of the Bitteroot mountains into the hands of her tribe. The entire expedition was nearly dead. Sick. Hungry. Weak. Desperate. The Nez Perce had never seen white men before and the younger braves wanted to kill them all. After all, the Corps were traveling with the latest in weaponry, plus caches of bullets, boxes of trading goods and other riches. A hostile takeover of the Corps’ goods would make the Nez Perce rich beyond measure.

But that’s when Watkuweis spoke up and stopped her own warriors from killing the Lewis and Clark party. Her words were simple: “Do them no harm.” Why would Watkuweis care so much for a starving group of white explorers? It’s because she knew their generosity and compassion well. Like Sacagawea, she had also been captured as a youth, abused and traded among Indian tribes in Canada.

Eventually Watkuweis was purchased by a kind white fur trader who took her far away to the Great Lakes region. She was raised in a white community, learning white customs, manners and their Christianity. A white (Christian) family eventually helped her escape slavery and return to her Nez Perce home in the Rockies. Consequently, all her life, Watkuweis held a deep affection and gratitude for white people.

For Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, this old Indian woman was their saving angel.

Because of Watkuweis’ order to not harm Lewis and Clark, the Nez Perce formed a deep friendship with the white explorers.

They taught the Corps of Discovery new skills, introduced new foods (including salmon), cared for their horses, and showed them how to get to the Pacific ocean.

SACAGAWEA, a teenage Shoshone mom and Indian slave.

WATKUWEIS, a grateful, old Nez Perce woman.

But there’s a final twist worth noting.

Those Nez Perce Indians, because of their positive experience with Lewis and Clark, were introduced to a “little black book” (Bible) that could show them the way to God. In 1831, four Indian chiefs (two Nez Perce, two Blackfoot) traveled to St. Louis to visit an aging William Clark about this “book.” That interaction would inspire a missionary movement to the Great Northwest, carving what we now know as the Oregon Trail.

God works in surprising ways. In this particular legendary tale through two women–one young and one old–who kept the Lewis and Clark expedition alive, moving forward and successful in their search for a Northwest passage.


  1. Karen Burdt on August 27, 2022 at 7:26 pm

    Among the history of the SanPoil Tribe who today are a part of the Colville Nation of Eastern Washington. There was a SanPoil Princess who I am related to. Unfortunately her name is lost to history. She was however mentioned as helping Lewis and Clark on their expedition. They were in north west Washington at the time and they met this SanPoil woman who guided them through a mountain pass. I have been searching for her name, but unfortunately I have not been able to find it.But none the less I am proud of her contribution to the Lewis and Clark expodition. Her son’s name was Qay Qay Tas who was a Chief of one of the bands of the SanPoil peoples. He is my Great Great Grandfather.

    • Rick Chromey on August 28, 2022 at 7:02 am

      That’s a very interesting story, Karen! Your comment provoked my own study and I found similar (often word-for-word) material. It’s true that Lewis and Clark met a number of tribes as they traveled through the Great Plains, Montana, Idaho and down (and later up) the Clearwater, Snake and Columbia rivers of Washington and Oregon. It’s possible they met the SanPoil.

      I was curious about your comment that your relative was “mentioned as helping Lewis and Clark on their expedition.” I found this statement repeated in several places on the Internet but, again, without support. The problem is she is not directly mentioned by Lewis or Clark in their journals. Nor is she mentioned in the journals penned by the men of the Corps of Discovery. My speculation is this an Indian legend, passed down orally over the years. Unless directly named in the journals, it’s hard to tell. Even the famed “Watkuweis” story I tell in this account is not without great criticism (as it was oral Indian tradition). Lewis and Clark don’t mention her either. However, many historians now do now accept this story, based on corollary evidence linked to the Nimiipuu (Nez Perce) who were mentioned often in the journals for “helping” and “guiding” Lewis and Clark through the Lolo Pass of the Bitterroot mountains that divide Montana and Idaho.

      I would also add that Lewis and Clark were never in “north west Washington” but I believe you meant to say “north east Washington” anyway, as you correctly identify the SanPoil tribe dwelling in the region of Colville, WA (which is in north eastern part of the state). It’s possible that Lewis and Clark met the SanPoil. They did meet, again, with the Nez Perce and Salish (Flathead) on their way through that area. However, we also know there were tribes after the expedition who claimed to have met Lewis and Clark that did not. Among the native tribes, it was an honor to have met these men. In fact, for years after the expedition, Indians traveled to St. Louis to meet with William Clark (the great “red-headed” chief).

      With that said, I do have doubts that a “SanPoil woman guided them through a mountain pass.” Even in a cursory review of Internet research, this is a statement without any support (meaning its Indian oral tradition). When Lewis and Clark came through the region in early fall of 1805, they lived with the Nimiipuu (Nez Perce) for a couple weeks to restore their health (nearly all were sick and starving), plus build canoes to get downstream to the ocean. On the way back they also stayed with the Nez Perce for a month waiting on the Bitterroot mountain snows to melt. Every day is documented. We know they hunted, fished, danced, even played a form of baseball with the Nez Perce. In both cases they were in a hurry to get moving. And they already had guides. Going west, the Shoshone sent an old Indian named “Toby” to guide the Corps through the Bitterroots. On the way home, the Nez Perce did the honors. All this is documented in the journals. There were no other “mountain passes” in the region, Karen. My guess, again, is this is an Indian oral tradition and legend, but without supporting evidence, it’s hard to verify. It is a GREAT story (if true), but with no supporting evidence, just a story.

      I did a word search of SanPoil in the Lewis and Clark journals and did find they were mentioned in dozens of tribes listed, but being listed doesn’t mean the Expedition met with them personally. They could’ve just connected with the SanPoil at a fishing hole, for example. Or learned of the SanPoil from another tribe that lived near them (Nez Perce). The SanPoil are mentioned at the bottom and only once, with no other documentation. The Corps also documented all their official engagements with the Indians, which included a parade, and the passing of gifts and a peace medal. It doesn’t appear that the SanPoil were ever part of such a ceremony, mostly because Lewis & Clark passed to the SOUTH of their territory and did not pass directly THROUGH it (like they did the Oto, Teton Sioux, Hidatsa, Mandan, Shoshone, Nez Perce, Clatsop, Chinook, Crow and other tribes).

      I understand your pride in your great, great, great grandmother (as well you should be!). But, as you mentioned, there is very little stated, and nothing on her directly. In fact, the Sanpoil people are now largely lost to history. In 1905, the United States Indian Office counted 324 Sanpoil and 41 Nespelem. In 1910, the Census counted 240 and 46. In 1913, after a survey, the Office of Indian Affairs counted 202 and 43. After 1913, we have no records.

      Thank you for reading and commenting. I enjoyed learning more about your heritage and the great SanPoil tribal story.



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