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Communicating with the various Native American tribes they encountered was very important to Lewis and Clark. That's why they hired interpreters, such as Toussaint Charbonneau, to accompany the Corps of Discovery.

Comic relief? Necessary evil? Obnoxious blowhard? Danger to himself and others?

Those descriptions have all at one time or another been used to describe Toussaint Charbonneau's role with the Corps of Discovery. Hired at Fort Mandan during the winter of 1805, Charbonneau served as one of the expedition's two main interpreters. Meriwether Lewis wrote that he was "a man of no peculiar merit." This opinion rarely changed for the better during the voyage.

Consider Charbonneau's roles:

Comic relief. Lewis wrote disgustedly that Charbonneau was "perhaps the most timid waterman in the world." On top of that, he couldn't swim—a real disadvantage for a 2,000-mile river journey. Corps members made sport of him because, as a French-Canadian, he often did things differently from his American counterparts.

Necessary evil. Lewis and Clark needed an interpreter, but Charbonneau had something far more important to offer the expedition—the interpreting skills of Sacagawea, one of his two Shoshone wives. The captains knew they would eventually reach Sacagawea's people, who lived at the headwaters of the Missouri at the Rocky Mountains. Her interpretation skills would be vital. For that tradeoff the captains took on Charbonneau. They never were impressed with his interpretation skills.

Obnoxious blowhard. The Mandans and Hidatsas, with whom Charbonneau had lived, had little respect for him. They mocked his bragging and gave him insulting nicknames, such as "Chief of Little Village" and "Forest Bear." When the captains invited Charbonneau to join the Corps, they told him he would have the same duties as the enlisted men, including standing regular guard. Charbonneau flat out refused and offered his own terms, which Lewis recorded: "[L]et our Situation be what it may he will not agree to work or Stand a guard....[In addition] If miffed with any man he wishes to return when he pleases, also have the disposial of as much provisions as he Chuses to Carry." The captains showed him and his wives the door to the fort. Four days later he returned sheepishly to ask the captains to reconsider if he agreed to take on the duties of the regular enlisted men. Though the reasons for his change of mind were not chronicled, many historians believe Sacagawea, who wanted to return to her people, laid down the law with her husband.

Danger to himself and others. Letting Charbonneau take his turn at the helm of the boats twice nearly turned disastrous. On April 13, 1805, just a few days after leaving Fort Mandan, Charbonneau was at the helm of one of the pirogues. He panicked when a sudden wind rocked the boat, turned it the wrong way, and nearly capsized it before George Droulliard righted it. A month later, it took Pierre Cruzatte's threatening to shoot him if he didn't regain his composure and grab the rudder after he again nearly capsized the boat. This time the boat filled with water, and were it not for Sacagawea's calmly diving into the Missouri and retrieving important papers that had floated out of the boat, many critical items would have been lost.

After the expedition returned, Charbonneau took Sacagawea and their new son, Jean Baptiste, back to the Mandan and Hidatsa villages, where they lived until late 1809. The three then returned to St. Louis and Charbonneau claimed the 320 acres he had received for his part in the journey.

Farming was not in his blood, so a year later he and Sacagawea sold their land to Clark for $100 to head back up the Missouri. They left Jean Baptiste to Clark's care, who would see that he received an education. Charbonneau joined the Missouri Fur Company and was stationed at Fort Manuel in South Dakota when Sacagawea is believed to have died in 1812 while giving birth to their second child, Lisette. Charbonneau formally entrusted the children to Clark as their guardian the next year.

Charbonneau spent much of his later years interpreting, often being appointed by Clark. He is believed to have died at the age of 80 somewhere along the Missouri as he returned from St. Louis.


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