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Searching for Sacagawea



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Art by David Grove

Sacagawea and her son, Jean Baptiste, finally glimpsed Oregon's shore with the Corps of Discovery in January 1806. Today the U.S. Treasury has memorialized their trek on a gold dollar coin.

The Story of Jean Baptiste

By Miki Meek

Among the sagebrush, dust, and cattle ranches in Oregon's eastern high desert lies the final resting place of Jean Baptiste Charbonneau—the youngest member of the Lewis and Clark expedition who, as an infant, trekked across the West with his mother, Sacagawea.

Although the grave site is far from the actual expedition trail, thousands of curious enthusiasts are expected to take a detour to it in Danner during the expedition's bicentennial, which begins this year and runs until 2006, and pay homage to what physical evidence remains of Jean Baptiste's life. Like his iconic mother, he left virtually nothing behind and what little historians know about him comes not from his own hand but from the journal entries of others.

It was Capt. Meriwether Lewis who penned Jean Baptiste's entry into the world at Fort Mandan in North Dakota. On February 11, 1805, Sacagawea began a labor that was "tedious and the pain violent." To hasten the birth, a rattlesnake's rattle was crushed and fed to Sacagawea with water.

"Whether this medicine was truly the cause or not I shall not undertake to determine, but I was informed that she had not taken it more than ten minutes," Lewis wrote, before Sacagawea was "delivered of a fine boy" at about 5 p.m.

On the Road
Fifty-five days later, Jean Baptiste was with his mother and on the trail with 32 other members of the Corps of Discovery members, including his father, Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian fur trapper who served as an interpreter. Their 16-month journey, some 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometers) to the shore of the Pacific Ocean near the mouth of Oregon's Columbia River and back, took them through fierce terrain in the face of starvation, dangerous weather, and sickness.

On June 29, 1805, Jean Baptiste and his mother were caught in a flood near some waterfalls in present-day Great Falls, Montana, and saved by William Clark, who pushed them up a hill to safety. Less then a year later on their journey home, the child encountered more danger when he became seriously ill.

"The Child was very restless last night it's jaw and back of its neck is much more Swelled than it was yesterday," wrote Clark on May 24, 1806, while he and the other Corps of Discovery members waited out the deep snow on the Lolo Trail in Montana's Bitterroot Mountains. To remedy what might have been tonsillitis, mumps, or even teething, Clark applied onions, beeswax, and bear oil to the one-and-a-half-year-old's neck. Two weeks later, he recovered.

By this time Clark had developed a deep fondness for the toddler. He named landmarks after him and affectionately called him Pomp, or Pompy. East of Billings, Montana, he dubbed a tall, flat-topped sandstone formation imprinted with Native American pictographs Pompy's Tower, today called Pompey's Pillar, and a nearby stream became Baptiests Creek. 

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A Promise Half-Fulfilled
In August 1806, after completing the expedition, Jean Baptiste and his family were left at the Mandan villages on the upper Missouri River. But it was not without sorrow on Clark's part. In a letter dated August 20, 1806, to Jean Baptiste's father, Toussaint, Clark wrote:

    As to your little Son (my boy Pomp) you well know my fondness for him and
    my anxiety to take and raise him as my own child. I once more tell you if you
    will bring your son Baptiest to me I will educate him and treat him as my own
    child. . .Wishing you and your family great suckcess & with anxious expectations
    of seeing my little danceing boy Baptiest I shall remain your Friend.

It would be three more years until Clark got his wish, but it would be one half-fulfilled. By 1809 the Charbonneaus finally took up Clark's offer and brought their son to St. Louis to enroll him in school.

After Jean Baptiste's mother left for Fort Manuel, a trading post on the Missouri River, in 1811, he never saw her again. Jean Baptiste eventually received news of her death, which most historians believe was in 1812, and his father was erroneously presumed dead after he couldn't be located (Toussaint, away on a fur-trapping expedition at the time, lived into his eighties). Clark signed on as the boy's legal guardian, but he never raised him as his own.

By the time the Charbonneaus arrived in St. Louis, Clark had returned to the city and started a family of his own. He put up Baptiste in a boarding house and enrolled him in a school for half-Native American boys, paying for his tuition, lodging, and other needs. Some historians suggest that Clark's wife may not have welcomed the idea of taking a boy with mixed blood into her home.

Sometime between 1820 and 1823 Jean Baptiste left school and became a guide and interpreter at a trading post near the mouth of the Kansas River. But his time there was brief. In June 1823, at 18 years of age, he met Prince Duke Paul Wilhelm of Wrttemberg, Germany, who was on a scientific expedition in the U.S., studying plants and animals. The two talked and agreed that Jean Baptiste would return with him to Europe.  

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Life Abroad
Jean Baptiste spent the next five years living in a German palace and may have traveled around Europe with Duke Paul. He is reported to have played violin with Beethoven and was said to be a favorite of European royalty. However, these details are largely speculative. 

