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Charbonneau was born in Boucherville, Quebec (near Montréal), a community with strong links to exploration and the fur trade. Charbonneau was a mix of European and native descents. His paternal great grandmother Marguerite De Noyon was the sister of Jacques de Noyon, who had explored the region around Kaministiquia (Thunder Bay) in 1688.
Charbonneau worked for a time as a fur trapper with the North West Company (NWC), founded by Great Britain, which was one of the most powerful nations at the time. John MacDonell, recorder of one of their expeditions, first noted Charbonneau in their historical journal. After several routine mentions of Charbonneau, MacDonell wrote on May 30, 1795: "Tousst. Charbonneau was stabbed at the Manitou-a-banc end of the Portage la Prairie, Manitoba in the act of committing a Rape upon her Daughter by an old Saultier woman with a Canoe Awl—a fate he highly deserved for his brutality— It was with difficulty he could walk back over the portage."
It was likely that it was while working with the North West Company that Charbonneau encountered the established settlement of Mandan and Hidatsa tribes on the upper Missouri River, near present-day Bismarck, North Dakota. He settled amongst these tribes, according to his own report around 1797. The area would remain his home for the rest of his life. Charbonneau became a free agent, working on his own and for several different fur companies operating in the area, as a trapper, laborer, and an interpreter of the Hidatsa language.
Charbonneau is said to have been married to two women at the same time. This came about when he purchased two captive Shoshone women: Sacagawea (Bird Woman) and "Otter Woman", from the Hidatsa. The Hidatsa had captured these two young women on one of their annual raiding and hunting parties to the west. Charbonneau eventually considered these women to be his wives, though whether they were bound through Native American custom or simply through common-law marriage is indeterminate.
In 1804 Sacagawea became pregnant with their first child.The baby was named Jean Baptise, but was called Pomp, meaning first born in Shoshone. It was during this year that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark came to the area, built Fort Mandan, and recruited members to the Corps of Discovery. Charbonneau was interviewed to interpret Hidatsa. Lewis and Clark, however, were not overly impressed with him; Charbonneau spoke no English. Although several in the expedition party could translate from French, Charbonneau did not appear to know Hidatsa all that well. By his own admission, over thirty years later, he still could not speak the language well although he had lived with the Hidatsa nearly continuously. However, when Lewis and Clark learned that his wives were Shoshone, they were eager to have them interpret this language as well. Sacagawea spoke Shoshone and Hidatsa and Charbonneau Hidatsa and French. They hired Charbonneau on November 4, and Sacagawea moved into Fort Mandan with Charbonnaeau a week later.
During the winter, Charbonneau communicated with members of the North West Company, and brought information back to Lewis and Clark's company. The situation between Britain and the United States was tense, and the group was concerned about how the British presence in the area would affect their group. During the winter at the fort, Charbonneau's son, with Sacagawea, Jean-Baptiste was born on February 11, 1805.
In the winter, as the expedition was being prepared, Charbonneau had second thoughts about his role and eventually quit the expedition, having said he was dissatisfied with the requirement to stand guard and perform manual labor amongst other tasks. However, on March 17 he returned and apologized, requesting to re-join the company; he was re-hired the following day.
His performance during the journey was mixed: Meriwether Lewis called him "a man of no peculiar merit", and many historians have painted Charbonneau in a distinctly unfavorable light. Some[who?] suggest that these historians may have been influenced by his earlier attempted rape of a girl in 1795.
Most of Charbonneau's positive contributions to the expedition itself were overshadowed by the incident with the "white pirogue." The party noted that on May 14, 1805, the pirogue guided by Charbonneau was hit by a gust of wind, to which he turned broadside. He lost control to the point that Pierre Cruzatte, in the boat with him, threatened to shoot him if he did not regain his composure, but to no avail. Charbonneau nearly capsized the boat, which would have meant the loss of valuable equipment and papers. It was only with the help of his wife, Sacagawea, that these important items were saved. Meriwether Lewis was irate, writing that Charbonneau was "perhaps the most timid waterman in the world."
Charbonneau, however, did make several contributions to the success of the expedition. He was helpful when the expedition encountered French trappers from Canada and he served as a cook; his recipe for boudin blanc (a sausage made from bison meat) was praised by several members of the party. Additionally, his skill in striking a bargain came in handy when the expedition acquired much-needed horses at the Shoshone encampment.
William Clark was particularly taken with Charbonneau's son, young Jean Baptiste (whom he nicknamed "Pomp"), and by extension the entire Charbonneau family, including Toussaint. Despite having reprimanded Charbonneau with regard to his duties (October 27, 1805) and having intervened in a marital dispute in which Charbonneau hit his wife (Sacagawea) (August 14 of that year), Clark offered to set up Charbonneau and his family in St. Louis after the expedition. His offer included providing for the education of Jean-Baptiste.
Charbonneau initially declined Clark's offer to relocate to St. Louis, as he preferred life with the Mandan and Hidatsa. He was paid $503.03 for his nineteen months with the expedition, and remained in the upper Missouri area for some time. However, by 1809, the family had indeed relocated to St. Louis. Charbonneau briefly took up farming for a living. He gave it up after a few months, leaving with Sacagawea and entrusting the care of Jean-Baptiste to William Clark. He sold Clark his 320-acre (1.3 km²) grant for $100.
He then took a job with Manuel Lisa's Missouri Fur Company, and was stationed at Fort Manuel Lisa Trading Post in present-day North Dakota. Evidence suggests that, while Charbonneau was on an expedition with the company in 1812, Sacagawea died at the fort. The following year Charbonneau signed over formal custody of his son Jean Baptiste and daughter Lisette to William Clark.
During the period of 1811-1838, Charbonneau also worked for the Upper Missouri Agency's Indian Bureau (a federal agency) as a translator. He earned from $300 to $400 per year from the government. He may have gained this position by the patronage of William Clark, who was from 1813 the governor of the Missouri Territory; upon Clark's death, Charbonneau's employment with the government came to an abrupt halt.
Surviving records show that Charbonneau was widely disliked by others in the Missouri Territory. Part of the reason for this may be his casual attitude toward employment: he was variously hired by Lisa's Missouri Fur Company and by John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company, bitter rivals. He is also said to have abandoned another employer, James Kipp, while on a fur expedition in 1834. Perhaps because of this, Charbonneau gained much of his work as a guide for people from outside the area, among whom were Karl Bodmer and Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied. For them he played up his experience with Lewis and Clark to its best advantage.
Charbonneau is known to have had a total of five wives, all young Native American women whom he married when they were sixteen years old or younger, which was not unusual for the time. He may have had more wives who have been lost to the record, however. His last known wife, an Assiniboine girl, was 14 when she married him in 1837; he was more than 70 years old.
He died in Washburn, North Dakota. His interment was on Mandan's reservation.