AMY KIRK: Making history? Bring a woman
If you didn’t fall asleep during American History class, you know that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led an extensive research excursion known as the Corps of Discovery, which traversed uncharted territory from St. Louis, Mo., to the Pacific Ocean in the Northwest. The journey was successfully completed largely because of the superior knowledge of the terrain, guidance and interpreting skills of Sacagawea.
Documentation of this journey may prove that historically, guys have typically lacked in getting directions, communicating as easily or striking a deal with new people as quickly as a woman, and when encountering a group of potentially hostile strangers, guys don’t have what it takes to imply peaceable intentions — a baby. Sacagawea may have been the only female member of the Corps of Discovery but she didn’t hinder the trip’s schedule. Even when gravely ill and packing a kid around, she traveled via canoe and carried out her guide duties like a trouper.
Among her many travel-savvy skills, her role in history goes beyond giving Lewis and Clark directions on which trails to take throughout the journey, interpreting for them and helping facilitate important horse trading.
Time after time she also saved their bacon. Amid a moment of chaos and panic on the trip when a canoe capsized and dumped important journals, records and equipment into the Missouri River, with a calm demeanor, Sacagawea had the good sense and quick thinking to grab William Clark’s homework/writing assignments. Without his journals, we wouldn’t have learned about what the crew had to endure eating in times of nutritional destitution.
Another one of Sacagawea’s bacon-saving talents was representing the Corps with peaceful intentions. She was responsible for the Corps experiencing minimal trail rage with tribal men since a woman with a child traveling with a group of men was not considered a threat or a war party.
She also frequently found the all-important rugged-traveling staple known as food when they camped. Essentially, she kept everyone alive with her knowledge and use of medicinal plants, edible plants, berries, roots and native kitchen skills. She could whip up a quick meal for the crew with whatever food she found.
She was valued for her social network circles and knowledge of the terrain as well. She knew what obstacles lay ahead, recognized signs of tribal use on trails, determined which tribes they would run into and carried out important horse-trading negotiations with the Shoshoni in order to trek through the Rockies. Sacagawea could talk the talk and walk the walk, much to the benefit of the whole crew.
I thought it interesting that upon reaching the West Coast, instead of inquiring about payment for her skills, Sacagawea argued her case to see the ocean and that big beached whale that the Corps learned was not far from their camp. Something I’m sure any woman would choose over getting paid after guiding men on such a long journey.
It’s apparent to me that Lewis and Clark only wanted French-Canadian fur trader Charbonneau along for his splendid, highly skilled wife. She was instrumental in getting the crew headed in the right direction on the shortest, easiest route toward the Expedition’s destination.
Sacagawea is a perfect example of the importance women have on historical journeys: they’re good at doing the talking, they know where to fi nd food and to demonstrate peaceable intentions, they’ll show off their baby.
— Amy Kirk and her husband raise their two kids on a fourth-generation cow/calf operation near Pringle. She blogs at ranchwifeslant.areavoices. com.