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Interpreters with Lewis and Clark

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When interpreter Toussaint Charbonneau, a French Canadian fur trader living among the Hidatsas, and his Shoshone Indian wife, Sacagawea, joined the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804, they headed into country largely unknown to them, as it was to Thomas Jefferson's hand-picked explorers. There is little doubt as to the importance of Sacagawea's presence on the journey. She has become a near-legendary figure for her role as interpreter, guide, and "token of peace." Toussaint, however, has been maligned in both fiction and nonfiction alike—Lewis himself called him “a man of no peculiar merit.” W. Dale Nelson offers a frank and honest portrayal of Toussaint, suggesting his character has perhaps been judged too harshly. He was indeed valuable as an interpreter and no doubt helpful with his knowledge of the Indian tribes the group encountered. For example, Toussaint proved his worth in negotiations with the Shoshones for much-needed horses, and with his experience as a fur trader, he always seemed to strike a better bargain than his companions. During the expedition Sacagawea gave birth to a son, Jean Baptiste. With her death in 1812, Clark assumed custody of her son and Toussaint returned to his life on the upper Missouri. Surviving his wife by almost three decades, Toussaint worked under Clark (then Superintendent of Indian Affairs in St. Louis) as an interpreter for government officials, explorers, artists, and visiting dignitaries. Jean Baptiste traveled the Rocky Mountains as a mountain man, was a scout during the Mexican American War, and served as mayor and judge for the San Luis Rey Mission.

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The Meeting

The sound of axes and saws was in the air when the talkative

French-speaking stranger rode into the well-wooded site on the east bank of the Missouri River. William Clark had chosen the site as a winter camp for President Thomas Jefferson’s expedition to find “the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent.”1

Sunday, November 4, 1804, was a fine, clear day, but there was no Sabbath break for Clark, Meriwether Lewis, or their forty-three men. Under the leadership of Sergeant Patrick Gass, a burly darkhued Irishman who had been a carpenter in Pennsylvania before joining the Army, they had been at work all weekend cutting down cottonwood trees and building cabins, stuffing the cracks with rags, grass, and mortar.2

It had been a hard five-and-one-half months of paddling, poling, and pulling their boats up the river from a camp near St. Louis to the one they were building on the east bank of the river close to the Mandan Indian villages. They had made the trip in a keelboat,






Little more than three weeks after Toussaint Charbonneau met

Lewis and Clark, the explorers were haggling over his services with an agent of the North West Company.

Traders from the fur-trading company and the Hudson’s Bay

Company were following their usual schedule. Pelts were in prime condition from fall into early spring, and that was when the traders came to bargain with the Indians.1

On November 24, Francoise-Antoine Laroque stopped by at

Toussaint’s Hidatsa village. Although Laroque was only twenty years old, this was not the first time he had made the long trip to the Knife River from Quebec. He had hired Charbonneau as an interpreter before, and wanted to again. But a Hudson’s Bay trader was already on hand in the village, and told him the interpreter had moved to Fort Mandan to work for Lewis and Clark.

The next morning, Laroque saddled up and headed for the

Americans’ fort. As it turned out, he met Lewis on the way.

Laroque had been educated partly in the United States and had


CHAPTER THREE Against the Current



Against the Current

The Missouri River was a stern antagonist. Its murky water hid fallen logs, which on the trip up from St. Louis had snagged the keelboat and stove a hole in one of the pirogues. Often the men could make no headway with oars against the mainstream current, and sought calmer water near the shore. There they mounted a catwalk and tried to push the craft along with poles fitted against their shoulders. When even this didn’t work, they would break out a long rope and walk along the bank with it, engaging in a grim tug of war with the mighty stream. Sometimes they just jumped into the river and pushed. Canoes would upset or fill with water when faced with rapids or beaver dams.1

It was no wonder that Toussaint, more experienced as a woodsman than a boatman, was in trouble before the expedition had been on the river for a week.

There was a foretaste on the first full day. Bucking a strong northwest wind, one of the canoes filled with water. Half a bag of biscuit and two-thirds of a barrel of gunpowder were soaked.2





Over the Top

Toussaint and Sacagawea were assigned an important task as the party prepared for the trek through the mountains. Clark picked eleven men to go ahead with him to explore whether the route was as bad as the Indians said, and to make canoes if they found a navigable river. The two captains agreed that they would also take the interpreter and his wife, but only as far as the

Shoshone camp. Their job was to see that the Indians quickly made good on their pledge to bring horses to the camp at the forks.

Three days later, Toussaint, Sacagawea, Cameahwait, and about fifty Shoshone men and their women and children arrived with the horses.1

Meanwhile, bargaining with the Indians got off to a brisk start.

Lewis traded a uniform coat, a pair of leggings, some handkerchiefs, three knives, and a few other articles—worth about twenty dollars in U.S. money—for three horses. It was a good bargain.

