April 16, 2002

Sacagawea’s son: Through the mist of two centuries, a portrait emerges


PORTLAND, Ore. – Sacagawea carried her infant son on her back when she trudged along with Lewis and Clark on their Voyage of Discovery to the Pacific.

Jean Baptiste Charbonneau was 55 days old when the explorers left Fort Mandan in present-day North Dakota in 1805 and headed west into the unknown.

“This was the first child this woman had boarn and as is common in such cases, her labor was tedious and the pain violent,” Meriwether Lewis wrote in his journal.

Interpreter Rene Jessaume suggested a folk remedy – a rattlesnake rattle crumbled in water. Sacagawea drank it, and because of it, or in spite of it, Jean Baptiste entered the world 10 minutes later on Feb. 11, 1805.

When he left it 61 years later at an obscure ranch in Oregon’s southeast corner, he had lived in a German castle and toured Europe and Africa with a prince, learned several languages, lived among the elite mountain men and worked as a trapper, a gold miner, a scout and interpreter.

As the Lewis and Clark bicentennial nears, historians would like to know more about Jean Baptiste.

“Most of his life is somewhat documented but there are places where he does disappear,” said Jeremy Skinner of the special collections department at Portland’s Lewis and Clark College, the largest collection of printed material on the 1803-1806 expedition.

He said much material has been lost.

“There’s a chance that there’s more information out there, but so far nobody has found much,” he said.

Once back from Europe Jean Baptiste vanished, only to pop up now and again in the memoirs and diaries of other trappers and explorers. He left no known memoirs. Only two samples of his handwriting are known to exist.

His father was Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian trapper whose life also is spotty. Charbonneau won Sacagawea, one of his several wives, as a gambling prize.

Sacagawea, a Shoshone, was captured by the Hidatsa at about age 12. She, Charbonneau and their newborn son were living at the Mandan village when the Corps of Discovery wintered there in 1804-1805.

Lewis & Clark hired Charbonneau as an interpreter. Sacagawea and her baby were part of the deal. While Sacagawea has been described as a guide, most of the route to the Pacific was as new to her as it was to Lewis and Clark.

William Clark took a shine to the infant, whom he called “Pomp,” and “My little dancing boy,” apparently because of the infant’s animated nature. When the expedition returned to Fort Mandan in 1806 on the way home it released the trio but Clark offered to educate and raise Jean Baptiste as his own.

In about 1810, Toussaint Charbonneau and Sacagawea left their son and an infant daughter with Clark in St. Louis. The daughter may not have survived childhood.

Records show Clark paying tuition, room and board for Jean Baptiste at Catholic and Protestant schools.

Paul Wilhelm, the Duke of Wuerttemberg, visited the frontier in 1822 and hired Jean Baptiste as a guide and interpreter. He took him back with him to Germany the next year.

Historians say Jean Baptiste traveled around Europe and northern Africa. His experiences there are largely speculation.

Historian Stephen Ambrose tells of unverified accounts that he was a favorite of European royalty who played duets with Beethoven at court. But Ambrose quickly adds that the record is so flimsy it is best left to a historical novelist to embellish, not a historian to record. Others are even more skeptical.

“There is no evidence that the prince educated Charbonneau, saw him as an equal … or treated him as anything better than as an exotic specimen,” retired history professor Albert Furtwangler wrote in the Oregon Historical Quarterly.

Jean Baptiste fathered a child while in Europe, Furtwangler said. A search of parish records by a German researcher, Maria Firla, showed the child died in infancy, said Furtwangler.

Sacagawea’s son stayed in Europe until 1829, and when he came home he returned to his roots – the still-wild West.

He guided the Mormon Battalion as it headed to California to put down Mexican uprisings.

Battalion leader Col. Phillip St. George Cook recalled him as “humanity in confusion,” and “near gentleman, near animal but above all capable, loyal and a most valued asset.”

But another acquaintance referred to him as “a treacherous man who liked his firewater and used it often.”

“He at once insinuated himself into the good graces of listeners and commanded their admiration and respect,” diarist Rufus Sage noted after meeting Charbonneau on the Platte River in 1842.

He turned up as the magistrate of San Luis Rey in California in 1847 but was replaced by residents who objected to his favorable treatment of Indians.

 Jean Baptiste went to the gold fields in 1849 but found little. The year 1861 found him working as a hotel clerk in Auburn, Calif. In 1866 he and friends headed for the Montana gold fields.

As they crossed the icy Owyhee River in southeastern Oregon he caught pneumonia. He died at Inskip’s Ranch on May 16 and was buried nearby.


Missoulian Online

Story lead from Victor Rocha at Thanks!

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