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Born Feb. 11, 1805, at Fort Mandan, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau was the son of French Canadian interpreter, Touissant Charbonneau, and his Shoshone wife, Sacagawea.

Lewis and Clark arrived in the Hidatsa-Mandan territory in October 1804 and hired the elder Charbonneau and Sacagawea as an interpreter team. The captains had learned that the Shoshones had a large herd of horses. They were eager to have Sacagawea, who spoke Shoshone, to accompany them to negotiate for horses needed to cross the western mountains, despite that she was six months pregnant at the time.

While the expedition wintered at Fort Mandan, Lewis, on February 11, 1805, recorded the birth of Jean Baptiste as follows: “About five Oclock this evening one of the wives of Charbonneau was delivered of a fine boy. It is worthy of remark that this was the first child this woman had boarn, and as common in such cases her labour was tedious and the pain violent.” Relying on her to act as a translator with the Shoshone, Lewis was concerned about her giving birth safely. In an effort to help her deliver the child, he counseled with others and then administered a small mixture of water and the crushed rings of a rattlesnake to help induce birth. Although Lewis was skeptical of this treatment, his journal indicates that she gave birth shortly after consuming the rattlesnake potion: “Whether this medicine was truly the cause or not I shall not undertake to determine, but...she had not taken it more than ten minutes before she brought forth.”

The newest member of the 33-member expedition, Jean Baptiste was a healthy and active boy, a great favorite of Clark, who nicknamed him “Pomp and Pompy,” for his pompous “little dancing boy” antics. On April 7, 1805, riding in a pirogue (river boat) with his mother, the 55 day-old Jean Baptiste joined the expedition as the Corps left Fort Mandan to continue their journey toward the Rocky Mountains and Sacagawea’s people.

Susceptible to childhood maladies, Baptiste experienced a serious illness during the return journey in the spring of 1806. While the Corps was delayed by deep snow that covered the Lolo Trail through the Bitterroot Mountains, the boy contracted a high fever and a swollen neck and throat, indications of perhaps the mumps or tonsillitis (and perhaps teething). The captains applied to his neck, “poultices of wild onions and a plaster of sarve (salve) made of the rozen of the long leaf pine, Beaswax and bears oil mixed,” resulting in his recovery within two and a half weeks.

Clark, leading a small detachment that included the Charbonneau family, explored the Yellowstone River during the return trip. On July 25, 1806, they came upon an unusual, free standing sandstone formation on the south shore of the river that Captain Clark named “Pompy’s Tower” after the one-and-a-half year-old Jean Baptiste. Called today, “Pompeys Pillar,” Clark, under a protected, natural over-hang, etched his own name and the July 25 date, his birthday. Clark’s etching, now preserved under an unbreakable glass shield, is considered the only lasting physical evidence that the Corps left on the landscape during the journey. In addition to the pillar, Clark named a nearby stream “Baptiests Creek” in honor of the boy.

The youngster struck a compelling fondness in the heart of Clark. On August 17, when the Corps arrived back in the Hidatsa-Mandan villages and were saying goodbye to the Charbonneau family, Clark offered to raise the child as his own son. However, because Jean Baptiste was not yet weaned, it was decided that the boy’s parents would bring him to Clark at a later date. In a letter to Touissant Charbonneau, then discharged from the Corps, 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--I do not forget the promis which I made to you and Shall now repeet them that you may be certain--Charbono, if you wish to live with the white people, and will come to me, I will give you a piece of land and furnish you with horses, cows, & hogs...Wishing you and your family great suckcess & with anxious expectations of seeing my little dancing boy Baptiest I shall remain your friend.”

In 1809, Touissant Charbonneau and Sacagawea traveled down the Missouri to St. Louis with Jean Baptiste. Toussaint, together with all of the expedition’s enlisted men, each received land warrants in the amount of 320 acres. This, plus the voucher for $533.33, his pay for his interpreter services (Sacagawea got nothing), was indeed a fortune to a man of such limited economic resources. Toussaint was not of a temperament to till the soil, however, and on March 26, 1811, he transferred his land title to Clark for $100.00. In April, he and Sacagawea boarded a Missouri Fur Company barge bound for the upper Missouri country, leaving Baptiste in Clark’s charge so that the boy could commence his education.

Upon completing his schooling in St. Louis, Baptiste returned to frontier life. In 1823 at age 18, while living in a traders’ village at the mouth of the Kansas River, he met Prince Paul Wilhelm of Wuertemberg, Germany, who was on a scientific mission to America. Baptiste’s unusual combination of frontier skills and cultural attainment intrigued the prince, who took him under his patronage. The young man accompanied Paul to Europe, where he was exposed to the sophisticated, aristocratic environment of a German court. Baptiste enjoyed the royal lifestyle for six years, becoming fluent in four languages, and gaining a background that later would mark him as a cultural anomaly on the western frontier.

Returning to America in 1829, he set aside his cultivated manners and fell into the rough and tumble existence of the mountain man. He ranged the length and breadth of the American West, hunting trapping, guiding and exploring. In 1846-1847, he scouted the way west from New Mexico to California for the Mormon Battalion. Discharged in 1847, he was appointed Alcalde of San Luis Rey Mission, an office comparable to that of a magistrate.

Troubled by the abuse of landowners toward certain Indians (who were treated as virtual slaves), he resigned his official duties and entered the frantic stampede of the California gold rush. He evidently did not strike it rich, as he was recorded as a hotel clerk in Auburn, California, in 1861. In 1866, he left Auburn with two companions and headed toward new gold discoveries in Montana. Enroute, Jean Baptiste, at the age of 61, died of pneumonia and was buried in a remote, primitive cemetery in the tiny Jordan Valley hamlet of Danner, Oregon. On March 14, 1973, his gravesite was entered into the National Register of Historic Places.


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