Interpreters with Lewis and Clark: The Story of Sacagawea and Toussaint Charbonneau

Interpreters with Lewis and Clark: The Story of Sacagawea and Toussaint Charbonneau

by W. Dale Nelson

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When interpreter Toussaint Charbonneau, a French Canadian fur trader living among the Hidatsas, and his Shoshone Indian wife, Sacagawea, joined the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804, they headed into country largely unknown to them, as it was to Thomas Jefferson's hand-picked explorers. There is little doubt as to the importance of Sacagawea's presence on the journey. She has become a near-legendary figure for her role as interpreter, guide, and "token of peace." Toussaint, however, has been maligned in both fiction and nonfiction alike-Lewis himself called him "a man of no peculiar merit." W. Dale Nelson offers a frank and honest portrayal of Toussaint, suggesting his character has perhaps been judged too harshly. He was indeed valuable as an interpreter and no doubt helpful with his knowledge of the Indian tribes the group encountered. For example, Toussaint proved his worth in negotiations with the Shoshones for much-needed horses, and with his experience as a fur trader, he always seemed to strike a better bargain than his companions. During the expedition Sacagawea gave birth to a son, Jean Baptiste. With her death in 1812, Clark assumed custody of her son and Toussaint returned to his life on the upper Missouri. Surviving his wife by almost three decades, Toussaint worked under Clark (then Superintendent of Indian Affairs in St. Louis) as an interpreter for government officials, explorers, artists, and visiting dignitaries. Jean Baptiste traveled the Rocky Mountains as a mountain man, was a scout during the Mexican American War, and served as mayor and judge for the San Luis Rey Mission.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781574414226
Publisher: University of North Texas Press
Publication date: 08/15/2003
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

W. Dale Nelson spent forty years with the Associated Press, first in western bureaus and then in Washington, D.C., where he was honored with the Aldo Beckman Award, given annually by the White House Correspondents Association for excellence in reporting about the presidency. He is the author of two books and holds a master’s degree in library science from the University of Washington. He lives in Laramie, Wyoming.

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Interpreters with Lewis and Clark

The Story of Sacagawea and Toussaint Charbonneau

By W. Dale Nelson

University of North Texas Press

Copyright © 2003 W. Dale Nelson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57441-422-6


The Meeting

The sound of axes and saws was in the air when the talkative French-speaking stranger rode into the well-wooded site on the east bank of the Missouri River. William Clark had chosen the site as a winter camp for President Thomas Jefferson's expedition to find "the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent."

Sunday, November 4, 1804, was a fine, clear day, but there was no Sabbath break for Clark, Meriwether Lewis, or their forty-three men. Under the leadership of Sergeant Patrick Gass, a burly dark-hued Irishman who had been a carpenter in Pennsylvania before joining the Army, they had been at work all weekend cutting down cottonwood trees and building cabins, stuffing the cracks with rags, grass, and mortar.

It had been a hard five-and-one-half months of paddling, poling, and pulling their boats up the river from a camp near St. Louis to the one they were building on the east bank of the river close to the Mandan Indian villages. They had made the trip in a keelboat, a flat-bottomed covered vessel used to carry freight on a river, and two pirogues, or canoes made from hollowed tree trunks, one of them red and one white. Now they needed to hurry. There had been frost on the ground that morning. At midweek, a fierce northwest wind had given them warning that the brutal winter of the Knife River country was on its way.

But the explorers took time to talk with their visitor. His name was Toussaint Charbonneau, and he had something they needed. He could speak the language of the Hidatsa Indians, a tongue much different from that of other Native Americans. It was so difficult that Charbonneau would admit years later he never did learn to pronounce it very well.

It is no wonder the explorers were on the lookout for interpreters. When Lewis wrote four months earlier to enlist his old army companion Clark in his western venture, he said that a study of the "languages, traditions and monuments" of the tribes would be an important part of their task. He had obviously discussed this with Jefferson, as the president used precisely the same words in his instructions to Lewis, dated the day after Lewis's letter to Clark. For years, Jefferson had been collecting vocabularies of Indian languages and dialects. Lewis knew no Indian languages. Jefferson was telling him that a good interpreter would be needed.

