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Interpreters with Lewis and Clark

The Story of Sacagawea and Toussaint Charbonneau

W. Dale Nelson

Publication Year: 2003

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.

Published by: University of North Texas Press

Interpreters with Lewis and Clark

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pp. vii

List of Illustrations

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pp. viii

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pp. ix-x

Many hours of research in the William Robertson Coe Library and American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming went into the making of this book. I am grateful to the staff of the Coe Library, as well as the William E. Morgan Library at Colorado State University, ...

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pp. 1-4

The caller was Toussaint Charbonneau, interpreter to Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, husband to Sacagawea, and father to Jean Baptiste. Together and separately, the three were actors in events that would leave an indelible mark on the American West of their time. ...

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pp. 5-15

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.”1 ...

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pp. 16-24

On November 24, Francoise-Antoine Laroque stopped by at Toussaint’s Hidatsa village. Although Laroque was only twenty years old, this was not the first time he had made the long trip to the Knife River from Quebec. He had hired Charbonneau as an interpreter before, and wanted to again. ...

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CHAPTER THREE Against the Current

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pp. 25-40

The Missouri River was a stern antagonist. Its murky water hid fallen logs, which on the trip up from St. Louis had snagged the keelboat and stove a hole in one of the pirogues. Often the men could make no headway with oars against the mainstream current, and sought calmer water near the shore. ...

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pp. 41-46

Toussaint and Sacagawea were assigned an important task as the party prepared for the trek through the mountains. Clark picked eleven men to go ahead with him to explore whether the route was as bad as the Indians said, and to make canoes if they found a navigable river. ...

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pp. 47-54

Toussaint Charbonneau’s first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean came toward evening on November 18, 1805. It may have been his first sighting of any ocean. Or perhaps, between his birth near Montreal and his arrival at the Mandan villages, he had made it down the St. Lawrence River and seen the Atlantic. ...

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CHAPTER SIX Homeward Bound

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pp. 55-67

By the time the Corps of Discovery reached Fort Clatsop, Clark had nicknames for the interpreter’s wife and child. He called Sacagawea “Janey” and called Baptiste “Pomp” or “Pompey.” He often walked with the three of them on shore. He survived near-disaster with them in the storm above the Great Falls. ...

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pp. 68-75

The St. Louis to which the Lewis and Clark party returned was much changed from the frontier village they had visited on their way to the Mandan Villages in 1803. Then a scattering of houses made of mud, stone and rough-hewn logs had been crammed onto three streets at the river’s edge. ...

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CHAPTER EIGHT Father and Son

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pp. 76-79

On January 20, 1820, William Clark, superintendent of Indian affairs at St. Louis, paid $16.37 and one-half cents to J. E. Welch, a Baptist minister and school teacher, to cover tuition, ink, and firewood for two quarters for Jean Baptiste Charbonneau.1 ...

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CHAPTER NINE At Home and Abroad

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pp. 80-84

The duke, a nephew of Wurttemberg’s King Friedrich I, had been trained for a military career. But like Thomas Jefferson, the impulsive, intellectual Paul was more interested in science and philosophy than in soldiering, and professed to prefer the wilds to a royal court. “In the atmosphere of a palace I would feel ...

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CHAPTER TEN The Prince and the Frontiersman

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pp. 85-91

The sloppily dressed bachelor with bad teeth and a heavy German accent stood on the deck of the Missouri River steamboat Assiniboine and watched the Stars and Stripes waving from the flag staff of Fort Clark, the American Fur Company post below the Mandan villages. ...

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CHAPTER ELEVEN Glimpses of Baptiste

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pp. 92-95

Quite quickly, however, he was plunged into the rigors of frontier life as a member of a group of trappers in what is now eastern Idaho. Trying an overland short-cut from the Snake River at present-day American Falls to the Wood River, they found themselves on a seventy-mile trek over lava beds crisscrossed with deep chasms ...

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CHAPTER TWELVE Desolation on the Missouri

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pp. 96-105

Smallpox was raging among the Mandans and Hidatsas. The Indians blamed the traders for bringing the infection. Game was scarce, and hunger threatened everywhere. No wonder Toussaint Charbonneau, now at Fort Clark as interpreter, was welcome whenever he arrived from a trip to the Mandan villages with fresh meat.3 ...

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pp. 106-116

On May 13, 1846, a Congress caught up in the fever for westward expansion declared war on Mexico, and Baptiste Charbonneau found himself enlisted in a mission that was to change his life. As an adult as he had been as a child, he was to be in the vanguard of one of the great westward movements of nineteenth century America. ...

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CHAPTER FOURTEEN John B. Charbonneau

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pp. 117-122

General Kearny was mistaken when he believed he was being sent ahead to California to assume command of a defeated enemy. The Mexicans still held everything between San Diego and Santa Barbara, and his men would have to fight every inch of the way. The Mormon Battalion was sent back to the deserted mission ...

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pp. 123-132

In 1907, the Journal of American History published an article by Grace Raymond Hebard, a librarian and professor at the University of Wyoming, entitled, “Woman Who Led the Way to the Golden West: Pilot of the First White Men to Cross America.” ...


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pp. 133-156


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pp. 157-168


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pp. 169-174

E-ISBN-13: 9781574414226
Print-ISBN-13: 9781574411652

Page Count: 188
Illustrations: 22 b&w illus., 2 maps
Publication Year: 2003

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Subject Headings

  • Frontier and pioneer life -- West (U.S.).
  • Sacagawea.
  • Sacagawea -- Family.
  • West (U.S.) -- Discovery and exploration.
  • Pioneers -- West (U.S.) -- Biography.
  • Indian interpreters -- West (U.S.) -- Biography.
  • Charbonneau, Toussaint, ca. 1758-ca. 1839.
  • Lewis and Clark Expedition -- (1804-1806).
  • Shoshoni women -- West (U.S.) -- Biography.
  • Charbonneau, Jean-Baptiste, 1805-1866.
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