Toussaint Charbonneau

There are many mysteries involving the Charbonneau family. These are to be expected, since so many people of their day were illiterate and depended upon oral tradition to tell and propagate their stories. Charbonneau could not read or write, nor could he speak English. Luckily we have some impressions written by outsiders of the Charbonneaus that have survived, but unfortunately neither Toussaint Charbonneau, his wife Sacagawea, nor his son Jean Baptiste Charbonneau left written accounts of themselves or their activities.

The picture of Toussaint Charbonneau gleaned from the surviving written evidence is not a flattering one. Descriptions of him have been unfavorable, and he has been portrayed by historians as a coward, a bungler and a wife-beater.

Early Years
Judging by his age as reported later in his life, Toussaint Charbonneau must have been born about 1758, which means he was 47 years old when he went on the Lewis and Clark Expedition. He was born in the vicinity of Montreal, Canada, worked for the North West Company for a time (a British fur trading enterprise), then later became an independent trader among the Hidatsa Indians of the upper Missouri River.

The written record of Charbonneau's life is not a bright one. It begins badly when Charbonneau was working as an engagé (common laborer) with the North West Company at Pine Fork on the Assiniboine River. He first appears in entries in The Journal of John MacDowell, 1793-1795, which is in the Masson Papers in the Public Archives of Canada in Ottawa. This journal was kept at the Fort of the River qui Appelle, also called Fort Esperance. MacDowell noted in November 1793 that young Charbonneau set out with four other men, traveling with supplies and trade goods through the north woods to Pine Fork. MacDowell mentioned Charbonneau in many routine entries over the next couple of years, as he moved supplies from place to place. Then, in a startling entry on Saturday May 30, 1795, MacDowell stated: "Tousst. Charbonneau was stabbed at the Manitou-a-banc end of the P. l. P. [Portage la Prairie] in the act of committing a Rape upon her Daughter by an old Saultier woman with a Canoe Awl - a fate he highly deserved for his brutality - It was with difficulty he could walk back over the portage . . . "

Among The Indians
Traders were sent back and forth from Fort Esperance to the Mandan Villages on the upper Missouri River (in today's North Dakota) during this period. Some of these traders traveled to the two Mandan Villages, composed of conical earth lodges which harbored peaceful Indian people accustomed to farming, hunting and trade. A second tribal group, the Hidatsa, lived to the north in three villages along a tributary of the Missouri, the Knife River. The Hidatsa also lived in earth lodges, were involved in trade, and maintained generally peaceful relations with the Mandans. The Hidatsa were much more warlike than the Mandan, however, and made annual treks westward toward the Rocky Mountains to hunt game and make raids on enemies. Both tribal groups had been devastated by epidemics of European diseases such as smallpox; their village locations were further north than the traditional, pre-epidemic locations, and the population (and thus the number of villages) was greatly reduced from what it had been 50 or 100 years earlier.

A few of the traders who saw the Mandan and Hidatsa villages liked what they saw so much that they decided to become permanent residents of the region. Apparently Toussaint Charbonneau was one of these traders. Prince Maximillian reported in 1834 that Charbonneau told him he had lived with the Mandans, Hidatsas or Gros Ventres in the Dakotas for 37 years, and in 1838 Charles Larpenteur stated that Charbonneau had lived there for 40 years. This means that by sometime in the late 1790s, perhaps about 1797 or 1798, Charbonneau had taken up more or less permanent residence among the Indians. So far as history records, except for brief interruptions, he stayed with the village Indian people of the upper Missouri until the end of his days.

Charbonneau most often found employment among whites as an interpreter, but his abilities in that endeavor have been called into question. Charbonneau could speak only Hidatsa and French, and admitted to Prince Maximilian in the 1830s that even after 37 years with the Hidatsa he still spoke their language badly.

