Toussaint Charbonneau

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Toussaint Charbonneau
Charbonneau Painting Cropped.jpg
Toussaint Charbonneau in a painting, "Lewis & Clark at Three Forks" by Edgar Samuel Paxson
Born March 20,1767
Boucherville, Province of Quebec
Died August 12, 1843 (Aged 76)
Fort Mandan, Dakota Territory
Occupation Explorer, Fur Trapper
Spouse(s) Sacagawea

Toussaint Charbonneau (March 20, 1767[1] – August 12, 1843) was a French Canadian explorer and trader, and a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. He is also known as the husband of Sacagawea.


Early years[edit]

Charbonneau was born in Boucherville, Quebec (near Montréal), a community with strong links to exploration and the fur trade. Charbonneau's ancestors were French. His paternal great grandmother Marguerite de Noyon was the sister of Jacques de Noyon, who had explored the region around Kaministiquia, present day Thunder Bay, Ontario, in 1688.

Charbonneau worked, for a time, as a fur trapper with the North West Company (NWC), founded by Great Britain, which was one of the most powerful nations at the time. John MacDonell, recorder of one of their expeditions, first noted Charbonneau in their historical journal. After several routine mentions of Charbonneau, MacDonell wrote on May 30, 1795: "Tousst. Charbonneau was stabbed at the Manitou-a-banc end of the Portage la Prairie, Manitoba in the act of committing a Rape upon her Daughter by an old Saultier woman with a Canoe Awl—a fate he highly deserved for his brutality— It was with difficulty he could walk back over the portage."

While living among the Hidatsa people, Charbonneau purchased or won a Shoshone woman: Sacagawea (Bird Woman) from the Hidatsa. The Hidatsa had captured Sacagawea on one of their annual raiding and hunting parties to the west. When he married Sacagawea in 1804, he was already married to Otter Woman, another Shoshone woman. Charbonneau eventually considered these women to be his wives, though whether they were bound through Native American custom or simply through common-law marriage is indeterminate.[2] By the summer of 1804, Sacagawea was pregnant with their first child.

Lewis and Clark Expedition[edit]

In November 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark came to the area, built Fort Mandan, and recruited members to the Corps of Discovery. Charbonneau was asked to join the expedition as a translator. While Charbonneau could speak French and some Hidatsa, Lewis and Clark were more enthusiastic about having two Shoshone women join them. With Charbonneau, Sacagawea, and the Otter Woman's skills combined, the expedition gained the ability to speak Hidatsa and Shoshone. They hired Charbonneau on November 4, and his wives moved into Fort Mandan with Charbonneau a week later.[3]

On February 11, 1805 at the fort, Charbonneau and Sacagawea's son Jean-Baptiste was born. William Clark nicknamed the baby Pomp,[4] meaning first born in Shoshone.[citation needed]

In the winter, as the expedition was being prepared, Charbonneau had second thoughts about his role with Lewis and Clark. He was dissatisfied with the requirement to stand guard and perform manual labor amongst other tasks. On March 12, 1805, he quit the expedition. However, on March 17 he returned and apologized, requesting to re-join the company; he was re-hired the following day. His performance during the journey was mixed: Meriwether Lewis called him "a man of no peculiar merit",[5] and many historians have painted Charbonneau in a distinctly unfavorable light. One of the most well-known anecdotes about Charbonneau is the incident with the "white pirogue." On May 14, 1805, the pirogue guided by Charbonneau was hit by a gust of wind and lost control. Charbonneau panicked and nearly capsized the boat, which would have meant the loss of valuable equipment and papers. It was only with the help of his wife, Sacagawea, that these important items were saved.[6] Meriwether Lewis was irate, writing that Charbonneau was "perhaps the most timid waterman in the world."[7] Charbonneau was also known for his short temper with his wives. On August 14, 1805, he struck Sacagawea in a fit of anger and was reprimanded by Clark. This occasion in addition to the rape incident earlier in his life gave Charbonneau a bad reputation.[8]

Charbonneau, however, did make several contributions to the success of the expedition. He was helpful when the expedition encountered French trappers from Canada and he served as a cook; his recipe for boudin blanc (a sausage made from bison meat) was praised by several members of the party.[9] Additionally, his skill in striking a bargain came in handy when the expedition acquired much-needed horses at the Shoshone encampment.

