Little Dancing Boy

Page 4 of 4

As recently as June 6, July 13 and August 3, 1806, the Charbonneaus' boy was still "the child," for the record. By the time the well-known landmark was reached on July 25 he was just a little over seventeen months old.14 What sort of a child could Jean Baptiste Charbonneau have been, that Clark should have been so fond of him? "Cultures construct children," it has been said.15 But cross-cultural differences between Euro-American child-rearing and the boy's Metis-Shoshone-Hidatsa heritage, compounded by the time differential, preclude any possibility of measuring his developmental stage as of August, 1806. It is perhaps reasonable to assume, however, that in the last few weeks before the expedition reached his Mandan village birthplace, he may have grown to be a catalyst between two cultures, focusing love like a puppy.

Very likely, he had learned to walk, even to run, with an eighteen-month-old's stride—to prance, hop, stagger, sometimes do a face-plant in the dust, or a comic pratfall on his diapered bum. Might latent feelings of affection have surged to the surface among the weather-beaten and hardship-hardened men? At dusk, when it was too dark to work on the canoes, or hunt for game, or track down those damned horses, might the child have become the center of attention?

Was he cute? A clown? A little "Pomp," or "some punkins," scamper-dancing at the fingertips of young George Shannon, or John Shields who surely missed his own child—or York? Or perhaps the captain himself?

Sometimes it's hard to compose a letter all the way to its end, so you bow out with a comfortable cliché—"hoping you . . . Trusting you will. . . ." Something like that.

The captain chooses: "Wishing you and your family great suckcess. . . ."

But he can't forgo one more statement of his abiding affection, and continues without a pause, " . . . & with anxious expectations of seeing . . ."

The right words spring to mind. " . . . my little danceing boy Baptiest . . . "

Then back to the formula. " . . . I shall remain your friend . . ."

If we lean close, we fancy we can see the smile bend his lips, hear the crisp, low chuckle in his throat, and feel the ripple of joy that draws his pen through the restrained flourishes of his signature.

" . . . William Clark."

14. Not nineteen months, as Clark writes on August 17, 1806 (Moulton, 8:305).

15. Marc H. Bornstein and Michael E. Lamb, Development in Infancy: An Introduction (2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.), p. 53.