This Date in Native History: On February 11, 1805, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau was born. He was the son of the Lemhi Shoshone woman called Sacajawea and her husband Toussaint Charbonneau, at Fort Mandan in what is now North Dakota. “Pomp,” as Jean Baptiste was soon to be called, was just a newborn, an infant of two months, when he and his parents left Fort Mandan on perhaps the longest exploration in U.S. history, the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific coast, through country largely unknown to the non-Native world. Pomp would be the country’s youngest explorer.
Captain Lewis was not only the leader of the expedition, but also served as the doctor. He was present at the birth of the baby and reported “her labour was tedious and the pain violent.” He was counseled by others to crush the rattles from a rattlesnake and mix that with water to help induce birth. Although skeptical, it seemed to work, as Sacajawea gave birth soon after.
Two months later, on April 7, 1805, the expedition left Fort Mandan with Sacajawea and Pomp traveling up the Missouri in a pirogue. The expedition would not end for another 17 months when they returned to St. Louis.
Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian trapper, had been hired to act as an interpreter but only if he brought his young wife, Sacajawea. She had been captured by a Hidatsa war party in 1800 and taken to their villages where she was later sold to Charbonneau as a slave who later took her as a wife.
The expedition anticipated they would need horses from the Shoshone to cross from Montana over the Continental Divide and felt Sacajawea’s help as an interpreter with the Shoshone would be greatly beneficial. That turned out to be true but the addition of a woman and a small child proved beneficial throughout their travels by helping convince various tribes the group’s intentions were peaceful as a war party would not be accompanied by a woman and baby.
The child suffered some typical illnesses during the trip but only one of a serious nature, despite times of little food and extreme cold. On the return trip in the spring of 1806, when the expedition was delayed with the Nez Perce until weather moderated and allowed them to cross over the Bitterroot Mountains, young Pomp was quite sick for two and a half weeks. It may have been mumps or tonsillitis although no one knows for sure. He was treated with “poultices of wild onions and a plaster of sarve (salve) of the rozen (resin) of the long leaf pine. Beaswax and bears oil mixed,” according to the journals.
Captain Clark became particularly fond of young Pomp. One unusual sandstone formation along the Yellowstone River in Montana was named “Pompeys Pillar” by Clark in recognition of the little boy. Clark etched his name in the sandstone and that still remains as the only physical evidence still remaining of the expedition.
Clark offered to raise the child like one of his own and paid for his education at a Catholic school in St. Louis and treated him like an adopted son. He learned to speak Spanish, German, and French and traveled in Germany and Africa before returning to the western United States. His later years were spent trapping, mining, and exploring the west, dying in 1866 en route to gold fields in Montana. He was 61.
The image of Jean Baptiste “Pomp” Charbonneau is included with Sacajawea on the gold dollar. Many of the statues of Sacajawea also include her infant son.
His gravesite is south of Jordan Valley, Oregon near the juncture of Oregon, Idaho, and Nevada.
This story was originally published February 11, 2014.