And the men who profited from their luck.
Historically, the major difference between successful exploration and failure is frequently simply luck. In the case of two such explorations, that luck came in the form of women whose contributions (and women's role in exploration is usually overlooked) meant the difference between life and an untimely death. As clues to understanding the exploration of North America, the stories of these two women have much in common, even though their travels occurred 300 years apart .
By 1519, the Spanish had thoroughly explored and tamed the islands of Hispaniola and Cuba, but knew almost nothing about the mainland to the north and west. The island natives had told many tales about lands with abundant gold just a few days sailing to the west and explorers had briefly landed on the coast of Vera Cruz, but the contact with the natives had been brief and violent. Finally, Governor Velazquez of Cuba decided to send a large expedition westward. Velazquez thought he had just the man for the job, a bright Spaniard who exhibited initiative and leadership: Hernan Cortés.
Cortés threw himself into the work of preparing the expedition. As he prepared eleven small ships, he hired men, gathered arms and supplies, and worked tirelessly to ready the expedition. Cortés worked so hard that Velazquez soon realized the central problem with funding expeditions—If Cortés were successful, it would be Cortés who profited, not Velazquez.
When Velazquez sent word to Cortés to delay sailing off in his search for gold, fame, and glory (with the emphasis on gold), Cortés immediately confirmed the governor’s suspicions by ordering his men to set sail and embark immediately. By defying Velazquez, Cortés was taking a desperate gamble: if his expedition was not wildly successful, he would either be killed by the natives or executed by Velazquez.
When Cortés landed on the coast of Mexico, almost immediately he discovered that two lost Spaniards, all that remained of an errant Spanish ship wrecked on the Mexican coast by a passing hurricane, had been forced to live with the Mayans long enough to learn the local language. One of these shipwrecked survivors, had married and “gone native”, with no desire to leave, but the other survivor, Gerome de Aguilar, was desperate to be rescued.
It is difficult to imagine the incredible luck for Cortés, to discover an interpreter almost immediately upon landing on the coast of a foreign and unexplored land. It is through the efforts of Gerome that Cortés is able to make peace with the Mayans, who gifted the Spaniard with twenty young maidens, among whom was Malinche.
Malinche had been born the daughter of a local chief of one of the Nahua tribes on the outskirt of the Aztec Empire. After her father died, she had been gifted to another tribe as a child, then in turn was either given or traded to the Mayans. By the time she met Cortés, she was roughly twenty years old and was described as graceful and beautiful. We don’t know whether Cortés chose her for her beauty or for her ability to speak both Mayan and Nahuatl—the language of the Aztecs—and he also took the young woman for his mistress. (Officially, Cortés chose her to be the companion of one of his men—one that he "coincidentally" chose to send as an emissary back to King Charles of Spain.)
The best eyewitness account of Cortés's conquest of the Aztec Empire was written by Bernal Dias del Castillo, who wrote that, next to God, it was Marina—the name Malinche took after she had been baptized into the Christian Faith—who was most responsible for the success of the expedition. She not only acted as translator for Cortés, she told him about the Aztecs, their way of life, their way of war, and the gold they possessed.
Malinche stayed by Cortés throughout the conquest, so much so that all of the surviving Aztec codices depicting Cortés, show Malinche by his side. The Aztecs even referred to Cortés and Malinche with a single collective word—Malintzin. Without the contributions of Malinche, it is doubtful that Cortés would have ever successfully traveled far enough into the interior of Mexico to even meet Montezuma, much less conquer his empire.
After the conquest, Malinche bore Cortés a son, Martin Cortés, and lived in comfort for the rest of her life in a house that Cortés provided. In Mexico, her memory is, at best, mixed. Her son is considered to be the first mestizo and so she is regarded as either the mother of modern Mexico or a traitor to her people.
Three hundred years later, an expedition to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase also depended on a woman for success.
When President Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon, the nation acquired a little over 828,000 square miles for just over four cents an acre. While historians are still arguing whether the sale was legal—Napoleon didn’t have a clear title and the U. S. Constitution doesn’t mention the power of a president to buy new territory—it’s ours because we occupied it. However, before settlers could move in, somebody had to find out what was there.
Jefferson asked Congress for $2500 to fund an expedition, then he hired Captain Meriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark to explore and map the territory. (And, as we discussed last week, to look for a few wooly mammoths.) This being a government activity, the two eventually spent merely twenty times what they had been budgeted, but considering what they accomplished, it is still chump change.
Shortly after the expedition started in 1804, they wintered over in present-day North Dakota and began looking for local trappers who might be able to guide them up the Missouri River as soon as the spring came and the ice melted. Toussaint Charbonneau, a French Canadian trapper was hired, along with his wife, Sacagawea.
Sacagawea had been born in present-day Idaho into the Shoshone tribe. As a young girl, a raiding party of Crow had kidnapped her, eventually selling her, against her will, to Charbonneau as a wife. By the time she joined the Lewis and Clark expedition, she was pregnant with her first child, and gave birth just before the explorers began their journey up the Missouri River.
Almost immediately, Sacagawea proved to be a useful addition to the expedition. Not only could she translate to the local tribes, but the very presence of a nursing mother proved to the various tribes that this could not possibly be a war party.
When the explorers finally reached the Shoshone—whose help was an absolute necessity for the success of the expedition— Sacagawea was delighted to discover that in the years since she had been kidnapped, her brother had become chief of the tribe. As Meriwether Lewis recorded in his journal:
Shortly after Capt. Clark arrived with the Interpreter Charbono, and the Indian woman, who proved to be a sister of the Chief Cameahwait. The meeting of those people was really affecting, particularly between Sah cah-gar-we-ah and an Indian woman, who had been taken prisoner at the same time with her, and who had afterwards escaped from the Minnetares and rejoined her nation.
Through the influence of Sacagawea, the Shoshone provided Lewis and Clark with horses and guides over the Rocky Mountains. Sacagawea could have stayed with her own people, but chose to continue with the expedition not only on to the Pacific Ocean, but returned all the way back to St. Louis, Missouri, where she lived the rest of her life, dying of an unknown fever only a few years later, in 1812.
If it was unlikely that Lewis and Clark could have found a trapper who could speak Crow and it is almost impossible that he would also be married to a woman who could speak both Crow and Shoshone. If we stretch the odds to make this woman, who had been kidnapped for years from her own people, to just happen to be the younger sister of the chief of the Shoshone, the whole affair becomes preposterous. This is luck beyond calculation.
It is remarkable that the success of the two most famous explorations of North America were both successful because of the contributions of two very similar young women, the details of both of whose contributions have been largely unknown. Though both were forced to participate, both became indispensable, both stayed with their expeditions when they could have left, and both have become footnotes in the history of those expeditions.
The sons of both women went on to become educated, traveled to Europe, met royalty, and returned home; both had successful and colorful careers, but those are stories for another time.