Jean Baptiste Charbonneau

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Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia by Charles Marion Russell

Jean Baptiste Charbonneau was just a baby when he went with the famous Lewis and Clrk Expedition to the Pacific. Later, he becamea trapper, scout, and mountain man.

Jean Baptiste Charbonneau was born at Fort Mandan, North Dakota, on the Missouri River. His father was Toussaint Charbonneau, a French trapper, and his mother was Sacagawea, a Shoshoni woman who had been kidnapped by the Hidatsa a few years before. It was said that Charbonneau “won” her on a wager. Perhaps not, but it is a fact that she became his second Native American wife.

Such unions between white “mountain men” and trappers with Indian women was fairly common. In the normal course of events, Jean Baptiste would have lived out his life in obscurity. But that changed when the Lewis and Clark expedition arrived at Fort Mandan to stop for the winter of 1804-1805. Co-leaders Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were exploring the west, hoping to make it to the Pacific Ocean. Toussaint was hired as an interpreter, and Sacagawea was allowed to come along, because the explorers knew they would have to get horses from her people at the headwaters of the Missouri.

“Pompy” and the Lewis and Clark Expedition

Jean Baptiste was born on February 11, 1805. Lewis notes the event in his journal, saying that “one of the wives of Chabono” (sic) delivered a fine boy. It seems the labor was long and painful, since it was her first child. To ease the delivery Sacagawea was given some rattlesnake rattle broken up in water. Some ten minutes later Jean Baptiste came into the world. In spite of the timing, Lewis remained understandably skeptical of the “medicine.”

Lewis seems to have had little liking for Indians, but Clark was different. He was delighted with the baby boy, who he nicknamed “Pomp” or “Pompey.” On his return from the Pacific, Clark named an unusual sandstone pillar in Montana “Pompey’s Tower” (later Pillar) in the boy’s honor

Jean Baptiste’s Youth and Early Manhood

William Clark took the boy under his wing, paying for his education at the St Louis Academy. When his parents went back west, young Charbonneau stayed behind in St Louis to complete his education. Clark became a kind of foster father to the lad. His mother Sacagawea probably died in 1812. There is some controversy about when his father Toussaint died, but it was probably in the 1840s.

When Jean Baptiste was 18 he met Prince Paul Wilhelm von Wurttemburg, The German royal was something of a naturalist, and he was on a study tour of the American west. Prince Paul took a liking to Jean Baptiste, and took him back to Europe. The young American lived in Europe for six years, in the process learned Spanish, German, and French.

The Fur Trade and Mountain Men

Jean Baptiste returned home and began trapping for the American Fur Company in Idaho and Utah. He was not only fluent in Spanish and French, but also knew several Native American tongues. This made him invaluable as an army scout and guide. Jean Baptiste became one of the “mountain men,” trappers, explorers, and guides to helped open the west. It is know he associated with fellow mountain men, legendary figures like Jim Bridger.

The Mexican War and California Gold Rush

Jean Baptiste Charbonneau was one of two guides selected to lead the Mormon Battalion from New Mexico to San Diego, California during the Mexican War. He stayed on for the California Gold Rush, but apparently did not strike it rich. Most “49ers” got little to show for their efforts. It was the merchants who supplied the miners, not miners themselves, who usually got wealthy. Jean Baptist ended up a clerk at the Orleans Hotel in Auburn, California. Given his background, he must have hated the job.

In 1866 there was another gold strike in Montana, and the end of the Bozeman Trail. Jean Baptiste left California and joined the new “rush,” probably in hopes of recouping his fortunes. Maybe he just sought adventure. But Jean Baptiste Chabonneau never made it. He contracted pneumonia and died en route at the age of sixty-one.

Sources:

  1. Dan L. Trapp, “Jean Baptiste Charbonneau,” Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography Vol 1, A-L (University of Nebraska Press, 1988)