At dusk on January 12, 1847, a swarthy, stockily-built man, clad in buckskins emerged from the shadows of Mission Valley and moved along the narrow trail to Fort Stockton, on Presidio Hill. Having informed the American authorities that the Mormon Battalion had arrived in San Diego, he faded again into the night. This act marked the first appearance in San Diego of a quite remarkable figure-Jean Baptiste Charbonneau.
Charbonneau has been traced by historians through a kaleidoscope of famous personages with whom the famous trader, guide, and interpreter came into contact during his lifetime. A noteworthy figure in western American history, Charbonneau has been all too frequently neglected by chroniclers of San Diego history.
Jean Baptiste Charbonneau was of true pioneer stock. His father, Toussaint Charbonneau, born of French-Canadian parents in 1758, began a career in 1793 as an engagé of the Northwest Fur Company, serving as a trader at Pine Fort on the Assimboine River. Two years later he moved into the Missouri Valley where he established himself among the Gros Ventres on the Knife River. Since there were no trade relations established with St. Louis at that time, the elder Charbonneau was obliged to purchase his supplies from the English traders further north. He entered the employ of the American Fur Company, and in 1803-4 had charge of Fort Pembina with Alexander Henry. Toussaint served with Major Stephen H. Long and with various expeditions in the Rocky Mountains; with August Choteau, the founder of St. Louis; with Henry Brackenridge on his expedition up the Missouri in 1811; with John Luttig in 1812; Prince Paul of Wurtemburg in 1823; General Henry Atkinson in 1825; Maximillian, Prince of Weid, in 1833; Charles Larpenteur in 1838; and “every fur trader and trapper of the early days in the upper Missouri regions.” It was his role as guide for Lewis and Clark in 1804-5, however, for which he is best remembered.
The Indian wife of Toussaint, the mother of Jean Baptiste, is among the most famous women in all of American history. Sah-ca-ger-we-ah, or Sacajawea, was captured by a war party of Minataree and became the wife of Toussaint Charbonneau at the request of either Meriweather Lewis or William Clark, on February 8, 1805, only a few days prior to the birth of their child, Jean Baptiste, February 11. Captain Lewis recorded: “…about 5:00 o’clock in the evening, one of the wives of Charbonneau was delivered of a fine boy.” Sacajawea was not an ordinary member of the expedition. The Shoshonis, the tribe of which she was a member, were the only people in the area at the source of the Missouri River from whom the party might buy horses for the trip across the “Shining Mountains”. It is doubtful if the expedition could have pushed its way through the strange, uncharted territory without her. She acted as an interpreter for the party with hostile tribes, saved all of the scientific equipment when one of the pirougés overturned in the river, and did a “man’s chores at all times; canoed, trudged, climbed and starved uncomplainingly with a papoose on her back.”
Sacajawea was presented with a golden medal by President Thomas Jefferson for her outstanding services to the United States. Captain William Clark was a fond of the “little squar” and her baby, whom he called “Pomp,” and fearing that she might be mistreated by her husband, encouraged the family to come and live with him. Clark offered to raise Baptiste as his son, although he knew Sacajawea would never consent to adoption, nor would she be separated from him. Toussaint brought Sacajawea and Jean Baptiste to St. Louis to live. It was while he was away on a trip with Henry Brackenridge that Captain Clark became the guardian for the boy and his mother.
Clark was determined either to adopt or educate the child-and provided for the mother in order to keep the child in St. Louis where he could supervise the schooling. Jean Baptiste was first taught by the Reverend J. E. Welsh, a Baptist minister, and then by Father Francis Neill, a Catholic priest who conducted a boys school in St. Louis. The teaching of the half-Indian boy was carried on in French, the language of his father and that taught in the schools of St. Louis.
Among the interesting personages who came to travel through the far West in the early 19th century was Prince Paul of Wurtemburg, nephew of Paul I of Russia, and cousin to Nicholas I and Alexander 1. He made his first voyage to the United States in 1823 from Hamburg, Germany, and brought with him Heinrich Baldwin Molhausen to paint and sketch Indian life. John Quincy Adams, then Secretary of State, granted him permission to enter and travel through the country to study botany and zoology. The federal authorities of the West were instructed to provide him with every means in their power to further and safeguard his movements, and to furnish him with military escort whenever deemed necessary, It was on this trip that Prince Paul made the acquaintance of Toussaint Charbonneau and his family when Toussaint acted as guide, and Sacajawea served as interpreter.
