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Watkuweis and the Lewis and Clark Expediton

black and white photo of tents

Photo: Nez Perce camp, around 1900.  Creative Commons. 

After the men of the Expedition finished the brutal crossing of the Bitterroot Mountains and reached the home of the Nez Perce in September 1805, some warriors considered killing the exhausted and starving explorers. After all, they carried an ample supply of firearms, ammunition, and trade goods.

But Watkuweis, an elderly woman who had once lived among Canadian traders, heard about the plans and stopped the warriors, saying something to the effect, “These are the people who helped me. Do them no harm.”

Watkuweis supposedly means, “Returns from a Far Land.” Nez Perce legend says she was captured as a young woman, taken to Canada, traded between tribes until she ended up in the Great Lake region. There she was purchased by a white man and lived for a time among the whites. After she had given birth to a child, she was determined to escape and with the help of some friendly whites who supplied her with food and a horse, she began her long journey back to her tribe.

Captain Clark mentions in his journal seeing this old woman, but he clearly didn’t realize how valuable she was to the Corps of Discovery. Without her, the journey could have prematurely ended in the high country of today’s Idaho.

Last updated: March 6, 2019