Sunday, August 31, 2008

This Day In History

205 years ago, on this day in 1803, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, formally known as the "Corps Of Discovery" began in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Thomas Jefferson sent this band of 33 to explore and map the American West. As there had only been one other expedition across the continent (it had veered North and didn't extend to the Pacific Ocean), Jefferson wasn't sure what he had bought with the Louisiana Purchase. (And France wasn't sure what they had sold.) The explorers were further charged with collecting samples of flora and fauna.

They spent their first winter in North Dakota at Fort Mardan. It was there that the group enlisted the talents of a French-Canadian trapper and his then pregnant Shoshone wife, Sacagawea. The trapper, Toussaint Charbonneau, was their interpreter, and they agreed to include Sacagawea to bargain for horses with Indian tribes along the way. It was hoped that native tribes would recognize the expedition as peaceful with the presence of a mother and child.

Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, born at Fort Mardan, North Dakota in February, 1805, travelled as a baby with the expedition all the way across the country to the Pacific Ocean in Oregon and back to North Dakota, either on his mother Sacagawea's back or in a boat. Years later, Clark brought the family to St. Louis, where he paid for young Jean Baptiste to be educated. At 18, he travelled in Europe for 6 years and mastered German, French and Spanish. Upon his return, Jean Baptiste spent 40 years as a mountain man, guide, Army scout, explorer and interpreter. He led the Mormon Batallion to San Diego in 1846 and was appointed alcalde of Mission San Luis Rey. He mined for gold with the 49ers and was enroute to new gold fields in Montana when he was felled by pneumonia in Oregon at age 61.

The painting above is by Charles Russell, painted in 1905. It shows Lewis and Clark on the lower Columbia River, just miles from the Pacific Ocean. It is an opaque and transparent watercolor with a graphite underdrawing on paper. If you look closely, you can see baby Jean Baptiste in the first boat, carried on his mother's back. He is the only child depicted on a U.S. coin, shown with his mother, Sacagawea, on the dollar coin.

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