Charbonneau and his family stayed with the Lewis and Clark expedition until August 1806. He was paid $500.33, plus a horse and a lodge, for his nineteen months with the expedition.[10] In addition to the payment, William Clark wrote a parting letter to Charbonneau, inviting a continued relationship. He even asked if it was possible for Jean Baptiste to stay with the expedition to be raised by Clark.[11]

Life after the expedition[edit]

Clark offered to set up Charbonneau and his family in St. Louis after the expedition. Charbonneau initially declined Clark's offer, as he preferred life with the Mandan and Hidatsa. However, the family relocated to St. Louis in 1809 so that Jean Baptiste could be educated. Charbonneau bought land from Clark and briefly took up farming. He gave it up after a few months, leaving with Sacagawea and entrusting the care of Jean-Baptiste to William Clark.[12]

He then took a job with Manuel Lisa's Missouri Fur Company, and was stationed at Fort Manuel Lisa Trading Post in present-day North Dakota. During this time, Sacagawea was pregnant and gave birth to a girl named Lisette. Shortly after the birth, Sacagawea died on December 20, 1812. Lisette was taken back to St. Louis to live with Jean Baptiste. The following year Charbonneau signed over formal custody of his son Jean Baptiste and daughter Lisette to William Clark.[13]

During the period of 1811-1838, Charbonneau also worked for the Upper Missouri Agency's Indian Bureau (a federal agency) as a translator. He earned from $300 to $400 per year from the government. He may have gained this position by the patronage of William Clark, who was from 1813 the governor of the Missouri Territory; upon Clark's death, Charbonneau's employment with the government came to an abrupt halt. Surviving records show that Charbonneau was widely disliked by others in the Missouri Territory. Part of the reason for this may be his casual attitude toward employment: he was variously hired by Lisa's Missouri Fur Company and by John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company, bitter rivals. He is also said to have abandoned another employer, James Kipp, while on a fur expedition in 1834.[14]

Charbonneau is known to have had a total of five wives, all young Native American women whom he married when they were sixteen years old or younger, which was not unusual for the time. He may have had more wives who have been lost to the record, however. His last known wife, an Assiniboine girl, was 14 when she married him in 1837; he was more than 70 years old.[15]


While his exact death date is not known, Charbonneau probably died in 1843, because that is the year Jean-Baptiste settled his father's estate. It is generally accepted that he died and was buried in Fort Mandan, North Dakota,[16] but some believe he is buried in Richwoods, Missouri with a headstone marked "Toussaint Charboneau, 1781-1866" [sic]. While these dates are wrong, people in Richwoods claim to be descendants of Charbonneau.[17]

In popular culture[edit]

Larry McMurtry's tetralogy The Berrybender Narratives include Charbonneau and his son Jean Baptiste as important characters.

He was portrayed by Alan Reed in The Far Horizons (1955).

In 1967, the actor Victor French played Charbonneau in the episode "The Girl Who Walked the West" of the syndicated television series, Death Valley Days, hosted by Robert Taylor.[18]

In The Simpsons episode "Margical History Tour", the story of Sacagawea is re-enacted, with Charbonneau played by Milhouse van Houten.

His relationship with his son with Sacagawea, Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, is pivotal to Colin Sargent's 2008 novel Museum of Human Beings[19]


  1. ^ Dates and locations of Charbonneau's birth and death are taken from information at the Programme de recherche en démographie historique at the Université de Montréal [1] and are not necessarily authoritative. Other research places his date of birth in 1758 instead.
  2. ^ Woodward, Tim (2003). "Sacajawea". 
  3. ^ Lewis, Meriwether; Clark, William. Gary Moulton, ed. "November 4, 1804 entry in The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition". University of Nebraska Press / University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries-Electronic Text Center. 
  4. ^ Lewis, Meriwether; Clark, William. Gary Moulton, ed. "February 11, 1805 entry in The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition". University of Nebraska Press / University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries-Electronic Text Center. 
  5. ^ Barbara Fifer (2006). "Toussaint Charbonneau". 
  6. ^ Woodward, Tim (2003). "Sacajawea". 
  7. ^ Lewis, Meriwether; Clark, William. Gary Moulton, ed. "May 14, 1805 entry in The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition". University of Nebraska Press / University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries-Electronic Text Center. 
  8. ^ "Toussaint Charbonneau". 2014. 
  9. ^ Lewis, Meriwether; Clark, William. Gary Moulton, ed. "May 9, 1805 entry in The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition". University of Nebraska Press / University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries-Electronic Text Center. 
  10. ^ Barbara Fifer (2006). "Toussaint Charbonneau". 
  11. ^ Clay Jenkinson (2004). "Against the Undertow of Myth: The Uncertainties of Lewis and Clark in North Dakota". 
  12. ^ Barbara Fifer (2006). "Toussaint Charbonneau". 
  13. ^ Luttig, John (1920). Journal of a Fur-Trading Expedition On the Upper Missouri. St. Louis Missouri Historical Society. pp. 132–134. 
  14. ^ "Toussaint Charbonneau". 2014. 
  15. ^ "Toussaint Charbonneau". 2014. 
  16. ^ "Toussaint Charbonneau". June 2013. 
  17. ^ "Burial Sites". 2014. 
  18. ^ ""The Girl Who Walked the West" on Death Valley Days". Internet Movie Data Base. November 4, 1967. Retrieved June 7, 2015. 
  19. ^