The smallest member of the Lewis & Clark expedition, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, had a unique and colorful life. Pomp was born to Sacagawea and her husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, on February 11, 1805, when Lewis and Clark were staying at Fort Mandan in present-day North Dakota. Charbonneau, a French fur trapper described by Meriwether Lewis as having “no particular merit,” had signed on with the Lewis & Clark expedition as an interpreter, agreeing to bring Sacagawea along to interpret with her own people, the Shoshone Indians. Lewis and Clark therefore had a great stake in Sacagawea’s health and well being. Lewis assisted at the birth, pulverizing some rattlesnake rattle into a folk remedy tea to help her “bring forth.”
Sacagawea, by all accounts, was a likeable young woman of good sense and character, and she endeared herself to the men of the expedition during the long journey with her stoic courage, helpfulness, and devotion to her newborn, Jean Baptiste. William Clark loved the little boy and nicknamed him “Pomp.” The cute doings of Pomp occasionally appear in Clark’s account of the journey. Indeed, Clark became very attached to the whole Charbonneau family, often inviting them to accompany him on his scouting missions. For several anxious days in May 1806, Pomp became dangerously ill, and both captains doctored him, recording his condition in their journals every day for a week.
When the expedition arrived back in the Mandan villages in 1806 and had to leave the Charbonneaus behind, Clark was palpably distraught. He immediately fired off a letter to Charbonneau offering to raise and educate Pomp, “my little dancing boy,” who was not even yet weaned.
In 1809, the Charbonneaus moved near St. Louis, where Clark tried to help them make a living and saw to the baptism of Jean Baptiste. In 1811, when Jean Baptiste was six years old, his parents decided they’d had enough of civilization and headed back up the Missouri. They left the boy in Clark’s care to begin his education. Tragically, Sacagawea never saw her son again. She died in December 1812 at the fur trading post of Fort Manuel near the present-day town of Kenel, South Dakota.
Sacagawea had another child sometime in 1811 or 1812, a girl named Lisette. Officials at Fort Manuel, believing for a time that Charbonneau had been killed in an Indian massacre, took Lisette to St. Louis to Clark. Not much is known about her. Some sources say she lived to young adulthood, but the lack of mention of her in Clark’s letters or papers casts doubt upon this idea. The report of Charbonneau’s death proved to be false. He lived on, working as a guide in the west until his death in 1843, about 80 years of age, the husband to many Indian wives over the years.
As for Jean Baptiste, he ended up living a very adventurous life. Clark gave him the best available education, at both Catholic and Baptist schools. In the classical tradition, he learned not only English, but Latin and Greek. He was especially fond of Shakespeare and was a talented violinist. As a youngster, Pomp hung around Clark’s Indian Museum in St. Louis and told visitors stories about the expedition, often saying that he was “born in a canoe.”
It was thought for some time that Baptiste actually lived with the Clarks, but this doesn’t seem to have been the case. Instead, he seems to have lived at a boarding school where other half-Indian children were also being educated. Historians like James Holmberg have speculated that Clark’s wife, Julia, may not have been too keen on taking in another woman’s child, especially a half-Indian.
Not surprisingly, Jean Baptiste had a traveling bone. When he was 16, Clark gave him permission to go up the Missouri as a fur trader. There Baptiste met a German prince who had come to the United States to hunt and study plant and animal life. The prince took Baptiste back to Europe, where he led hunting expeditions for German royalty. While in Europe, Baptiste played the violin for Ludwig van Beethoven and learned German, Spanish, and French. He also fathered a child, a circumstance which may have hastened his return to the United States in 1829.
Pomp then embarked on a career as a mountain man. Anyone who met him never forgot the Shakespeare-quoting half-Indian trapper. Baptiste earned a reputation for being courageous, hospitable, and funny. He even showed off his years in civilization by making a mean mint julep out of wild mint leaves.
In later years, Baptiste worked as a guide, including a stint guiding the Mormons in 1846. He tried his hand at politics, serving as the Alcalde (mayor) of San Luis Rey in California. Like many adventurous men of the West, he got caught up in the California Gold Rush and apparently got a permanent case of gold fever. He died in 1866, age 61, on his way to newly opened gold fields in Montana.
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