Prince Paul’s meeting with Jean Baptiste Charbonneau took place at the mouth of the Kaw River, June 21, 1823. The prince recorded in his journal:
… Baptiste, his son, (a youth of sixteen) of whom I mentioned above, joined me on my return and following me to Europe, and has remained with me ever since …
On December 3, the party sailed from St. Louis to New Orleans on the steamboat Cincinnati, and on the 24th day of that month he and Jean Baptiste embarked on the brig Smyrne for the Atlantic seaboard on the first leg of their long journey to Europe. For six years Jean Baptiste lived with Prince Paul’s family. There he became familiar with several languages and received a “classical” education.
The years immediately following Charbonneau’s time in Europe are somewhat shadowed. W. A. Ferris, employee of the American Fur Company from 1830-35, mentioned Charbonneau in connection with finding some lost horses. During that period he was also with Thomas Fitzpatrick, better known as “Broken Hand,” William Sublette, and the “Blanket Chief,” Jim Bridger. Next he accompanied one of this party, Joseph Meek, who was delivering a dispatch to St. Louis. Nathaniel Wyeth recorded that he was with Jim Bridger in August of 1832, and that same year, Charbonneau was one of the four hunters going to trap beaver in the Blackfoot country. The vast territory covered on this trip extended from Clark Fork to the source of the Salmon, the upper regions of the Greene River to the Snake within sight of the Grand Tetons to the source of the Wind River, and thence passed down the Big Horn to the Yellowstone. In his journal, William Smith “while with Fur traders Vasquez, Sublette, in the Rocky Mountain region, 1839-40,” mentioned that “Mr. Shabenare” went down the Platte River 2,000 miles from the mountain in 60 days carrying “peltries” to St. Louis.
In his journal of 1842, John C. Fremont mentioned a “Mr. Chabonhard” — in all probability Baptiste. Fremont noted that “Chabonard” was in the employ of Bent and St. Vrain. “Mr. Chabonhard receive us hospitality,” Fremont recorded. “One of his people was sent to gather mint, with the aid of which he concocted a very good julep. . .” That same year, Sir William Drummond Stewart organized a party in St. Louis to hunt Buffalo, beginning at Fort Laramie, on the Oregon Trail. He brought with him the twenty-seven year old Alfred Jacob Miller, the artist who was to bring the romantic appeal of the West to the American public with his sketches and painting of the Indians and traders. In Stewart’s party were Kit Carson, William A. Sublette, Captain Jefferson Kennerly Clark, son of Captain Clark, and Baptiste Charbonneau, From 1842 to 1845 Charbonneau served at Bent’s Fort. Lieutenant George Frederick Buxton noted in his journal that “Chabonard, a half-breed was not lost in the crowd; first in every quality which constitute excellence in a mountaineer, who was ‘taller’ for his inches than Kit Carson.” Lieutenant Abert, on his journey to the Upper Arkansas and through the country of the Commanche Indians in the fall of 1845, mentioned frequently Mr. “Chabonard” and his services as guide from Bent’s Fort to St. Louis.
Charbonneau served as guide to Lieutenant Colonel Philip St. George Cooke during the years 1846-47. How useful he was to this conquest of New Mexico and California is learned from the numerous extracts taken from Colonel Cooke’s journal of the overland march of the Mormon Battalion. Like his mother, Charbonneau knew almost instinctively how to discover the gaps and passes in the mountains. Colonel Emory, while enroute to San Diego from Santa Fé in October of 1846 wrote:
I saw some large objects on the hill on the west, which were mistaken for large cedars, but dwindled by distance to a shrub. Charbonneau exclaimed, ‘Indians! They are Apaches!’ His more practical eye detected human figures in my shrubbery.
That Charbonneau was of major importance to the party is evident. One of the other guides, Paulino Weaver, became ill early on the trip, while Antoine Leroux, the French trapper, served as an advance scout. Late in 1846, Charbonneau advised Cooke of a route “different in part, and further than that taken by the general (Kearny), viz: to descend the river further and fall into a road from El Paso to the mines.” Apparently Charbonneau was aware that Kearney had ordered Cooke to locate a wagon road. Finding his maps worthless, Cooke relied heavily upon Charbonneau. The guide skillfully selected the route of the battalion, hunted for their provisions, found camps, scouted, and fought Indians, making it easier for Cooke to bring his half-starved group of 350 on the 1,200 mile journey through hostile territory to San Diego.
On the 29th of July, 1847, the ragged company encamped on the flat below the mission ruins at San Diego. Later that evening Colonel Cooke rode into town to report the arrival to the commanding officer at Fort Stockton, Cooke noted the importance of his successful expedition in Order Number 1, Headquarters Mon-non Battalion, January 30, 1847: “History may be searched in vain for an equal march of infantry…” Jean Baptiste Charbonneau had helped guide the force on this remarkable journey.
