Famed American Indian guide Sacagawea’s near-fatal illness during the Lewis and Clark expedition may have been the result of a miscarriage, two scholars believe.
History professors Peter Kastor and Conevery Bolton Valencius of Washington University said the explorers’ extensive journals from their 1804-06 westward expedition offer clues — through euphemisms common at the time — indicating Sacagawea may have become ill while pregnant.
“We can’t tell for sure, we’ll probably never really know,” Valencius said Friday. “What we’re trying to do is raise this as a possibility. There’s a lot that these journals have to say about how a woman’s body was understood.”
'Taking a cold'
Sacagawea was a Shoshone Indian teenager when she, her husband and their infant son joined Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s westward expedition during the winter of 1804-05. She served as the explorers’ interpreter.
The journals noted Sacagawea became extremely ill when her son, Jean Baptiste, was about 6 months old. “If she dies, it will be the fault of her husband as I am now convinced,” Clark wrote.
Lewis wrote Sacagawea suffered from “an obstruction of the mensis in consequence of taking could.”
“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,” Valencius said. “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.”
Discussion and doubts
Another pregnancy so soon after the birth of her son would explain why Clark blamed her husband, French-Canadian fur trader Toussaint Charbonneau, for Sacagawea’s illness, Valencius said; the explorers apparently thought Charbonneau “should be exercising proper husbandly restraint so as not to get her pregnant again so quickly.”
Amy Mossett of New Town, N.D., a national scholar on Sacagawea, doubts the theory.
“I think she was just suffering complications from her first childbirth, which was real common then,” Mossett said. “I guess all we can do is speculate.”