Jean Baptiste Charbonneau was the son of Sacagewea and Toussaint Charbonneau. His father was a French-Canadian fur trader who signed on to the Corps of Discovery (also known as the Lewis and Clark Expedition) in their quest to reach the Pacific Ocean. His mother was a Shosone woman who Toussaint called his wife, but had actually been won in a poker game. Jean Baptiste was born at Fort Mandan on February 11, 1805 and completed the rest of the trek with the expedition. His likeness can be seen on the Sacagewea dollar coin, napping in a pack on his mother's back. "Pomp", as Jean Baptiste was nicknamed by William Clark became a great favorite of the members of the Corps, and Clark even took him into his home to allow him to receive an education in later years. A large sandstone rock along the Yellowstone River in Montana was even named Pompy's Tower after the boy.
When Pomp was six, he moved in with William Clark in his home in St. Louis. There, he was given the best education possible, and mingled with visitors from all over the world, as Clark had been named governor of Missouri Territory. Unlike most Indian boys of the time, Pomp was taught to read and write in English. He also learned to read classical Greek and Latin, ancient languages that well-educated white gentlemen were then expected to study.
At the age of 16, Jean Baptiste was ready to set out on his own, and found a job with the Missouri Fur Company. In 1823 he met and became fast friends with Duke Paul Wilhelm, better known as Prince Paul, nephew of the king of Wurttemberg. Prince Paul had a passion for natural history, and he and Pomp explored the wilderness together. When Paul returned to Europe he took Pomp with him, where Jean Baptiste was introduced to the royalty of Germany. At one gathering, Pomp played the violin for Ludwig van Beethoven, perhaps the greatest composer of the day. After Pauls marriage, Baptiste lived in
Deutschmeister Schloss with the couple for two years, learning to speak German, Spanish, and Italian in addition to the English, French, and several Indian languages he already knew.
Prince Paul and Baptiste returned to North America in 1829 and organized an expedition that sailed up the Missouri River. After returning to the wilderness, Baptiste realized how much he loved the wild, and decided to become a mountain man. Paul returned to Europe alone.
Baptiste lived as a mountain man for the next fifteen years, traveling and trapping, resting only for the annual rendezvous where trappers would get together to sell their furs and drink and gamble. During this period, he made friends with fellow mountain men Joe Meek, Jim Bridger, and Jim Beckwourth. Although Baptiste was more successful than most trappers, by the early 1840s he had to give up the life of the mountain man. He and his fellow frontiersmen had caught so many beavers that there were few left to trap.
Baptiste decided to become a guide to groups traveling through the west. He knew the country well, and could speak most languages, Indian and non-Indian, that would be required for communication. He became known as an excellent guide and helped many expeditions reach the Pacific ocean successfully, just as him mother before him. His adventures during this period were many, and included escaping bear attacks and blazing trails across deserts.
In 1848 Baptiste caught gold fever, and like many others, headed for northern California to strike it rich. He didn't make his fortune at gold mining, but he remained in California for the next seventeen years, making a living at various enterprises. His gold fever didn't die however, and in 1866, at the age of sixty one, he headed for a new gold strike in what is now known as Montana.
Jean Baptiste and his two partners made it to the Owyhee River in Northeastern Oregon. As they crossed the Owyhee on horseback, they were drenched up to their waists in the still icy waters. Charbonneau caught pneumonia. In a desperate effort to save his life, his two friends carried him twenty-five miles to Inskip’s ranch and stagecoach station, the nearest shelter. There, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau died on May 16, 1866. His body was buried nearby, the first in a site that would become a small local graveyard.