Both sides got things they needed. Clark and his party left the next morning, taking two of the horses. Lewis kept one.2





Fort Clatsop

Toussaint Charbonneau’s first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean came toward evening on November 18, 1805. It may have been his first sighting of any ocean. Or perhaps, between his birth near Montreal and his arrival at the Mandan villages, he had made it down the

St. Lawrence River and seen the Atlantic.

The view he saw of the Pacific was a stunning one. He also had his first look at a California condor that Reubin Fields shot on their first day out. Three days earlier, the Corps of Discovery had settled in for a ten-day stay on the east side of what is now called

Baker Bay on the Washington shore of the Columbia. On November 17, Lewis led a party to Cape Disappointment, a promontory at the northern lip of the river’s mouth, and then several miles up the coast. That night, Clark announced he was leaving at dawn to make the same trip. Anyone wanting to go with him should be ready bright and early. Toussaint was among the ten or eleven men who responded. The others, Clark said, were “well Contented with that part of the Ocean & its curiosities which could be seen


CHAPTER SIX Homeward Bound


Chapter Six

the Bitterroot Mountains again. They had started out too early, and they badly needed horses. It was the same story as on the way west. The Indians needed their horses for war and hunting.

They would part with them only if they could get beads, and the explorers had traded away all their beads.2

On April 16, Clark took a party including Toussaint and

Sacagawea across to Indian villages on the north shore of the Columbia to try again. Clark dispatched Toussaint to the Che-luckkit-ti-quar villages and Drouillard to the village of the Skillutes to invite the tribes to trade. Delegations came to his camp from both villages and “delayed the greater part of the day” but traded no horses. In the end, by trading off blankets and other items, Clark managed to get a few good pack animals. Toussaint, with a better sense of what the Indians needed, obtained a splendid mare for a weasel skin, elks’ teeth and a belt. But they were still short of horses. The rocky portage around The Dalles was more of a struggle than it needed to be.3






The St. Louis to which the Lewis and Clark party returned was much changed from the frontier village they had visited on their way to the Mandan Villages in 1803. Then a scattering of houses made of mud, stone and rough-hewn logs had been crammed onto three streets at the river’s edge. Now the village had grown into a city with a population of about 5,000. Before, dead animals had rotted where they fell; now, there was an ordinance requiring their removal. There were speed limits for horses and carts. The town was thinking of starting a public library.1

Among St. Louis’s citizens by the end of 1809 were Toussaint,

Sacagawea, and their son Jean Baptiste. They had indicated to

Clark they would bring the child to him two years earlier, but may have delayed because hostile Arikara Indians were making river travel dangerous below the Mandan villages. Or maybe they just could not afford a trip to the city. In 1807, however, Toussaint had received another $409.16 and two-thirds cents under a bill passed by Congress doubling the explorers’ pay. The bill also


CHAPTER EIGHT Father and Son



Father and Son

On January 20, 1820, William Clark, superintendent of Indian affairs at St. Louis, paid $16.37 and one-half cents to J. E. Welch, a

Baptist minister and school teacher, to cover tuition, ink, and firewood for two quarters for Jean Baptiste Charbonneau.1

Clark was making good on his offer to educate the “butifull promising Child” he had grown fond of during their two-year expedition to the Pacific Ocean.2

More payments by Clark for Baptiste’s education are recorded throughout 1820. On March 31, there is a payment to L. T. Honore’ for boarding, lodging, and washing the boy during the first quarter of the year. On April 1, storekeepers J. and G. H. Kennerly are paid $1.50 each for a Roman history, a dictionary and a lesson book, another $1.50 for two dozen sheets of paper and a supply of quill pens, $1.00 for a ciphering book, and sixty-two cents for a slate and pencils. They also were paid $17.75 for shoes, socks, a hat, and four yards of cloth.

Welch, who boarded Indian and half-Indian boys, was paid


CHAPTER NINE At Home and Abroad



At Home and Abroad

On June 21, 1823, Duke Paul Wilhelm Freidrich Herzog, of

Wurttemberg, a scholarly German nobleman exploring the “vast, silent places” of North America, disembarked at a trading settlement where the Kansas River flows into the Missouri.

Among the traders he met there was Jean Baptiste Charbonneau.