Charbonneau is famous today because he married an Indian woman named Sacagawea. The journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition include an outline of Sacagawea's story. Sacagawea was a Lemhi Shoshoni born near the Continental Divide, probably near modern Tendoy, Idaho, about 1788. By listening to Sacagawea's own account, Meriwether Lewis estimated that at the age of twelve she was captured by a Hidatsa raiding party near the Three Forks of the Missouri in western Montana, and taken prisoner. The Hidatsa party brought her back to their village, Awatika (now known as the Sakakawea site at Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site, near Stanton, North Dakota). It was there that she was taken by Toussaint Charbonneau as his wife, along with another captive young Shoshoni, whose name may have been Otter Woman. By the summer of 1804 Sacagawea was married to Charbonneau; she was probably about sixteen years old, and soon became pregnant with her first child. Charbonneau was mentioned before Sacagawea in the Lewis and Clark Journals, when the expedition reached the Mandan Villages in October 1804. On November 4, 1804 Toussaint Charbonneau was signed on as an interpreter for the coming journey, along with one of his Shoshoni wives, Sacagawea. Sacagawea could speak the Shoshoni and Hidatsa languages, and many historians have speculated that Charbonneau was hired by Lewis and Clark only after promising that he would bring one of his Shoshoni wives along. This was important because Lewis and Clark needed someone who could speak the Shoshoni language, for they needed to trade for horses with the Shoshoni in order to cross the Rocky Mountains. Sacagawea could translate Shoshoni, her native tongue, to Hidatsa, her adopted language. Charbonneau was needed to translate the Hidatsa words of his wife to French, which in turn several men on the expedition could then translate to English for Lewis and Clark.

Birth Of A Son
By November 11 Charbonneau and both his Shoshone wives were living in the explorer's camp; when the soldiers finished building Fort Mandan, the Charbonneau family moved in along with the other expedition members. During the winter, Charbonneau acted as a go-between, reporting the rumors and innuendo British North West Company fur traders who lived in the Mandan villages were spreading about Lewis and Clark. There were obvious tensions between the national and mercantile interests of the United States and those of Great Britain, and these were played out in microcosm on the Upper Missouri during the winter of 1805. On January 20, 1805, one of Charbonneau's wives, perhaps Sacagawea, was ill. This would not have been unusual, since she was less than a month away from giving birth. William Clark reported that he ordered his slave "York to give [her] some food & tea at different times. . . " On February 11, 1805 the young Indian woman gave birth to a healthy baby boy, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, at Fort Mandan. Sacagawea was attended by Meriwether Lewis during the birth; Clark was off on a hunting expedition, and Charbonneau was not mentioned at all in the journal entry. In fact, another interpreter at the fort, Rene Jusseaume, played a larger role in Sacagawea's labor than her own husband!

The Scoundrel
On March 11, 1805, Charbonneau began to complain to the captains about the terms of his engagement with the Corps, which included the provisions that he would have to do manual labor and stand guard duty like the privates. The next day he quit, telling the captains that he would not go with them to the Pacific. A week later, on March 17, 1805, the standoff between the captains and the testy Charbonneau ended when he apologized for his behavior and asked to be accepted back into the Corps for the western journey. The following evening Charbonneau was once more enlisted as an interpreter.

On the outbound journey along the Missouri, Lewis, Clark, York, George Drouillard, Charbonneau, Sacagawea, and the baby shared a tipi each evening. In the estimation of many Lewis and Clark historians, Charbonneau exhibited cowardice when one of the expedition's boats, called "the white pirogue," nearly capsized on May 14, 1805. In his defense it has been pointed out that he was an interpreter, not an experienced boatman, and that he probably did not know how to swim. It is usually noted, however, that his wife kept a clear head in the emergency, whereas he panicked. Sacagawea picked many valuable articles up out of the water, saving them for the expedition.

On August 14, 1805, Charbonneau struck Sacagawea during a domestic argument, and was told to stop by Clark. This one incident has led to Charbonneau's reputation as a "wife beater," although it was the only time during the expedition that this type of behavior was noted. Coupled with the rape incident described above, however, Charbonneau seems to have been a sometimes violent person with little regard for women. His consistent record of marrying Indian girls under age 16 also makes one wonder about a possible need to exhibit power over women. On October 27, 1805, at the "Fort Rock Camp" at the Dalles, Oregon, it was noted in the journals that Clark had to reprimand Charbonneau "about his duty," a statement which was not elaborated upon but perhaps referred to camp chores or guard duty.

Saying Good-bye
After a year and a half of adventures, scaling the Rocky Mountains, visiting the Pacific Ocean and returning to North Dakota, on August 17, 1806, the expedition prepared to depart from the Knife River Villages, saying good-bye to Charbonneau, Sacagawea and Pomp. The Charbonneau family had crossed nearly 5,000 miles of the trek with the explorers, and endured the same hardships and privations as the rest of the Corps. Charbonneau served with the expedition for 19 months, and was paid $500.33. Lewis, who thought little of Charbonneau, summed up the man's services by saying that he was "a man of no peculiar merit . . . useful as an interpreter only, in which capacity he discharged his duties with good faith." It should be noted that Charbonneau made himself useful on the expedition as a cook as well as an interpreter. William Clark, who had a better opinion of Charbonneau, noted: "we offered to convey him down to the Illinois if he chose to go, he declined proceeding on at present, observing that he had no acquaintance or prospects of making a liveing below, and must continue to live in the way that he had done. I offered to take his little son a butiful promising child who is 19 months old to which they both himself & wife wer willing provided the child had been weened. They observed that in one year the boy would be sufficiently old to leave his mother & he would then take him to me if I would be so friendly as to raise the child for him in such a manner as I thought proper, to which I agreed &c."