When California was taken by the Army of the United States, President Polk ordered respect for the religious sensitivities of the inhabitants. As a part of this policy, Indian agencies were set up. In July of 1847, Governor Richard B. Mason determined to establish an Indian sub-agency for the Indians of southern California to be located at one of the missions. The appointed mission was San Luis Rey, and on August 9, Second Lieutenant Barrus, with twenty-seven men, one sergeant, and a corporal were sent to take charge of the mission and the public property. At the recommendation of Colonel Stevenson, Jesse Hunter of the Mormon Battalion was named sub-agent. On the 24th of November, Governor Mason appointed Jean Baptiste Charbonneau the Alcalde “within the District of San Diego, at or near San Luis Rey.”
Charbonneau served as Alcalde for just a short time. In August, 1848, he resigned and claimed that because of his Indian heritage others thought him biased when problems arose between the Indians and the other inhabitants of the district. His resignation was accepted with little hesitancy. Charbonneau, however, probably left the office for reasons other than those he offered the Governor. The Indians were kept in constant debt through civilian maneuverings in the accounts at the general store and a dramshop at San Luis Rey. To pay off these inflated debts, the natives were kept in what amounted to indebted servitude. Little wonder this had no appeal for Charbonneau. He left San Luis Rey in 1848, and went to the gold fields for a year.
Soon afterwards he returned to the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming to live with his mother and family. Both he and Sacajawea were at the council of the “Great Treaty” held in 1868 at Fort Bridger, and were responsible for persuading the Indians to accept the proposed reservation and live in peace with the whites. They worked as interpreters at Fort Bridger, dealing with both white traders and Indians. Charbonneau and his mother were of great service to the whites through their tribal influence. The Indians respected their council — the whites valued their understanding. Thus they performed outstanding diplomatic service to the United States Govemment.
Sacajawea spent many years at Fort Bridger, where she died in April of 1884. Her son, 79 years old, followed her to the grave the next year. Their graves lie in a forty acre plot of ground on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming.
Only one copy of Prince Paul’s travels to North America was ever printed, and is now in the Henry E. Huntington Library in San Marino. The volume contains hundreds of marginal manuscript notes written in German script by the author.
Abert, Lt. J. W. “Journal … in 1845.” Senate Exec. Doc. 438, 29th Congress, 1st Session.
Boggs, W. M., typescript, 1905, in the Medford Public Library, Medford, Oregon.
Cleland, Robert G., This Reckless Breed of Men. New York, 1950.
Cooke, Philip St. George, Report of Lieut. Col. P. St. George Cooke of His March From Santa Fe, New Mexico, to San Diego, Upper California. Washington: Wendell and Van Benthuysen, Printers, 1848. Senate Ex. Doc. No. 41, 30th Congress, Ist Session.
Emory, Lieut. Col. W, H., Notes of a Military Reconnoissance From Fort Leavenworth, in Missouri To San Diego, in California Including Part of the Arkansas, Del Norte, and Gila Rivers. Washington: Wendell and Van Benthuysen, Printers, 1848. Ex. Doc. No. 41, 30th Congress, 1st Session.
Engelhardt, Fr. Zephyrin, San Luis Rey Mission. San Francisco: The James H. Barry Company, 1921.
Gaston, Joseph, Centennial History of Oregon, 1811-1911. Volume I, Medford Public Library, Medford, Oregon.
Hebard, Grace Raymond, Sacajawea, a Guide and Interpreter of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with an Account of the Travels of Toussaint Charbonneau and Jean Baptiste, the Expedition Papoose, Glendale: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1933.
Lavender, David, Bent’s Fort. Garden City: Doubleday and Company, 1954.
Lockwood, Frank C., “Arizona Pioneers: 1854 to 1864. Three Famous Hunters and Trappers,” The Arizona Historical Review, Vol. V, No. 2 (July, 1932), 135-141.
Buxton, George Frederick, Adventures in Mexico and the Rocky Mountains. New York, 1848.
Tyler, Sergeant Daniel, A Concise History of the Mormon Battalion in the Mexican War, 1846-47, 1881.
Wurtemburg, Prince Paul of, Travels to North America, MS, Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino, California.
June Reading, originally from Chicago and a graduate of the University of Minnesota, has lived in San Diego for more than twenty years. Presently she is the Director of the Whaley House and is on the Board of Directors of the San Diego History Center. Mrs. Reading is the author of The Thomas Whaley House, published by the San Diego History Center.