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The Nearly Capsized Boat

Sacajawea Joins Lewis and Clark

The Shoshoni


During the early stages of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the boats moved very slowly upstream, against the current of the Missouri River. They moved so slowly, in fact, that Captains Lewis and Clark preferred to walk next to the boats on the shore, looking for new plants and animals to write about in their journals. Charbonneau usually walked next to Clark while Sacajawea followed the pair, carrying Jean Baptiste ("Pomp"). Sacajawea instantly proved invaluable to the expedition in these early stages, as she was always able to find fruits, berries and other items the expedition needed.

By 1805, the expedition had made it into Montana, passing the point where the Yellowstone River meets the Missouri River. Progress proved difficult, and the expedition members had no experience with these regions. On May 14, some of the hunters tried to kill a grizzly bear, and were surprised when a few shots failed to kill it. Fleeing from the enraged bear, many of the hunters only narrowly escaped mauling. Ultimately, it took eight bullets to bring down the grizzly.

Another near-disaster occurred the same day when one of the boats, which had lifted a sail to catch the breeze, nearly flipped over upon the sudden arrival of a storm. The boat languished on its side for a while, and many supplies fell out. However, Sacajawea's quick thinking managed to save many of the supplies and items from the water while many of the men panicked. Without her calm ability to handle the situation and fish the goods out of the river, the mission might have met its doom.

Indeed, despite Sacajawea's actions, not all of the items could be saved; the heavier ones fell to the bottom of the river. Although some lead for bullets was dredged up from the riverbed, most of the expedition's supply of medicine was lost forever. Despite this critical loss, Sacajawea had saved most of the expedition's scientific instruments, as well as many books. Lewis was particularly happy to learn that she had saved his indispensable botany reference book. In gratitude for her quick thinking, Lewis and Clark decided to name one of the newly found Missouri River tributaries "Sacajawea." Unfortunately, the name didn't stick, however. On June 3, 1805, the expedition reached the Marias River.

But without medicine, many people in the party began to fall ill. Near the Marias, the expedition stopped for several days while the tired and sick men rested. Sacajawea became extremely sick during this period, and Lewis and Clark feared she would die. This would be a terrible thing to them because they were not far from Shoshoni territory, where she could help them barter for horses. Also, taking care of Jean Baptiste would be difficult if she died. Lewis did what he could to treat Sacajawea, but he only ended up getting sick himself. Soon after he recovered, Lewis narrowly escaped being mauled by a grizzly. At this same time, there was considerable debate over where to go next. All of the rest of the party thought the Marias River was really the continuation of the Missouri. But Lewis and Clark went against the opinion of their men, and ended up being correct in their choice of route. When they encountered the Great Falls, which involved an 80-foot drop, the expedition had to take all of its boats out of the water and portage them to the other side of the falls. Portaging the Great Falls was very difficult because the expedition lacked the right materials for this, and because a flood once threatened to sweep away a lot of the supplies, as well as Sacajawea and Clark.

In July, after portaging the Great Falls, Lewis and Clark tried to put together the iron ship whose parts they had hitherto hauled with them. Its name was the Experiment, and this was one experiment that didn't work out. The ship constantly leaked and the men soon abandoned it for more traditional hollowed- out tree trunks.


One of the reasons Lewis and Clark's boat nearly capsized was that Charbonneau had been steering it. Charbonneau was not an expert with boats, and he made a mistake with the rudder. Since Charbonneau could not swim, he became very panicked as the boat lurched onto its side and water started pouring in. One of the other crewmembers helped get the situation under control, but not before a lot of important material fell over the sides. This was just one example of Charbonneau's many mistakes that were to plague the expedition.

While her husband's panicking caused the problem, Sacajawea managed to undo much of it with her calm manner. She had been sitting in the stern of the boat, and instead of panicking after the boat fell sideways, she rescued the items she could. Leaning out from the boat to fish out books and tools, she practically saved the mission single-handedly (the other hand was holding Jean Baptiste). So far away from any cities, almost all of the supplies Sacajawea rescued were irreplaceable. Clark was ecstatic, and praised her good sense and competence in his journal. Lewis, although he never had the same fondness for Sacajawea that Clark did, noted that she had saved the day. Somewhat ironically, Charbonneau's wife, who had been allowed to come along as a favor to the French-Canadian, now saved the whole expedition from her husband's incompetence on the water. Sacajawea also saved some of the captains' journals. Had these not been recovered, the record of the early part of the trip (and much of Sacajawea's life) might be lost to later historians.

Around the time of the boat incident, the expedition members were starting to sense that they were near groups of Native Americans. Sacajawea proved helpful again by identifying carefully hidden signs of their presence and determining that they were not Shoshonis.

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