Findings by German researcher Monika Firla show that his life may not have been as leisurely as some have painted it.
Like many German nobleman, Duke Paul brought back servants from his trips abroad, which included two Africans and a mestizo from Mexico. They were on call to serve and instruct him about their cultures.

Surviving letters and records of the Mexican servant, Johann (Juan) Alvarado, may offer some insight into Jean Baptiste's life abroad with the duke. Alvarado had some luxuries such as jewelry, silk, and schoolbooks that showed his basic education in geography, history, and arithmetic. He also claimed to earn a high enough wage to put aside savings. But when the prince went on a trip to Africa, Alvarado had no choice but to accompany him and was placed in situations that almost led to his death.

"Both Charbonneau and Alvarado led confined lives in Germany," wrote retired English professor Albert Furtwangler in the Winter 2001 Oregon Historical Quarterly. "For all their moderate comforts, they depended on the favor of the duke. They were at his command, afraid of his displeasure, surrounded by his realm, and with little prospect of marriage or independence."

Although Jean Baptiste may have not married while in the duke's service, he did father a child, born on February 20, 1829, with an unmarried German woman, according to recent research by Firla. Listed on baptismal records in Bad Mergentheim as Anton Fries, his parents are noted as "Johann Baptist Charbonnau of St. Louis 'called the American in the service of Duke Paul of this place and Anastasia Katharina Fries, unmarried daughter of the late Georg Fries, a soldier here.'" The child died three months later, after which Jean Baptiste left for the United States. 

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New Frontiers
Fluent in French, German, Spanish, and English, Jean Baptiste returned to St. Louis with the duke in December 1829, and the two parted company. He was 24 years old and he was about to embark on a life vastly different from the one he lived in Europe.

Starting out as a trapper with John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company, he would go on to become a guide, interpreter, miner, and adventurer in the West over the next few decades, working with famous mountain men such as James Bridger, Kit Carson, and James Beckwourth. Rufus B. Sage, a traveler who met Jean Baptiste in 1842 at a camp on the Platte River, made this observation: 

    The camp was under the direction of a half-breed, named Chabonard, who proved
    to be a gentleman of superior information . . . Having visited most of the
    important places, both in England, France, and Germany, he knew how to turn his
    experience to good advantage.

    There was a quaint humor and shrewdness in his conversation, so garbed
    with intelligence and perspicuity, that he at once insinuated himself into the good
    graces of listeners, and commanded their admiration and respect.

Two years later, William Boggs, son of the Missouri governor, recorded an encounter at Bent's Fort with the "small papoose, or half-breed of the elder Charbenau that was employed by the Lewis and Clark expedition." He reports that "it was said that Charbenau" was the "best man on foot on the plains or in the Rocky Mountains."

So good in fact, that in 1846 he helped guide the Mormon Battalion from present-day Santa Fe, New Mexico, to San Diego, California. Over the more than 600-mile (1,000-kilometer) trek, Jean Baptiste traveled ahead of the group to hunt game, scout trails, and occasionally leave messages on sticks that read, "No water. Charbonneau" when things looked dry.

After Jean Baptiste safely guided the battalion to their destination, he took office in 1847 as an alcalde—an administrative and judicial official—at San Luis Rey Mission. However, he resigned in 1848. An official report explained that Jean Baptiste had "done his duty to the best of his ability, but being a half-breed Indian of the U.S. is regarded by the people as favoring the Indians more than he should do, and hence there is much complaint against him."

How much—or even whether—Jean Baptiste favored local Native Americans is not known, but it's possible that he abhorred the practice of locals who sold them alcohol, then forced them into servitude when they could not pay their debt. 

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The End of the Trail
Leaving Southern California behind, Jean Baptiste traveled north to the Sacramento Valley. Although he never struck it rich, he stayed in the region for many years, shifting from an old mining camp to a clerk job at the Orleans Hotel in Auburn, California. Word of newly discovered goldfields eventually spurred him on to territory from his childhood—Montana, the home of his mother's birth tribe, the Shoshone.

At 61 years of age, Jean Baptiste and two companions headed out to find their fortunes, but he found trouble instead. Jean Baptiste contracted pneumonia after crossing Oregon's icy Owyee River. His companions carried him to Inskip Station in Danner, where he died on May 16, 1866.

"Charbonneau died while still exploring new territories, still prospecting, still on the move, as the last active bachelor-adventurer of the Corps of Discovery," says author and historian Albert Furtwangler.

In a sense, Jean Baptiste's tombstone in Jordan Valley marks the true end of the Lewis and Clark trail.

"The reported discoveries of gold in Montana, and the rapid peopling of the Territory, excited the imagination of the old trapper, and he determined to return to the scenes of his youth," read Charbonneau's obituary in Auburn's Placer Herald on July 7, 1866. "Though strong of purpose, the weight of the years was too much for the hardships of the trip undertaken, and now he sleeps alone by the bright waters of the Owyhee." 

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