FORT MANDAN — Lewis and Clark slept here… 146 times. About 40 miles upriver of what is today Bismarck, North Dakota, the Corps of Discovery spent the most time of their three-year expedition in a single place, as they wintered in brutally cold conditions, from late October 1804 to early April 1805. Now between these banks runs the last original reach of the free-flowing Missouri River, 70 meandering miles book-ended by two dams.
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It was then the end of the known world. After the frigid winter they spent here, Lewis and Clark sent their keelboat back to St. Louis and prepared to head upstream, in six cottonwood canoes and two pirogues. When they left Fort Mandan on April 7, 1805, Lewis wrote: "We were now about to penetrate a country at least 2,000 miles in width, on which the foot of civilized man had never trodden."
Retracing history's steps
When we arrive at the upper end of this reach, just beneath the gates of the Garrison Dam holding back Lake Sakakawea, we make our way to the Missouri River Lodge, on a 2,000-acre ranch owned by Orville and Diane Oster. Like several others along the upper Missouri River who have barely scratched a living off the land in recent years, they decided to open their modest home to tourists to supplement their income. But for Orville it is something more, as he is a true Lewis and Clark history buff, and can recite entire journal passages with a cue. I ask if he can find an entry from when Lewis and Clark camped by a tributary, and in an instant he’s pulled the passage from his shelf and laid it on the table.
He’s especially proud of the fact the Lewis and Clark not only camped on his property, but recorded three separate entries, and he’s erected signposts for such. Early April of 2005 will be the 200th anniversary on Lewis and Clark on Orville’s property, and I ask if he is booked full, what with the countless Lewis and Clark enthusiasts retracing steps. “Nah,” he comes back. “We’re kinda outta the way. And April is too iffy for weather ‘round here. It might snow. Even Stephen Ambrose didn’t venture out here.”
The next morning we head for nearby Washburn, and the North Dakota Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. Featured attraction is a reproduction of Fort Mandan, Lewis and Clark’s winter encampment, in a cottonwood grove near the river. The original fort was picked apart for firewood, or burned down, or washed away. Nobody knows. But the replica, pieced together from descriptions, feels almost too real.
The weather has turned, and it is pouring rain, so we seek shelter in the 14’ x 14’ rooms of the fort. There are small stone fireplaces in each room, and we huddle by the flames as Kevin Kirkey, 35, the interpretive coordinator for the Fort — looking genuinely cold in period dress — describes life in the triangular-shaped fort in the winter of 1804. The 33 young soldiers of the Corps of Discovery led a simple and severe 5 months here, up to 9 men sleeping in each room the size of the one we’re in now, as the temperatures plunged to -45º outside.
He also tells us that it is not far from here, on the Knife River just upstream, Lewis and Clark made an encounter that may have been the most important to the success of the expedition.
Sacagawea and her husband moved from the Indian village into Fort Mandan to live with the members of the Corps. When the time came, Lewis became the midwife. But he had nothing among his pills for easing childbirth. An Indian told Lewis to crush the rattle of a snake and have Sacagawea drink it. This they did, and on Feb. 11, 1805, the babe was born. His father named him Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, but Sacagawea called him Pomp, which meant "first born" in her birth language.
And so, in April the expedition headed upstream with a conspicuous papoose in the back, a sign to the warriors along the way: Baby on Board.
Sacagawea spoke Hidatsa and Shoshone, but not English. Her husband spoke French and Hidatsa. Between them, they were sort of a translation team. Sacagawea would negotiate with the Shoshone in their language. Then she would translate the discussion to her husband in Hidatsa. He, in turn, would translate that into French, and convey it to expedition member François Labiche, who spoke French and English. Labiche would make the final translation so that the two English-speaking captains could understand.
When they returned to the Mandan villages after their trans-continental trek, in August 1806, Clark asked Charbonneau to let the boy continue on to St. Louis with him. He offered to raise the boy as his own, to see that he received proper schooling and learned the white man ways. The offer was turned down because Pomp, barely 18 months old, was still being breast-fed. But, Charbonneau promised “later,” and indeed, five years later, he delivered his son to St. Louis, where Clark was serving as Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Upper Louisiana. The next year, 1812, at only 24 years, Sacagawea died after giving birth to a second child, a daughter.
A picaresque tale
True to his word, William Clark had Pomp educated by Catholic and Baptist missionaries. This was the beginning for a long and enviably long and adventurous life for Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, which took him throughout Europe on a continental education to match his North American one. He led a life that I could envy: he traveled extensively, hunting, trapping, trading, guiding and exploring as one of the “mountain men” of the era. He rode with famous frontiersmen including Jim Bridges and Kit Carson, and traveled with John C. Fremont (whom I once doubled for in a television mini-series – not for Fremont exactly, but the actor who portrayed him, Richard Chamberlain). Pomp served as a scout and guide in the Mexican War (1846-7), leading troops from New Mexico to California, where he was appointed alcalde, or mayor, of Mission San Luis Rey, near San Diego.
But the call of the mountains was irresistible, and when news of the gold strikes spread, Pomp resigned his post and lit out for the Mother Lode. Like many others, he didn’t strike it rich, and in 1861 found himself working as a hotel desk clerk in Auburn, the foothills of the Sierras, at the Orleans Hotel in Auburn.
It was only a little over a century later that I did my own time in the Mother Lode running rivers, and sampling drams at every old saloon, including the Orleans Hotel. Perchance I spilled a few drops on the same oak bar as he… It’s a stretch, perhaps, but maybe not even six degrees separates my closest encounter with the ghosts of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Pomp and Sacagawea.
The Great Escapes media team is traveling the length of the Missouri River in September, filing daily dispatches along the way. If you have a question or comment, mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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