Jean Baptiste Charbonneau
“About five o’clock 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 which this woman had boarn and is common in such cases, her labour was tedious.”
This simple journal entry made by Meriwether Lewis at Fort Mandan on February 11, 1805 recorded the birth of perhaps North Dakota’s most famous infant; Jean Baptiste Charbonneau. Jean Baptiste, or Pompy as he was nicknamed by William Clark, was the son of the French Canadian interpreter, Touissant Charbonneau and his Shoshone wife, Sacagawea.
Jean Baptiste’s early life is well known. Who isn’t familiar with images of Pompy riding with his mother as she lead the Corps of Discovery on their journey to the Pacific Ocean. What is less familiar is Pompy’s later years; where the young lad worked as a trapper and prospector in the American West, befriended German aristocrats and traveled his way across Europe.
On the Corps of Discovery’s return trip to the Eastern United States, Lewis and Clark parted with the Charbonneau family at the Hidatsa-Mandan villages where they had first met two years before. As they prepared to leave, Clark offered to take Jean Baptiste and raise him as his own son. As little Pompy was not yet weaned, his parents decided the boy should stay with them, but agreed to send him at a later date.
In 1809, Sacagawea took Clark up on his offer, leaving Pompy in St. Louis, where he received his formal education. Following school, Jean Baptiste moved from St. Lewis, and by the age of 18 was working at a trading post in Kansas City. It was there that Jean Baptiste met Paul Wilhelm, the Duke of Wurttemberg, Germany. The Duke was something of a nature enthusiast, traveling through America studying the continent’s plants and animals. Baptiste joined Paul Wilhelm on his journeys, impressing the Duke with both his abilities as a frontiersman and his cultural refinement. Like William Clark years before, the German Prince became quite attached to the young man and invited Jean Baptiste to live with him in Germany. For six years Baptiste lived the life of European royalty, becoming familiar with the German court, and mastering four languages.
Jean Baptiste returned to America in 1829 and followed in the footsteps of his father; making his living as a trapper, guide and mountain man; albeit a mountain man with aristocratic connections and an European education. Baptiste spent the next few decades traveling throughout the American West as he landed a number of jobs trapping, led scouting expeditions, and spent a brief time as a Californian magistrate.
Jean Baptiste never achieved the fame of his mother, or the wealth of his aristocratic friends, yet he remains a famous part of the American West. A figure who from birth was surrounded by historical legends, but made his own way through life.
Written by Lane Sunwall
"1805 Journal Entry Archives February 8-14, 1805", LewisandClarkTrail.com http://www.lewisandclarktrail.com/section2/ndcities/BismarckMandan/history17.htm (accessed February 2, 2009).
Anderson, Irving, "The Corps: The Permanent Party" http://www.pbs.org/lewisandclark/inside/idx_corp.html (accessed February 2, 2009).
"Sacagawea's Baby - Jean Baptiste Charbonneau", LewisandClarkTrail.com http://www.lewisandclarktrail.com/sacagaweasbaby.htm (accessed February 2, 2009).