Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

Sacagawea's Son as a Symbol

Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

Sacagawea's Son as a Symbol

Article excerpt

IN RECENT MONTHS, Sacagawea's child has come out of the footnotes of history to an enduring fame around the world. His image -- or the image of a baby representing him -- now shines on a brightly minted dollar coin, and his story is sure to be publicized and retold often through the coming bicentennial celebrations of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1803-1806. Here in Oregon, a re-dedication took place on June 24, 2000, at his grave site near Jordan Valley in the southeast corner of the state. It was an occasion for clearing and improving the site as a tourist attraction and for highlighting Oregon's claim to an important person in the expedition. The grave site has long been a pilgrimage destination for Lewis and Clark devotees. It has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1971, after the site was developed and dedicated through the efforts of local people and Oregon members of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation.

But what can we say about the person whose life ended there in 1866? The signboard at the site outlines a tantalizing history. The child was born on February 11, 1805, at the winter camp of Lewis and Clark on the Upper Missouri (in what is now North Dakota). Just a few weeks later the party headed west and the child came along, survived risks and hardships over thousands of miles, and returned safely in 1806. Just days after Meriwether Lewis and William Clark parted down river, Clark sent a letter back to the boy's father, Toussaint Charbonneau, making an offer to educate the child and treat him as his own. After an interval, the child (by now named Jean Baptiste Charbonneau and nicknamed Pomp) was brought to St. Louis and educated at Clark's expense. A further turn of fortune lay ahead. In 1822, a European prince, Paul Wilhelm of Wurttemberg, ascended the Missouri on an expedition of scientific curiosity. He met the youth, still in his teens, near the mouth of the Kansas River and agreed to carry him along to Europe on his return. From 1824 to 1829, the young man lived at a palace in Germany and may have traveled elsewhere in Europe. When he returned, he once more looked to the West. He was a mountain man, guide, interpreter, and adventurer over routes leading from St. Louis to California, where he took part in gold mining after 1849. He was on a further adventure to search for gold in Montana when he became ill near the Owyhee River and died in May 1866.

These bare facts can be documented and fleshed out a little, but not really very much.[1] Despite eager searches, the life records that have emerged consist almost entirely of passing references in other people's journals. This is an odd turn of events. A life of sixty-one years, touching many lands, led by an educated man who was surely fluent in several languages, now endures in just a few lines and images built up from a handful of odd passages and details; and all our impressions of this life have been composed by others.

Because this life story is now a matter of concentrated interest, it lies prey to further distortion through modern publicity. In a word, Sacagawea's child has long been a symbolic figure, a person whose life story points a moral or whose image serves mainly to focus feelings or attitudes about other subjects or ideas -- such as Sacagawea as a mother, the character of William Clark, or the exploration and settlement of the West. We would do well to ask pointedly what kind of symbol he has become, or is becoming, and how the available evidence supports such developments.

THE RECENT CEREMONIES at the grave site are a good instance of the problem at hand. In the course of an hour or two, several distinct groups laid claim to this figure and included him in their particular symbol systems. At the opening, the local parish priest blessed and sprinkled water on the grave of Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, who had been named for a Christian saint and properly baptized as a Catholic in 1809. …

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