Lewis's first choice for an interpreter was as different as he could be from Charbonneau. Before he had gone further west than Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Jefferson's hand-picked explorer accepted an offer from John Conner, a trader with the Shawnee and Delaware Indians at a post in present-day Indiana. Conner was twenty-eight, more than a dozen years younger than Charbonneau. He was literate, while Charbonneau signed his name with an "X." Perhaps most importantly, Conner had spent his life east of the Mississippi. Charbonneau knew at least some of the country the explorers would traverse. The deal with Conner didn't work out, and Clark, at least, thought that was just as well. "I do not think the failure in getting him is very material," he wrote.

The explorers had found Charbonneau at one of the great crossroads of the North American fur trade. Since the middle of the seventeenth century, Mandan and Hidatsa people had lived in large villages along the Missouri. The villages became important centers for intertribal swapping of furs, robes, foodstuffs, horses, and ornaments, and soon attracted white traders.

Charbonneau lived with the Hidatsas, in their cluster of substantial earthen lodges along the mouth of the Knife, and had just returned from a hunting trip with them when he met Lewis and Clark. He said he wanted to hear about the captains' meeting a few days earlier with the chiefs of the five Mandan and Hidatsa villages. He also offered his services as an interpreter. Nothing was put in writing, but the offer was accepted. Charbonneau became a provisional member of the Corps of Volunteers of Northwest Discovery.

The new interpreter was at least three years older than Clark, seven years older than Lewis and ten years older than most members of the Corps, and he had a pregnant wife. But the prospect of a journey into the unknown at his time of life did not faze him. Toussaint Charbonneau was eager to go. His pay would be twenty-five dollars a month, the same as that of George Drouillard, an experienced Missouri frontiersman who months earlier had been hired as an interpreter and hunter. The monthly pay of interpreters was three to five times that of the other members of the Corps. They ate with the captains, just as interpreters dined at the table with the bourgeois, or head man, and his clerks at fur trading posts.

In addition to his skill with the Hidatsa language, Charbonneau offered to bring one of his two Indian wives along on the expedition to serve as an interpreter with the Shoshone, or Snake, Indians whom they would meet later. They would be "interpreter and interpretress," said Clark. The name of the interpretress was Sacagawea. Private Joseph Whitehouse said she was "employed" as an interpreter, but records do not show that she was paid. Sacagawea was not present when Charbonneau met with the two captains. She made her appearance a week later, bringing buffalo robes for the officers. These arrangements brought together four diverse individuals whose names would forever be linked with the historic journey to the Pacific Ocean and back.

Blue-eyed, fair-haired Meriwether Lewis was born on August 18, 1774, in the comfortable plantation society of the Virginia Piedmont. Before being named to head the expedition, he served as Thomas Jefferson's secretary. From boyhood, the moody, studious, bow-legged Meriwether had liked to take long solitary walks in the woods. Red-haired William Clark, already a veteran frontiersman, was also born in Virginia, on August 1, 1770, but moved to Kentucky as a small boy. He entered the army, and for a brief time Lewis served as an ensign in a rifle company under his command.

Charbonneau was born about 1758 in or near the little religious and fur-trading center of Ville-Marie, later to become Montreal. The fur trade dominated the Canadian economy, and young Toussaint broke into it as a common laborer for the tycoons of the North West Company—delivering rum, tobacco, knives, and other trade goods to Indian camps from posts the company built along the Assiniboine River. During these years, a young German immigrant named John Jacob Astor was trudging through the same woods, often with a pack on his back, ferreting out secrets that would make him the kingpin of the Great Lakes Fur Trade. Like the better connected Astor, the energetic French Canadian Charbonneau wanted to improve himself. By 1796, he was in the Mandan villages, and was no longer anybody's lackey. He was a free trader, operating independently of both the North West Company and the rival Hudson's Bay Company.

