Creating Sakakawea, Return to Index Go To Themes Go To Images Go To Resources

When Lewis and Clark canvassed the opinions of the company about where to winter between November 1804 and March 1805, both Sakakawea and York (Clark’s slave) were consulted. She cast her “vote” for “a place where there is plenty of Potas. [i.e., wapato root].” The expedition wintered near the Pacific Coast, where indeed Potas were plentiful. Attempts to prove that the coastal plebiscite constituted the first vote of an Indian woman in United States history have been unconvincing. Lewis and Clark were canvassing their party before making a decision of great importance, but they were not engaging in an exercise of majority rule at the mouth of the Columbia River.

In the social dynamics of the Corps of Discovery, the Charbonneau family soon gravitated to William Clark rather than Meriwether Lewis. Lewis was somewhat contemptuous of Sakakawea’s character. “[I]f she has enough to eat and a few trinkets to wear I believe she would be perfectly content anywhere,” he wrote on July 28, 1805. Clark seems to have developed genuine affection for Sakakawea, whom he apparently sometimes called Janey, and especially for her son Jean Baptiste, whom he called “my dancing boy Pomp.” Thus the Charbonneau family was with Clark (and York) at the Great Falls in July 1805 when a flash flood forced them to scramble up a ravine just ahead of the rising waters. Thus the Charbonneau family traveled with Clark in July and August 1806 when the corps split into two exploring parties, one (led by Clark) to reconnoiter the Yellowstone River valley and the other (led by Lewis) to handle the Great Falls portage and ascertain the source of the Marias River.

Clark and Sakakawea performed small acts of kindness for each other that have led some to posit a star-crossed romance. Sakakawea gave Clark two dozen white weasel tails for Christmas 1805 at Fort Clatsop – a gift that has sometimes been construed as a sign of romantic attraction among the Shoshones. At a critical moment (November 30, 1805), she also gave Clark a small piece of bread that she had been hoarding in her personal kit. On at least one occasion Clark rebuked Charbonneau for striking his wife, and it was Clark who pushed Sakakawea to safety during the flash flood in Montana, while Charbonneau characteristically panicked and prayed. It may be that Clark served as a kind of patron-protector of Sakakawea among a company of young men where she might otherwise have been the object of harassment.