Jump to content

Toussaint Charbonneau

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Toussaint Charbonneau
Painting by Edgar S. Paxson, 1912
Born(1767-03-22)March 22, 1767[citation needed]
DiedAugust 12, 1843(1843-08-12) (aged 76)[citation needed]
Occupation(s)Explorer, fur trapper
ChildrenJean Baptiste Charbonneau
Lisette Charbonneau

Toussaint Charbonneau (March 20, 1767 – August 12, 1843) was a French Canadian explorer, fur trapper and merchant who is best known for his role in the Lewis and Clark Expedition as the husband of Sacagawea.

Early years[edit]

Charbonneau was born in Boucherville, located in what is now the province of Québec (near Montréal) around 1759 or 1767.[1][2] Boucherville was a community with strong links to exploration and the fur trade.[3] He was of French and Iroquois ancestry.[4] 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. In the late 1790s, Charbonneau became a fur trader who lived among the Hidatsa and Mandan native tribes.[5]

For a time, Charbonneau worked as a fur trapper with the North West Company (NWC), assigned to the Pine Fort on the Assiniboine River in what is now Manitoba.[4] The North West Company was founded to compete with the dominant Hudson's Bay Company, which was an English company that employed many Frenchmen. This company pushed west, which allowed it to trade with the Mandan and Hidatsa native tribes.[6] John MacDonell, the 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: "Toussaint. 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 girl: Sacagawea (Bird Woman) from the Hidatsa. The Hidatsa had captured Sacagawea on one of their annual raiding and hunting parties to the west. Sacagawea may have had little choice in the matter, or she may have chosen to go with Charbonneau because doing so was preferable to her previous position. When Charbonneau 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 through common-law marriage is undetermined.[7] 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. Originally, Lewis and Clark were working with a Frenchman named Larocque, however the relationship became increasingly tense. This led Lewis and Clark to recruit Charbonneau who worked under Laroque.[8] 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 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.[9]

On February 11, 1805 at the fort, Charbonneau and Sacagawea's son Jean-Baptiste was born. William Clark nicknamed the baby Pomp.[10]

In the winter, as the expedition was being prepared, Charbonneau had second thoughts about his role with Lewis and Clark. This was because Charbonneau had received gifts from the North West Company upon news of his newborn son.[11] The gifts given to him included: two arms’ length of scarlet cloth and one of blue, a pair of corduroy coats, one vest, a length of red cloth decorated with bars, 200 musket balls, a supply of powder, three knives, and some tobacco.[11] This upset Lewis and Clark as they saw these gifts as a bribe for Charbonneau to work with the company to deter American ventures in the fur trade.[11] On top of being dissatisfied with the requirement to stand guard and perform manual labor amongst other tasks, he was also being treated as a traitor by his new employers. 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",[12] 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.[13] Meriwether Lewis was irate, writing that Charbonneau was "perhaps the most timid waterman in the world."[14] 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 committing rape earlier in his life, gave Charbonneau a bad reputation.[15]

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 was a cook; his recipe for boudin blanc (a sausage made from bison meat) was praised by several members of the party.[16] 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.[12] 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.[17]

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, selling the land back to Clark for 100 dollars.[18][better source needed] He also left Sacagawea and his two sons Toussaint and Jean Baptiste in Clark’s protection.[18][better source needed] In April, 1811, Charbonneau started working for Henry M. Brackenridge, an explorer headed up the Missouri River.[18][better source needed] In Charbonneau’s company was his older wife, Otter Woman.[18][better source needed]

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.[19]

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.[15]

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. 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,[20][better source needed] 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.[21]


  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. ^ Lang, William, L. "Toussaint Charbonneau". Oregon Encyclopedia. Retrieved March 3, 2022.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  3. ^ Kastor, Peter; Valencius, Conevery (2008). "Sacagawea's "Cold" : Pregnancy and the Written Record of the Lewis and Clark Expedition". Bulletin of the History of Medicine. 82 (2): 286. doi:10.1353/bhm.0.0007. PMID 18622070. S2CID 25300341.
  4. ^ a b Barkwell, Lawrence (2007). "The Metis Men of the Lewis and Clark Expedition 1804-1806". Virtual Museum of Métis History and Culture. Gabriel Dumont Institute. Retrieved 10 June 2021.
  5. ^ Summit, April (2008). Sacagawea: A Biography. Westport Connecticut: Greenwood Press. pp. 13–14.
  6. ^ Summit, April (2008). Sacagawea: A Biography. Westport Connecticut: Greenwood Press. pp. 15–16.
  7. ^ Woodward, Tim (2003). "Sacajawea".
  8. ^ Ronda, James (2002). Lewis and Clark Among the Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. p. 64.
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ a b c Nelson, Dale (2003). Interpreters with Lewis and Clark: The Story of Sacagawea and Toussaint Charbonneau. Denton: University of North Texas Press. p. 22. ISBN 9781574411652.
  12. ^ a b Barbara Fifer (2006). "Toussaint Charbonneau".
  13. ^ Woodward, Tim (2003). "Sacajawea".
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ a b c "Toussaint Charbonneau". 2014.
  16. ^ 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.
  17. ^ Clay Jenkinson (2004). "Against the Undertow of Myth: The Uncertainties of Lewis and Clark in North Dakota".
  18. ^ a b c d Hebard, Grace Raymond (1933). Sacajawea, A Guide and Interpreter of the Lewis & Clark Expedition: With an Account of the Travels of Toussaint Charbonneau, and of Jean Baptiste, the Expedition Papoose. Digital Public Library of America. p. 90. Retrieved 19 May 2018.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  19. ^ Luttig, John (1920). Journal of a Fur-Trading Expedition On the Upper Missouri. St. Louis Missouri Historical Society. pp. 132–134.
  20. ^ "Toussaint Charbonneau". June 2013.
  21. ^ "Burial Sites". 2014. Archived from the original on 2014-10-15. Retrieved 2014-11-25.