Charbonneau would boast in his old age of being "the only White man" in the villages when he arrived there to take up his new life among the Indians. Maybe his memory was faulty. Or perhaps he was exaggerating. He sometimes did stretch facts a bit. In the joking fireside manner of the traders, he told several people that when he arrived on the Missouri it was so small he could straddle it. At any rate, the half-Indian Rene Jusseaume, who would also become an interpreter for Lewis and Clark, led a North West Company expedition to the villages in the fall of 1794, well before Charbonneau's arrival. And long before Jusseaume's arrival, probably in about 1778, a man known to history only as Menard appeared. First white man or not, it was a new life for Charbonneau. He found Indian companions who plowed their fertile fields of corn and squash with the shoulder blades of the buffalo, and dug smoky brown flint from bowl- like depressions along the Knife River to tip their arrows for the hunt.

Sacagawea's birth date was most likely 1788, a few years before Charbonneau settled at the villages. As a child of a Shoshone band to which later settlers would give the Mormon name Lemhi, she lived far away in the Rocky Mountains (probably near Tendoy, Idaho, close to a monument that now marks her birthplace). Each fall, the semi-nomadic Lemhi went eastward to the Three Forks of the Missouri to hunt buffalo. Often they were attacked by Hidatsas out to make war and steal horses. Sometimes, Lemhi children were along. Sacagawea was on one such trip in 1800, when she was about twelve. As a Hidatsa party came in sight, the hunters retreated and tried to hide in a wooded area about three miles up the north fork. The Hidatsas followed and attacked them, killing four women, four men, and several boys. Sacagawea waded into the river at a shallow point and headed for one of the islands that dot the stream in the area, but was captured in mid-flight. She and her companions were taken to the Hidatsa village to be slaves. Sacagawea caught the eye of Charbonneau, who made her one of his wives. Customs varied from tribe to tribe, but generally called for a ceremony, which often included instructions to the bride on wifely duties including fidelity.

Sacagawea is one of the most familiar figures of the Lewis and Clark party. She has been perceived as an early-day heroine of the struggle for women's rights and remembered in countless paintings, statues, and stories. Lakes and mountains have been named for her, and she has been commemorated in a cantata, an intermezzo, and the sterling silver on a battleship. Recognition for Charbonneau has been less impressive. A clothing store in Bozeman, Montana, does bear his name, and a glossy residential development near Portland is named for his and Sacagawea's son, Jean Baptiste, who died in Oregon.

A 1926 Collier's magazine article by the western journalist George Creel described how the Shoshone teenager "led Lewis and Clark up the wild reaches of the Missouri and over saw-toothed ranges; when the white captains wandered hopelessly amid enormities of granite, her unerring instinct found a way." Creel's elaborate fantasy was one of many. Similar accounts appeared in newspapers when a symbolic likeness of Sacagawea was chosen for a one dollar coin in 1998. It is a romantic and appealing picture, but the journals of the expedition do not support it. Sacagawea did provide valuable information on two occasions, when they were passing through country she remembered from childhood. For the most part, though, she probably knew less about most of the route than the two captains did. They had seen some maps, however imperfect, and collected all the information they could get from Indians and traders. Sacagawea proved a resourceful and hardy traveler as well as an interpreter, but except on rare occasions she was not a guide.

Nor is it known what she looked like. She is said to have been lighter in complexion than Charbonneau's other wife, but there are no paintings or drawings done from life. As for Lewis and Clark, their instructions from Jefferson were to make "observations ... with great pains and accuracy" of what they saw along the route. He didn't tell them to describe members of their own party, and they didn't bother, so we know little about the appearance of any of them. Some travelers described the young Shoshones as among the best looking Indian women they saw, so it is likely Sacagawea was at least fairly attractive. Presumably she dressed in Mandan fashion, wearing a long garment of doeskin or mountain sheepskin with a fringed hem just below the knee. The dress was belted at the waist and form fitting above, except in the case of nursing mothers. Since Sacagawea was pregnant, her costume would soon be loosened above the girdle.