After Lewis And Clark
Jean Baptiste Charbonneau was not brought to St. Louis for his education until 1809, when he was almost six years old. Charbonneau took up Clark's offer of settling on farmland in Missouri for a short time, but found it was not to his liking and sold the land back after a few months. After that he returned to the Knife River country. The Journal of Henry Brackenridge chronicled a fur trade voyage up the Missouri River in 1811 with Manuel Lisa. Brackenridge's entry for April 2, 1811 noted: "We had on board a Frenchman named Charbonneau, with his wife, an Indian of the Snake nation, both of whom had accompanied Lewis and Clark to the Pacific, and were of great service. The woman, a good creature, of a mild and gentle disposition, greatly attached to the whites, whose manners and dress she tried to imitate, but she had become sickly, and longed to revisit her native country; her husband, also, who had spent many years among the Indians, was become weary of a civilized life."

Toussaint Charbonneau served sporadically as an interpreter for the Indian Bureau at the Upper Missouri Agency from 1811 to 1838, making an average of $300 to $400 per year from the government, very good money at that time. Charbonneau carried out diplomatic errands for the U.S. Government among the Missouri River tribes during the War of 1812. In 1815 he joined an expedition to Santa Fe, where he was briefly imprisoned by the Spanish for "invading" their territory.

Later Years
That Charbonneau was not well liked by the whites in the Upper Missouri region is evident from a number of sources, and his position was probably maintained only because of the influence of William Clark in St. Louis — upon Clark's death in 1838, Charbonneau's job as interpreter came to an abrupt end. As an example of Charbonneau's bad reputation, a clerk named Laidlaw at Fort Pierre wrote in an 1834 letter to James Kipp at Fort Clark: "I am much surprised at your taking Old Charboneau into favour after shewing so much ingratitude, upon all occasions (the old Knave what does he say for himself)". Apparently, Charbonneau jumped from one fur trading company to another, showing no loyality to anyone during this period. Sometimes he worked for Manuel Lisa and the Missouri Fur Company, sometimes for John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company. He abandoned Kipp at Fort Clark in 1834, according to Prince Maximilian. Yet we find him back at Fort Clark in 1837 in Chardon's Journal: "Old Charboneau, an old Man of 80, took to himself and others a young Wife, a young Assiniboine of 14, a Prisoner that was taken in the fight of this summer, and bought by me of the Rees, the young men of the Fort, and two rees, gave to the Old Man a splendid Chàrivèree, the Drums, pans, Kittles c& Beating; guns fireing &c. The Old gentleman gave a feast to the Men, and a glass of grog — and went to bed with his young wife, with the intention of doing his best — " Over the years Charbonneau had at least five young Indian wives, but there were probably more that went unrecorded by history.

About 86 Winters
In 1839, Charbonneau, described by Superintendent of Indian Affairs Joshua Pilcher as "tottering under the infirmities of 80 winters", appeared in St. Louis to ask the Indian Bureau for back salaries. This was the last entry about Charbonneau (discovered thus far) to appear in the official records. It is thought that he died sometime around the year 1843 at about 86 years of age, for it was in that year that his estate was settled by his son Jean Baptiste. The historical record concerning Charbonneau is paltry, and certainly does not paint a picture of a man with sterling character. Lewis' view was that Charbonneau had been hired to do a job, and he did it. Lewis obviously did not believe that Charbonneau went above and beyond what had been asked of him. Clark had a more benevolent view of Charbonneau's services, and wanted to do all that he could for Charbonneau and especially for his family, Sacagawea and little Jean Baptiste.

The Charbonneau family continue to fascinate scholars and the public. The epic voyage of Lewis and Clark seems to rise to new heights as they are joined by a woman with a young baby. There is no doubt that these colorful characters, the rude Frenchman, the heroic Indian woman "without a country," and the little baby whose ways captivated three dozen tough frontiersmen, added another dimension to the Voyage of Discovery. The paucity of historical evidence has left the public hungering for more information, and where there is a need someone is bound to fulfil it. Thus, what should be a simple story based upon recognizable facts has often been elaborated into something more dramatic and palatable, but less compelling because it lacks the ring of hard truth.


Last updated: April 10, 2015

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