There’s more than meets the eye in Lewis & Clark’s journals, say two historians

As the nation commemorates the 200th anniversary of the 1804-06 Lewis and Clark Expedition, the explorers’ journals are being scrutinized as never before, as evidenced by new interpretations of Sacagawea’s “illness” on the trip west.

Because President Thomas Jefferson instructed Lewis to gather a wealth of scientific and anthropological data during the search for a water route to the Pacific Ocean, the journals are a veritable treasure trove of information.

The image of Sacagawea and her son, Jean Baptiste, appears on the Golden Dollar, which the U.S. Mint first issued in 2000.
The image of Sacagawea and her son, Jean Baptiste, appears on the Golden Dollar, which the U.S. Mint first issued in 2000.

“Understanding the expedition means understanding the way Lewis and Clark functioned as scientists, anthropologists, cartographers, historians and writers,” says Peter J. Kastor, Ph.D., assistant professor of history and of American Culture Studies in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. “They are poster children for multidisciplinary work at the same time that understanding them requires a multidisciplinary perspective.”

And because few scholars have approached the journals from a multidisciplinary perspective, historians have failed to come to terms with important aspects of them, says Kastor, author of “The Nation’s Crucible: The Louisiana Purchase and the Creation of America.”

Primarily, scholars have failed to recognize the literary conventions employed by the journals’ authors. For example, much of the language used to describe their journey is typical of popular travelogues of the time. To write in original and unconventional terms, Kastor says, would have been viewed as amateurish and unprofessional. So, while the authors were not experienced writers, they clearly were familiar with the travel literature of their time.

Euphemistically speaking

The truth behind a curious incident in the health of Sacagawea, the only woman on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, may have been obscured by the literary convention of describing women’s health issues in euphemistic terms that are unfamiliar today.

According to the journals, Sacagawea, a Shoshone Indian, became extremely ill when her son, Jean Baptiste, was about six months old. “If she dies, it will be the fault of her husband as I am now convinced,” Clark wrote, referring to Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian fur trader. Lewis concluded that she suffered from “an obstruction of the mensis in consequence of taking could (sic),” or “taking a cold.”

Lewis gave her water from a sulphur spring to replenish her body’s supply of iron and applied poultices to her pelvic region. She made a full recovery.

When Kastor and Conevery Bolton Valencius, Ph.D., assistant professor of history and a historian of medicine at Washington University, began looking at the language used to describe this event, Valencius had a hunch that Sacagawea’s “cold” was not what it appeared to be. It also seemed peculiar that the explorers blamed Charbonneau.

“In fact,” says Valencius, author of “The Health of the Country: How American Settlers Understood Themselves and Their Land,” “the language used to refer to her sickness is that which is commonly used in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to refer to a complicated set of ideas about women’s reproductive health.

“Her menstrual periods may have been out of order in some way that’s not related to reproduction, because that was a possibility at that time,” says Valencius. “But we think it’s more likely that they were using ‘taking a cold’ as a euphemism for pregnancy, as was commonly done. She may have had a miscarriage.”

And another pregnancy would explain why Clark blamed Charbonneau for Sacagawea’s illness, adds Valencius. “They (explorers) saw Charbonneau as pretty irresponsible in a host of ways, but in this particular instance, with the reference to her ‘taking cold,’ they apparently think he should be exercising proper husbandly restraint so as not to get her pregnant again so quickly.”

Layers of modesty

Other historians have not perceived this illness as pregnancy, Valencius says, because they have not understood the euphemistic language or the layers of modesty with which women’s health was discussed at that time.

“There is a huge problem with the way people approach Lewis and Clark,” Kastor says. “The journals are so detailed that people tend to treat them as a clear window to the past. But the journals and the journey are not one and the same thing.

“In order to understand the journey, we have to be able to think as historians and anthropologists. But in order to understand the medium through which we learn about the journey — the journals — we have to understand the literature. These are written documents; they work by a set of rules that governed a particular genre at a particular time. Once we understand that, the weird elements of the journals start to make sense.”

“There’s still a lot more to see in the journals,” says Valencius, “despite all that’s been written and said about them.”

It also must be remembered, Kastor adds, that Lewis never intended to publish the voluminous journals in their entirety. Rather, he planned to use them as source material for a shorter, more cohesive book about the expedition.

Kastor and Valencius will address “Sacagawea’s ‘Cold’: Intimations of Pregnancy on the Lewis & Clark Expedition” at a conference on “Health and Medicine in the Era of Lewis & Clark,” convened by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Nov. 4-6, 2004.