Even the pronunciation and meaning of her name have been in question. The explorers, not great at spelling, wrote it out in their journals as Sahcagahweah or variations of that form. Nicholas Biddle and Paul Allen, whose 1814 narrative of the expedition was based on the journals, changed it to Sacajawea, the name which for years was adopted by most writers. The United States Geographic Board, in naming a mountain in Wyoming for her in 1933, said that Sacagawea is the correct spelling, as the Hidatsa language does not contain a "j" sound. The word is pronounced with a hard "g" and the accent on the broad "a" in the second syllable. It is generally believed to be a Hidatsa name meaning Bird Woman, "Sacaga" for "bird" and "wea" for "woman." Many Shoshone Indians, however, maintain it is a Shoshone word meaning "boat launcher" and spell and pronounce it as Sacajawea. The Hidatsas pronounce it with a hard "g." North Dakota has applied the spelling Sakakawea to a statue on the state Capitol grounds and the state's largest lake. In 2002, as the bicentennial of the expedition approached, the North Dakota State Library switched to Sacagawea, but other state organizations did not.

Lewis himself set the tone for much of the later commentary about Charbonneau, describing him as "a man of no peculiar merit" who "was useful as an interpreter only, in which capacity he discharged his duties with good faith." Elliott Coues, one of the early editors of the explorers' journals, went further, calling him "a poor specimen ... a tongue to wag in a mouth to fill," "the wretched Charbonneau," and one member of the party "who could have been lost without inconvenience." Coues did acknowledge that Toussaint "seems to have been good-natured, and meant well no doubt." He pictured Sacagawea as "wonderful," "the best of mothers," and a "remarkable little woman" who "contributed a full man's share to the success of the Expedition, besides taking care of her baby." Even had he been a saint, thought Coues, Charbonneau would have been by no means the equal of his wife. Prejudice may have played a part. One later writer commented, "As far as Coues is concerned, this Frenchman, because he is French, is a laggard and a coward." In a 1950s Hollywood version of the expedition, The Far Horizon, Charbonneau is cast as the villain. But there is more to be said. Not long before he joined Lewis and Clark, Charbonneau held a responsible position at Fort Pembina, a fur trading post in the extreme northeastern corner of present North Dakota.

Clark, a shrewd judge of men, spoke well of his service on the expedition, as did later travelers who employed his services. David Meriwether, a future territorial governor of New Mexico for whom Charbonneau worked as an interpreter on the western plains, said, "though he was an old man when I first saw him, I derived much assistance from his council when I first embarked in the fur trade."

He seems to have been a poor and timid sailor and hiker, not good qualities for a man on a transcontinental trek, but a good enough interpreter, and frequently a valuable source of the kind of information about the Indian tribes that Jefferson wanted his explorers to gather. He was also a good cook, certainly a skill to be prized by a group of men traveling across a wilderness.

As a free trader, Charbonneau obtained goods from North West and Hudson's Bay posts on credit, traded them with the Indians, and repaid the companies with the furs he obtained. Such men came to be called "residenters." They lived with the Indians, adopted their way of life, and curried favor by giving presents to the chiefs. Trading with the Indians was hard work. The traders had to carry a wide variety of goods, as tribes had different tastes in blankets, beads, knives, and other trade goods. Some traders carried liquor, but rationed it carefully to keep the Indians from getting drunk and causing trouble.

In his long life, Charbonneau took many Indian wives, in ceremonies recognized as valid both by the Indians and the whites, but not necessarily as lifetime contracts. Asked in his later years about love life among the tribes, he was reported to have said that "the Indians generally are not as fond of women as we are," and added, "The women ... with whom we had anything to do were not deficient in ardor."


Excerpted from Interpreters with Lewis and Clark by W. Dale Nelson. Copyright © 2003 W. Dale Nelson. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
1. The Meeting,
2. Winter,
3. Against the Current,
4. Over the Top,
5. Fort Clatsop,
6. Homeward Bound,
7. Afterward,
8. Father and Son,
9. At Home and Abroad,
10. The Prince and the Frontiersman,
11. Glimpses of Baptiste,
12. Desolation on the Missouri,
13. Westward Once More,
14. John B. Charbonneau,

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