Hired Translator for U.S. Army
Charbonneau was the oldest member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition's permanent party, and he would outlive most of his fellows as he followed the rigorous life of a fur trader, guide, and interpreter. In fact, the fur trade had put him in place to meet the captains and join their expedition.
A French Canadian originally from Quebec, Charbonneau had been living and trading in Metaharta, central of the three Knife River Hidatsa villages, for the North West Company for several years. A week after the expedition arrived, Charbonneau went to meet the captains and learn what was going on. He offered his services as a Hidatsa translator, and mentioned that his two wives were Shoshones.
Almost upon their arrival, the captains learned that a Hidatsa war party was away to Shoshone country, which straddled the Rocky Mountains. They soon would conclude that a Shoshone interpreter was essential to their obtaining horses for the mountain crossing. Charbonneau's English was shaky, but Drouillard, Cruzatte, Labiche or Lepage could convey the captains' questions to him in French. Charbonneau then could speak Hidatsa to his Shoshone wife.
On November 4, 1804, when the captains met Charbonneau, Clark wrote, "we engau [engaged] him to go on with us and take one of his wives to interpret the Snake [Shoshone] language." The following March, Charbonneau suddenly canceled the arrangement, having "been Corupted" by representatives of the North West and Hudson's Bay companies visiting in the area. The captains believed that agents of these British firms would fight any assistance to Americans, into whose territory the Brits were extending trade tentacles. After six days, Charbonneau relented and returned to his job.
"No particular merit"
Furthermore, Charbonneau soon proved to be, in Lewis's kindest terms, "the most timid waterman in the world." In fact, he was utterly incompetent. He was steering the white pirogue under sail on April 13—just a week after leaving Fort Mandan—when the wind picked up and he "threw the perogue with her side to the wind," nearly upsetting the boat.
Worse yet was the incident a month later in eastern Montana, when Charbonneau again was steering the white pirogue under sail. The wind suddenly turned and drove the boat over on its side. As the captains watched helplessly from the opposite shore, the boat righted itself while significant cargo floated loose and the boat filled with water. Charbonneau abandoned the rudder, "still crying to his god for mercy" and ignoring bowman Cruzatte's orders. Only Cruzatte's threat "to shoot him instantly" got Charbonneau back to the rudder. (See also "The Case of the Timid Waterman.") His tendency to freeze in a crisis showed up again during the flash flood at the Great Falls of the Missouri on June 29, in which Sacagawea almost drowned and her baby's spare clothing was lost—as well as Clark's umbrella.
Two brief statements in Clark's 1805 journal hint at Charbonneau's having a quick temper, but give no details. On August 14, Clark said he "checked our interpreter for Strikeing his woman at their Dinner." (Yet, he had been concerned when she was very ill on June 15, to the point of begging to be released from his contract so he could take her home.) On August 25, at the height of crucial negotiations for Shoshone horses, he got crosswise with Lewis, who "could not forbear speaking to him with some degree of asperity." On October 10, 1805, Clark recorded that "a miss understanding took place between Shabono one of our interpreters, and Jo. & R Fields which appears to have originated in just [jest]." An unexplained statement by Clark on October 27 noted "Some words with Shabono our interpreter about his duty."
Although Lewis wrote lightheartedly and approvingly of Charbonneau's recipe for boudin blanc on May 9, 1805, by expedition's end his summary of the interpreter was partly negative. On the payroll he sent to Henry Dearborn on January 15, 1807, Lewis wrote by Charbonneau's name: "A man of no peculiar merit; was useful as an interpreter only, in which capacity he discharged his duties with good faith.1
On the other hand, Clark grew to regard Charbonneau with considerable respect. "You have been a long time with me and have conducted your Self in Such a manner as to gain my friendship," he wrote in a letter to "Charbono" on august 20, 1806, shortly after leaving him at his home. Evidently they had some congenial man-to-man talks sometime along the way, in which the French Canadian revealed some of his hopes and dreams for the future. "If you wish to live with the white people," Clark's letter continued,
I will give you a piece of land and furnish you with horses cows & hogs. If you wish to visit your friends in Montrall [i.e., Montreal] I will let you have a horse, and your family shall be taken care of untill your return. If you wish to return as an Interpreter for the Menetarras when the troops come up to form the establishment, you will be with me ready and I will precure you the place—or if you wish to return to trade with the indians and will leave your little Son Pomp with me, I will assist you with merchendize for that purpose from time [to time] and become my self conserned with you in trade on a Small scale that is to say not exceeding a perogue load at one time.2
It was Clark who, on August 17, 1806, "Settled with Touisant Chabono for his Services as an enterpreter the pric of a horse and Lodge purchased of him for public Service in all amounting to 500$ 33 cents." Clark's spelling of Charbonneau's surname was simply phonetic for a person with little or no acquaintance with French orthography. The sum ending with " cents" reflected the comparatively high value of the dollar in that period. The "Lodge" was the leather tepee that was the nightly shelter for the captains, the Charbonneaus, and the civilian interpreter George Drouillard, although it barely lasted until Fort Clatsop was habitable. Clark lamented (December 17, 1805) that "our Leather Lodge has become So rotten that the Smallest thing tares it into holes and it is now Scrcely Sufficent to keep . . . the rain off a Spot Sufficiently large for our bead." Nevertheless it had served them well.
