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

SacagaweaLewis and Clark is the greatest adventure story in American history

In May of 1804, the Corps of Discovery went on pursuit of a fabled Northwest passage.

They would be gone two and a half years. Along the way they’d meet dozens of Indian tribes, including the fierce Sioux and Blackfoot. They’d travel in or upon a barge, dugout canoe, horseback and by foot through some of the West’s most gorgeous and intimidating landscapes.

This band of brothers spent three long winters together–surviving brutal cold, blinding sandstorms and relentless rain. They’d encounter grizzlies, bison, 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 likely from appendicitis not the elements or attack.

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 Lewis and Clark was a young Shoshone wife named Sacagawea.

She was only 16 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. Several years earlier, she had been kidnapped by the Hidatsas and removed from her Lemhi-Shoshone homelands in southwest Montana to western North Dakota.

The Shoshone were known for their horses, but they were also bullied by other tribes, namely the Hidatsa and Blackfoot.

Sacagawea was eventually gifted (possibly sold or won in a gambling bet) to a French fur trader named Toussaint Charbonneau.  In November of 1804, the couple’s path crossed with Lewis and Clark at the Mandan Villages where the Corps were wintering. Sacagawea was pregnant and Lewis delivered her baby on February 11, only two months before they set out for Montana.

Sacagawea means “Bird Woman” in the Hidatsa.

However, it was her Shoshone heritage that proved the true asset for the Corps. The Corps needed horses once they reached the Rocky Mountains and her tribe was the solution. Sacagawea also spoke Hidatsa. That’s why Lewis and Clark hired Charbonneau (as an interpreter) because he knew Hidatsa and French. They had French men who could already translate to English. This meant they had a translation line with the Shoshone.

Many historians believe Sacagawea and baby Jean Baptiste centered the young, rowdy explorers and brought peace to camp. Just the presence of a woman and baby leading a pack of men eased the 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.

Sacagawea 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 their equipment, food and their journals when her husband accidentally lost control of their white pirogue (May 14, 1805).

But Sacagawea wasn’t alone. There was a second Indian woman who likely served a larger role. She 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 Bitterroot mountains into the hands of her tribe. The entire expedition was on its last leg. Sick. Hungry. Weak. Desperate. According to one oral traditon, a group of younger Nez Perce, led by their chief Twisted Hair, were conspiring to destroy the entire Corps. The warriors saw the Corps weapons, plus loads of powder and balls…and their horses. A hostile takeover of the Corps’ goods would enrich the Nez Perce greatly.

According to Nez Perce oral tradition, Watkuweis spoke up and stopped her own warriors from killing the Lewis and Clark party with four words: “Do them no harm.” Why would Watkuweis care so much for a starving group of white explorers? It’s because she knew their peoples’ generosity and compassion well. Like Sacagawea, she had also been captured as a youth, abused and traded among Indian tribes.

This is where the story gets muddy, but Watkuweis was redeemed from her slavery by a kind white familywho took her to the Great Lakes region. She was raised in a white community, learning white customs, manners and their Christianity. Eventually this family helped her return to her Nez Perce home in the Rockies. Watkuweis held a deep affection and gratitude for the white people who helped her in a time of need.

Now it was the Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery that had need, and 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 how to build a burned out canoe, introduced new foods, cared for their horses, and showed them how to get to the Pacific ocean.

SACAGAWEA, a teenage Shoshone mom.

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 also introduced to a “little black book” (Bible) that could show them the way to God. In 1831, another tale emerges about four chiefs (two Nez Perce, two Blackfoot) who traveled to St. Louis to visit an aging William Clark about this “book.” That interaction inspired 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 goal to reach the Pacific Ocean..


  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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