It was the beginning of an odyssey that would introduce the young frontiersman to the courts of Europe and help shape the rest of his life.1

The duke, a nephew of Wurttemberg’s King Friedrich I, had been trained for a military career. But like Thomas Jefferson, the impulsive, intellectual Paul was more interested in science and philosophy than in soldiering, and professed to prefer the wilds to a royal court. “In the atmosphere of a palace I would feel like a wild thing that is imprisoned in a gilded cage,” he said. “My heart would never cease to hunger for the vast, silent places.”2

Resigning his commission, he studied botany and zoology and set his sights on the New World. After securing permission from


CHAPTER TEN The Prince and the Frontiersman



The Prince and the Frontiersman

The sloppily dressed bachelor with bad teeth and a heavy German accent stood on the deck of the Missouri River steamboat

Assiniboine and watched the Stars and Stripes waving from the flag staff of Fort Clark, the American Fur Company post below the Mandan villages. It was June 18, 1833, and Alexander Philip

Maximilian, Prince of Wied-Neuwied, was about to make the acquaintance of Toussaint Charbonneau.1

Their partnership would be fortunate. As an educated European, the prince certainly knew French. Toussaint, as an interpreter of American Indian languages, could help him with the

Indian studies that had brought him to America. He was also better acquainted with the country’s wildlife. The prince had seen his first cottonwood tree in Portsmouth, Ohio, his first yellowheaded blackbird near Leavenworth, Kansas, his first bison in the land that is now South Dakota.2

The two were unlikely companions. When Toussaint returned home with Lewis and Clark in August of 1806, Maximilian was


CHAPTER ELEVEN Glimpses of Baptiste



Glimpses of Baptiste

Jean Baptiste Charbonneau was something of a greenhorn when he returned to the American frontier from his sojourn in a European palace.

Quite quickly, however, he was plunged into the rigors of frontier life as a member of a group of trappers in what is now eastern

Idaho. Trying an overland short-cut from the Snake River at present-day American Falls to the Wood River, they found themselves on a seventy-mile trek over lava beds crisscrossed with deep chasms that they had to leap on horseback. When they came to a chasm too broad to leap, they gave up on reaching their destination and turned to searching for water.1

Baptiste, suffering from heat and thirst like the rest, strayed from his companions. They feared he was dead. Spotting a campfire on a bank of the Malad River in the dead of night, he thought the campers must be hostile Indians, and Baptiste decided to retrace his steps. Meanwhile, the other trappers found the Malad and, said trapper J. H. Stevens, “drank, and laved, and drank


CHAPTER TWELVE Desolation on the Missouri



Desolation on the Missouri

Francis Chardon kept a daily count of the rats killed at Fort Clark.

But he had given up counting deaths among the Indians—“they die so fast that it is impossible.”1

The year 1837 was the worst in the three frustrating years during which Chardon, a Philadelphian of French extraction who traded on the Upper Missouri for twenty years, had been in charge of the fortified American Fur Company trading post.2

Smallpox was raging among the Mandans and Hidatsas. The

Indians blamed the traders for bringing the infection. Game was scarce, and hunger threatened everywhere. No wonder Toussaint

Charbonneau, now at Fort Clark as interpreter, was welcome whenever he arrived from a trip to the Mandan villages with fresh meat.3

Only two weeks before, a young Mandan had come to the whitewashed fort with a cocked gun under his robe and tried to kill

Chardon. One of the trader’s men grabbed the intruder and turned him over to the Indians before he could fire, but the incident put





Westward Once More

On May 13, 1846, a Congress caught up in the fever for westward expansion declared war on Mexico, and Baptiste

Charbonneau found himself enlisted in a mission that was to change his life. As an adult as he had been as a child, he was to be in the vanguard of one of the great westward movements of nineteenth century America. Baptiste signed on as a guide to General

Stephen W. Kearny on an expedition to occupy New Mexico and

California, and Kearny assigned him to the Mormon Battalion.1

Members of the rapidly growing Latter-Day Saints (Mormon) church had not much wanted to join the U.S. Army. As they saw it, the army had failed to protect them from persecution and mob action that had driven them from Illinois and Missouri to Iowa.

Their leaders, however, had a different view. One, former Postmaster General Amos Kendall, urged President James Knox Polk to “assist our emigration by enlisting one thousand of our men, arming, equipping and establishing them in California to defend the country.”2


CHAPTER FOURTEEN John B. Charbonneau



John B. Charbonneau

Baptiste had not seen the last of Mission San Luis Rey.

General Kearny was mistaken when he believed he was being sent ahead to California to assume command of a defeated enemy.

The Mexicans still held everything between San Diego and Santa

Barbara, and his men would have to fight every inch of the way.

The Mormon Battalion was sent back to the deserted mission with orders to clean it up, garrison it as a military post and hold it against the enemy if need be. In July, 1847, when U.S. forces finally took

California, the mission was made headquarters of the Indian subagency for the southern military district, with Baptiste’s friend Captain Hunter in charge. The battalion’s commanders also recognized

Baptiste’s ability to be more than a guide. On November 24, acting military governor Richard B. Mason sent Colonel J. D. Stevenson, commander of the district, a blank appointment for “alcalde,” or justice of the peace, of the sub-agency, leaving a blank to be filled in with Baptiste’s name or any other name. Baptiste got the job, most likely on the recommendation of Hunter.1



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