Sacagawea's story is told against the backdrop of the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804. Instigated by President Thomas Jefferson' s interest in the country west of the Mississippi River, the expedition was led by Captain Meriweather Lewis and Lieutenant William Clark, both familiar with the hardships of frontier life and the threat of Indian warfare. The expedition explored American territory newly acquired from France in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase.
He threw a noose around my neck and choked me until the night grew black.
On May 14, 1804, the expedition, consisting of Lewis and Clark; Clark's servant York; fourteen soldiers; nine Kentuckians; and two French boatmen started up the Missouri River. In July they had their first encounter with Native Americans, a peaceful one, and in October they reached the camps of the Mandan tribe, near present-day Stanton, North Dakota. There they built a fortified camp, Fort Mandan, and spent the winter. At this point Lewis and Clark hired Charbonneau and his Shoshone wife, the invaluable Sacagawea, as Indian interpreters and guides.
Leaving Fort Mandan in the spring of 1805 and traveling by canoe, the explorers traveled up the Missouri, often encountering delays. In July they made the decision to follow the Jefferson River into the Rocky Mountains. In the mountains, Sacagawea was reunited with her Shoshone people, who provided the explorers with horses and guides, enabling them to cross the Bitterroot Range by late September. From this point to the sea, the party traveled by water. In November of 1805, the expedition reached the Pacific Ocean, completing an arduous journey through difficult territory. On the Pacific shore, they built their winter's lodging, Fort Clatsop.
The expedition began the return journey in March of 1806, but upon reaching the Bitterroot Valley in July, the explorers separated to learn more about the territory. Clark followed the Yellowstone River to the Missouri River and Lewis explored the Marias River to the northeast, where he encountered hostile Native Americans for the first time during the entire trip. That summer the two parties met at Fort Mandan where Sacagawea and her family ended their association with the explorers. The expedition reached St. Louis on September 23, 1806, after blazing a future trail for American settlers and providing valuable information about the new territory. The expedition had been gone two years, four months, and nine days, and traveled about six thousand miles.
Typical of many of his adult novels, O'Dell uses the main character as the narrator of the story. O'Dell has often used first person narration in novels where the main character is female, including Newbery honorees Island of the Blue Dolphins and Sing Down the Moon. This narrative voice is effective because, looking through the eyes of Sacagawea, the reader can see the nuances of Native American life and can experience the conflicts that reveal her strength of character. O'Dell himself admitted that the historical research for his novels, which usually took from three to four months, was what he enjoyed most while writing the book. This Sacagawea is not the cardboard figure of encyclopedias and history textbooks, but a vividly drawn woman who relies on instinct and common sense for survival in the wilderness and in the complex world of human relations.
By using flashbacks to reveal incidents of Sacagawea's Shoshone background, O'Dell creates a contrast between the peacefulness and civility of the Shoshones and the harshness and insensitivity of others, both Native Americans and whites. As Sacagawea is forced under the threat of death into a loveless marriage with Charbonneau, she thinks back to the Shoshone betrothal of her brother Cameahwait, whose fiancee had the option of refusing even the chief's son. When Sacagawea considers the warning of Captain Clark's slave, Ben York, that she and Meeko will never fit into the white man's world, she returns to her own Shoshone tribe,...
(The entire section is 1,097 words.)