Born near Montreal around 1759, Toussaint Charbonneau was a French Canadian fur trader who had lived among the Hidatsa and Mandan Indians since 1796. In October, 1804, when the Lewis and Clark expedition arrived at the upper Missouri villages, Charbonneau worked as an independent free trader living among the Hidatsa near present-day Bismarck, North Dakota.
Charbonneau had two captive Shoshone Indian wives. Both had been captured by a Hidatsa war party about 1800, and sold as slaves to Toussaint. One wife was Sacagawea, approximately 16 years old in 1804. The other was unnamed in the journals, and similarly, her age remains a mystery.
Lewis and Clark settled in Fort Mandan in the fall of 1804. The two captains hoped to acquire useful information from the Indians and to harden their fellow explorers to living in Indian country. What the expedition needed most were Indian interpreters, especially any who were familiar with the western terrain. The 45-year-old Charbonneau applied to be a Hidatsa interpreter. Clark wrote on November 4, a french man by Name Chabonah...visit us, he wished to hire & informed us his 2 squars were Snake [Shoshone] Indians.
Having been told that Sacagaweas Shoshone tribe lived at the headwaters of the Missouri and were well-equipped with horses, Lewis and Clark foresaw that Charbonneau and Sacagaweas interpreting skills would be instrumental when the expedition reached the mountains. March 11, 1805, Clark wrote that Toussaint was to be enlisted as an interpreter through his wife, notwithstanding that Sacagawea was six months pregnant at the time.
Sacagawea spoke both Shoshone and Hidatsa; Toussaint spoke both Hidatsa and French. The captains, however, did not speak French. To solve this dilemma, the officers called upon Private Francois Labiche, who spoke both French and English. This interpreter chain would require the captains to speak to Labiche in English; he to Toussaint in French; he to Sacagawea in Hidatsa, and she to speak in Shoshone to her tribal people.
Charbonneau knew how critical Sacagawea would be to Lewis and Clark when dealing with the Shoshone, so he attempted to dictate the terms of his employment. When the captains told him he would have to perform the duties of enlisted men and stand regular guard, Charbonneau flatly rejected their offer. As Lewis recorded, Charbonneaus replied, [L]et our Situation be what it may he will not agree to work or Stand a guard....[In addition] If miffed with any man he wishes to return when he pleases, also have the disposial of as much provisions as he Chuses to Carry. The captains response: In admissable. They told Charbonneau to move out of the fort with his family, and then promptly hired Joseph Gravelines as an interpreter.
Four days later, for whatever reason, Charbonneau offered his apologies and the captains signed him on. He was one of only five people on the expedition (York, Drouillard, Charbonneau, Sacagawea, Jean Baptiste) who were not in the military. Charbonneau and Drouillard were the only two official interpreters of the expedition.
Lewis described Charbonneau, who could not swim, as perhaps the most timid waterman in the world and a man of no peculiar merit; useful as an interpreter only, in which capacity he discharged his duties in good faith. Lewis did praise Charbonneau for his cooking abilities. His specialty was called boudin blanc (white pudding of chopped buffalo meat and kidneys stuffed into an intestine).
In fact, Charbonneaus lack of boating skills created two near disasters on the River. On April 13, just a few days after leaving Fort Mandan, Charbonneau was at the helm of one of the pirogues. When a sudden wind hit and rocked the boat, the French Canadian panicked and instead of bringing the boat into the wind, he laid her broadside to it, almost overseting the perogue as it was possible to have missed. Drouillard had to take the helm to correct the situation. Despite this near-disaster, only a month later, as the Corps moved upriver from the Yellowstone, Charbonneau was again temporarily relieving Drouillard at the helm of the white pirogue. The boat contained papers, books, instruments, medicines, and many of the trade goods -- almost every article indispensably necessary to further the views, or insure the success of our enterprise, according to Lewis.
Again, a sudden squall hit the boat obliquely and turned it. Charbonneau swung the rudder around so as to bring the full force of the wind against the square sail. The sail rope flew out of the hand of the person holding it, the pirogue turned over on its side, and the water began pouring in. By the time the crew took in the sail and righted the boat, it was filled with water to within an inch of the gunnels and articles had begun to float away. Cruzatte, a shipmate, threatened to shoot Charbonneau immediately if he did not take up the rudder and regain control. Sacagawea, who was in the back of the boat, remained calm and recovered most of the light articles as they floated past. The next two days were spent unpacking, drying and repacking the soaked supplies, papers, and medicine. Losses included some medicine, gunpowder, garden seeds and culinary articles. Afterward, Lewis did not overly fault Charbonneaus inept steersmanship, writing: ...the waves [were] so high that a perogue could scarely live in any situation.
On August 14, 1806, the Corps arrived back at the Mandan villages. Charbonneau was given a voucher in the sum of $500.33, his payment for his interpreter duties and public services, plus the price of a horse and lodge. Charbonneau resided among the Hidatsa and Mandans from 1806 until late fall of 1809. Then, he, Sacagawea and Pomp boarded a Missouri Fur Company barge and traveled to St. Louis, where he cashed in his voucher, and he, together with all of the enlisted men, were granted land warrants for a total of 320 acres each. Both captains were given 1,600 acres.
Toussaint was not suited to tilling the soil, and, moreover, both he and Sacagawea longed to return to their former lives on the upper Missouri. Selling his land to Clark for $100. Charbonneau ended his visit the spring of 1811. Charbonneau, took employment with the Missouri Fur Company. He and Sacagawea departed up the river, again aboard a company barge, leaving his son Baptiste in the care of Clark, who would see to the boys education. Charbonneau was stationed at Fort Manuel (South Dakota), a company trading post, where Sacagawea would die, December 20, 1812 after the birth of a daughter, Lisette. The two Charbonneau children, Jean Baptiste and Lisette, were formally entrusted to Clarks care under a guardianship appointment by a St. Louis Orphans Court proceeding, August 11, 1813.
Outliving Sacagawea by about 28 years, Charbonneaus principal place of residence was among the Mandans and Hidatsa. Clark, then Superintendent of Indian Affairs, employed him as an interpreter for government officials, explorers, artists, and visiting dignitaries. In 1833-1834 Charbonneau provided interpreter services for Prince Maximilian of Wied, Germany, who wintered on the upper Missouri.
In 1839, the year after Clarks death, Charbonneau visited St. Louis to collect back pay owed to him. The next year, at age 80, he vanished from recorded history, probably enroute to his upper Missouri home. His estate was settled in 1843 by his son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau.
Toussaint was a product of the rough and tumble life of a fur trader. He has been maligned by virtually every writer of the expedition, in both fiction and non-fiction alike.. Considering the context of time, place, and social values under which he lived, his unseemly traits have been accentuated and embellished in those writings, influenced by behavioral standards socially enlightened two centuries after the expedition.
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