History is rife with coincidences that are simply too amazing to make up. Although Lewis & Clark’s Corps of Discovery spent considerable time in the current state of Montana (coming and going) and experienced many adventures here, I have a particular favorite which just might be the most fantastical of the entire expedition. And it took place in the western part of what is today known as Big Sky Country.
The Captains had always known they would eventually run out of navigable water as they approached the source of the Missouri River. What they didn’t know was how long it would take to cross the Rockies to the western slope, where they expected to pick up the Columbia River. They had been told – and fervently hoped – that it was a mere half day’s trek. Didn’t happen. But at least they did understand that regardless of the length of the journey over the mountains, they would need horses to transport all their gear, and they knew of only one source to buy horses: the Shoshone. Whether they would be friendly and inclined to sell their prized horses never seemed to have occurred to the Captains. Nevertheless, failure to obtain horses meant being stranded on the wrong side of the Continental Divide with winter coming on.
But the Shoshone proved elusive. Day after day, the men trekked westward with mounting anxiety and nary a sign of the Natives, though they were undoubtedly being carefully observed. This is the point in the story when they started making mistakes, compounded by their nearly incomprehensible naivete about the original inhabitants of North America. For one thing the Captains always seemed to assume that the next tribe would have all the same characteristics, wants and needs, as the last tribe they had encountered. They totally failed to appreciate that these were complex civilizations of long-standing, that interacted with each other, traded and even intermarried, while still honoring their own traditions and culture. They even hired interpreters who were expected to be able to communicate with every tribe on the continent, and always seemed to be mystified when the interpreters couldn’t comprehend the language.
Fortunately they did realize that Sacagawea, having been kidnaped from this region a few years earlier, was the key to success in securing horses. However, when they finally did make contact with the Shoshone – whether from bad luck or bad planning – the Corps had broken up into smaller groups, and Sacagawea wasn’t present. How awkward.
The group with Sacagawea finally caught up, the preliminaries were dispensed with, and the wary parties finally began to parley. They hadn’t gotten very far when Sacagawea suddenly jumped up, gesturing wildly, and crying uncontrollably. The men surely thought she had come unglued. But it turned out she was merely expressing her joy at recognizing the chief they were trying to buy horses from as her brother, Cameahwaite, whom she hadn’t seen since she was a child. How’s that for a coincidence? Or even a handful of coincidences? What are the odds that this particular band of the Shoshone would be the one the Corps met? Although Cameahwaite must have been a relatively young man, he was in a position of leadership, and able to materially help the Corps. And most of all, this tribe was quite a poor group of people, and not at all inclined to trade their precious horses for a few inconsequential trinkets from Lewis & Clark’s dwindling stock of trade goods. Some were even in favor of just annihilating the Americans for the weapons they desperately needed to hunt and defend themselves.
Instead the two groups actually traveled together for several days, sharing information about the trail ahead, conducted joint hunts, shared the proceeds, and even sent a guide along. (Old Toby turned out to be as ignorant about the territory as the Corps, getting them hopelessly lost in a snowstorm, yet. But that’s another story.)
You can be sure that the Corps got their horses and proceeded on, but with still further trials, disappointments (not the least of which was that the Northwest Passage they had been sent to find didn’t even exist) and yes, coincidences.
To learn more:
This month’s Trail Talk is sponsored by
Shebby Lee is a historian, writer and tour operator specializing in the historic and cultural heritage of the Great American West. She is a frequent presenter at numerous history conferences and trade association meetings and is a regular contributor to ABA’s Insider online magazine. Her early training was in the theatre and she served a tour of duty as an entertainer with the USO. She is also an Admiral in the Nebraska Navy.