An Attempt at Town Life
Charbonneau and his family eventually went to St. Louis, but stayed only a year and a half. They arrived in September 1809, when their son was four years old, traveling with the army contingent of Chief Sheheke's successful return escort. (They would have had a reunion with George Drouillard, who was in the Choteau-employee portion of the escort.) In December, they had little Jean Baptiste baptized, and in the fall of 1810 Toussaint bought land from Clark. But living in that style lasted only over the winter. In the spring of 1811, Toussaint and Sacagawea went back up the Missouri River again, leaving the boy to be raised by Clark.
To gain passage upriver, Charbonneau hired out to fur trader Manuel Lisa, who was making his third trip to the Upper Missouri. Henry M. Brackenridge, traveling in the same group, wrote that the Frenchman, "who had spent many years amongst the Indians, was become weary of civilized life."3
Life After the Expedition
Although Charbonneau returned to the Hidatsa villages, traces of the rest of his life occur in journals and records from other frontier travelers.
• 1812: Worked for Lisa at Fort Manuel, south of present Mobridge, South Dakota.
• 1814: In a reprehensible move, Charbonneau persuaded mountain man Edward Rose to join him in buying female Arapaho captives from the Shoshones and selling them to trappers at upper Missouri posts.
• 1816: Traveled with traders to the upper Arkansas River, where he was captured by the Spanish and imprisoned at Santa Fe for forty-eight days.
• 1823: Worked for Joseph Brazeau, heading toward the Mandan villages. Warring Arikaras ultimately diverted Charbonneau to Lake Traverse, near the South Dakota—Minnesota border.
• 1832: Interpreted for Prince Paul of Wurttemberg, Germany, when the Duke and his entourage toured the upper Missouri country. On this trip, Paul befriended Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, which resulted in the young man spending eight years in Europe as a guest of the Prince.
• 1833: Interpreted for Prince Alexander Philipp Maximilian of the Prussian principality Wied-Neuwied, whose upper Missouri traveling party included the artist Karl Bodmer. The prince wrote: "Charbonneau was absent again. This 75-year-old man is always running after women."4 Charbonneau was still in his sixties, but blamed a life lived outdoors for his weathered appearance.
• 1834: Fort Clark trader F.A. Chardon recorded that "Old Charbonneau" cooked the Christmas Eve supper of "Meat pies, bread, fricassied pheasants[,] Boiled tongues, roast beef—and Coffee." Chardon was factor, or superintendent, of this American Fur Company post that served the nearby Mandan and Hidatsa villages.
• 1838: His latest wife having died the previous year, Charbonneau took a fourteen-year-old Mandan bride.
• 1839: Superintendent of Indian Affairs (and former fur trader) Joshua Pilcher recorded that Charbonneau arrived in St. Louis from the Mandan villages, "1600 miles" away, "without a dollar to support him" and seeking pay for his work as a government interpreter among the Mandans. In 1837 the Mandans had been decimated by a smallpox epidemic that also killed about half of the Arikaras. Surviving Mandans had moved away from Fort Clark to the Hidatsa villages on Knife River.4
Toussaint Charbonneau survived into his mid-seventies, outliving his friend William Clark, who died in 1838. A legal document from 1843 shows that Jean Baptiste Charbonneau was to receive $320 "from the estate of his deceased Father."
1. Donald Jackson, ed., Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Related Documents, 1783-1854; 2nd ed.; 2 vols. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 1:369.
3. Henry M. Brackenridge, Views of Louisiana, Together with a Journal of a Voyage up the Missouri River in 1811, (Pittsburgh: Cramer, Spear and Eichbaum, 1814), 202.
Some post-expedition information about Charbonneau has been drawn from Larry E. Morris, The Fate of the Corps: What Became of the Lewis and Clark Explorers After the Expedition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 107, 134, 136, 138, 171-72.
Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge Cost Share Program.