Charbonneau's Prayer

The Case of the Timid Waterman

Then there was Charbonneau's ultimate test of faith as a boatman, on a day – May 14 1805 – when he was pinch-hitting for Drouillard at the helm of the white pirogue. The boat contained, Lewis remembered, "our papers, Instruments, books medicine, a great part of our merchandize and in short almost every article indispensably necessary to . . . insure the success of the enterprise." He recollected that when "a sudon squawl of wind struck her obliquely, and turned her considerably." Charbonneau panicked, and rather than steering the boat before the wind until the squaresail could be reefed (furled) or lowered, he turned into the wind – luffed, or "lufted" it, in Lewis's spelling, –which caused the brace (rope) of the sail to be jerked from the hands of the man who was in charge of it. In the next instant the boat was laid on her side, and some of her precious cargo was dumped into the river. "Such was their confusion and consternation at this moment," Lewis went on, "that they suffered the perogue to lye on her side for half a minute before they took the sail in," whereupon the boat righted itself, filled to the gunwales with water. The wind and waves "would have turned her completely topsaturva," he wrote, had not the canvas awning at the stern prevented it. Meanwhile, Charbonneau had let go of the tiller and was "crying to his God for mercy." Fortunately, Pierre Cruzatte, the veteran Missouri riverman who was at the bow, took command of the situation with "fortitude resolution and good conduct." The captains were 300 yards away by their estimate, on the opposite shore, helplessly watching the drama unfold.

White Pirogue

Richard Boss's conception of the white pirogue, created for Fort Clatsop National Memorial and now on loan to the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, Great Falls, Montana. Jim Wylder photo.

Lewis scrambled for an explanation, but had to admit that "Charbono cannot swim and is perhaps the most timid waterman in the world." However, to suppose that Charbonneau's fear of drowning was the cause of his mistake is unfair to his memory. He had been working on the Missouri and other rivers in the region for a number of years as a trapper and interpreter, but the odds are that this was his first experience at the helm of a boat like the white pirogue – a heavy craft with a crew of 8 (plus several passengers), perhaps 39 feet long with a beam of 8' 8", a cargo of maybe 8 tons, freeboard of only about 19 inches, and plenty of canvas (mainsail and spritsail) to catch the wind. Keeping control of a craft like that in high wind and rough water on a fast river would be a challenge for an expert sailor, and Charbonneau simply wasn't equal to the challenge.

But he knew what he had to do, so let's review the situation from his perspective. In those days one of the best known songs among Canadian boatmen was Quand un Crétien se détermine a voyager, a sort of musical catechism of a voyageur's code.1 "When a Christian decides to voyage," it begins, "he must think of the dangers that will beset him. A thousand times Death will approach him, a thousand times he will curse his lot during the trip." Charbonneau's mind must have leapt to the third stanza. "When you are on traverses, poor soul, the wind will come up suddenly, seizing your oar and breaking it and putting you in grave danger. You then are close to the demon, who is lying in wait for your soul. When you have reached the shore, exhausted from swimming, . . . pray to God devoutly, and Mary also. But promise them sincerely that you will reform."

Although there were two other non-swimmers besides Charbonneau in the bad-luck boat,2 no lives were lost, and thanks to Sacagawea's agility and quick thinking most of the boat's precious cargo was recovered. Indeed, they all had much to be thankful for at the end of that day. But did they pray? One supposes the Frenchman had gotten his own orisons out of the way, and if any of the rest were disposed to entreat their God, nobody made note of it. As for the captains, Clark, upon reflection, was thankful to Pierre Cruzatte for having saved the day by threatening to shoot Toussaint if he didn't get control of himself and the tiller, whereas Lewis decided to measure their mutual relief by the dram, and so ordered for each man in the company "a gill of spirits."

There's no telling how many other times crusty Charbonneau may have raised the voyageur's canticle, at least to himself.3 In any case, over the past 200-plus years the poor man has gotten a lot of undeserved bad press for this caper that he might not have deserved. As a professional voyageur he had spontaneously and quite suitably prioritized his reactions to the crisis. The salvation of his soul came first.

Of course he let go the tiller!

He needed both hands free – so he could pray!


1. Grace Lee Nute, The Voyageur (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1955), 151-54.

2. Bear in mind that although it was the more "steady and safe" of the two perogues, the white one, an exasperated Lewis later said, was "attended by some evil gennii" that would "play so many pranks with her that she will go to the bottomm some of those days." Was it really a genie, or was it "the demon"? Whatever it was, the true spirit and substance of the white pirogue nevertheless prevailed, and she safely bore the captains in triumph all the way from her hideway below the Falls of the Missouri back to St. Louis!

3. Stanza five of this popular voyageur's hymn addressed the mosquito problem. "In the evening, if the swarms of mosquitoes assail you unbearably as you lie in your narrow bed," the singer intones morbidly, "think how this couch is the likeness of the grave where your body will be placed. If the mosquitoes waken you with their buzzing and tickle your ears with their stings, think, dear voyageur, how like to the Devil they are, who is singing about your body, ready to seize your soul." Poor engagé, it continues, "do not swear in your wrath, but think of Jesus bearing his cross." Sans plus attendre,/Prie alors de tout ton Coeur,/Ton ange de te defender, the song concludes. "Without further hesitation, pray with all your heart to your guardian angel to protect you."

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service,
Challenge-Cost Share Program.