Young Native Woman Sacagawea from Shoshone Tribe

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If it had not been for the help of the Native American Tribes, the voyage led by Lewis and Clark could not have been as successful as it was. In 1803, president Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana territory, and he added over 529 million acres of unexplored land to the United States. This purchase would quickly become one of the most exciting land grabs in the Nation. Thomas Jefferson immediately appointed Meriwether Lewis to explore this unknown land. 

His mission was to befriend and trade with the Native American Tribes and to potentially locate a Northwest passage to the Pacific Ocean. Joining Lewis in this expedition would be his long time friend William Clark. Together, it would be one of the most dangerous and historically pivotal events to take place in the United States. The expedition of Lewis and Clark was a success with the help of Native people, bringing forth an abundance of new scientific discoveries, but for the Native American Tribes, it resulted in the loss of land.

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When the explorers first began to enter unknown territory, they came across the Teton Sioux who happened to be one of the most powerful tribes with numbers great enough to overpower the explorers. That encounter did not go well and could have easily ended the voyage on that day; however, it remains a testament in itself as to how necessary the alliances and peaceful encounters with the tribes were a huge factor to the success of the expedition. Some of the first tribes that aided Lewis and Clark were called the Mandan and Handassa tribes. 

Amongst them, they found food, shelter and friendship for five months through the cold. Through that encounter is where they also met Sacagawea, a young native woman who belonged to the Shoshone tribe. A dangerous hike over the snowy and Rocky Mountains lied directly ahead of the explorers. Tribal leaders shared with them shortcuts that could help their journey progress but strongly advised them to seek the shoshone tribe for horses. 

Sacagawea guided them through unknown territories by recognizing important geographical features when searching for Shoshoni camps. “If we do not find them, I fear the successful issue of our voyage will be very doubtful.” ( Neibaur, 2002) Lewis and Clark formed a necessary ally with the shoshone tribe, thanks to Sacagawea. Her brother was the Chief of the tribe and so for two weeks he granted the explorers food and shelter. Through this encounter Lewis and Clark obtained the horses they needed to cross over the Rocky Mountains. 

Multiple tribes such as the Nez Perce, Walla Walla, Chinook, Wishram, Tillamook, and Clatsop all aided, sheltered, traded,comforted and fed the explorers along their journey. It was the hospitality and kindness of the different Native American Tribes that played a key factor in the success of the journey to the west. The reason the Natives were so eager to help out the explorers, was because of Sacagawea.

Sacagawea, acted first and foremost as an interpreter between Lewis, Clark, and The Native American Tribes however she quickly became an essential part of the expedition because as the journey progressed, her role became much more than just an interpreter. She often showed the explorers edible plants, berries, and roots which nourished them. She also helped them in identifying new species for scientific purposes. During the voyage, Lewis described in his journals at least 178 new plants and 122 new animals. 

At one point in time, their boat flipped on its side, dumping out most of their supplies. While the men panicked, Sacagawea quickly saved as much of the supplies, scientific instruments, and books as she could. Time and time, again she proved herself to be one of the most important assets to the success of the voyage. In the midst of the expedition, she bore a child which surprisingly benefited them even more. Her sheer presence often acted as a signal of peace. 

If they came across territorial or defensive tribes, a group of strange men could often give the impression of a threat, but if a woman and child were present amongst them then it was believed to have been much less threatening. “A woman with a party of men is a token of peace.” (Ronda, 1984) This could not be a more accurate depiction of the role she played in this group of explorers. Both Sacagawea and the individual tribes played such a huge role in the success of the expedition; it pushed forth the beginning of a new era for the United States; however, the lives of the Native American Tribes would forever be changed.

Since the U.S purchased the land of the Native American tribes, Lewis and Clark informed them of the new ownership. They gave them medals, small tokens, and promised that eventually new explorers would come with more riches. After the expedition, new explorers travelled to the west but the encounters were less than peaceful. At first the early United States government viewed the Native American tribes as their own sovereign states and they had freedom to their own economic and political systems. 

However as the United states continued to grow in both power and size, their hunger for more land became the driving force behind their ever changing policies with the Native people. The expansion of the west became the only thing on government mind and so by 1830, The Indian Removal Act was signed by president Andrew Jackson. “For Indian nations, these policies resulted in broken treaties, vast land loss, removal and relocation, population decline, and cultural decimation.” 

Essentially it gave him the ability to begin the removal of Native American tribes from their homeland. They created treaties, that they dictated the conditions of, with the primary interest being to gain Native American land. These once peaceful treaties became so corrupt that the Natives often referred to them as “Bad paper”. They were given the ultimatum to either forsake their Indian way of living and become civilized or leave altogether. 

Relocation was necessary to the Americans because Native land was valuable for farming of its natural resources and the Indians were not progressing with the vision of the American people. Thousands of Indigenous people were forced to walk hundreds of miles to designated “Indian territory”. Some Indigenous people went peacefully but some went fighting and ultimately resulted in the death of thousands. 

This deadly journey is also known today as, “The trail of tears.” This was just the beginning of what was to come and the terror that thousands of Indigenos people would experience. By 1890 the majority of them were moved to Reservations. Their compliance was a result of wanting their tribes to stick together, although they lost their land they still had one another.

Altogether, The Lewis and Clark expedition is a story filled with both glory and tragedy. Two completely different worlds collided to make a pivotal mark in American history. The Native tribes did more for the Americans than they would ever be paid in return. Without the help of the Native people, the expedition would have never been completed. 

New scientific discoveries and the expansion to the west may have never happened. As a result of this point in history, the Natives’ way of life would be changed forever. Moreover the American Nation will forever be in debt to the Natives for its successful journey to the west, for its new gained land, its new discoveries, and for its prosperity. 

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