A Beautiful Promising Child
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t's easy to begin a letter, assuming you have a good reason for writing. You extend a few verbal handshakes, then get to the point. Pen and ink is all you have at hand. No face, no voice, no body-language of your own to finesse the raw words. You close with some sort of a word-wave and sign your name. Perhaps you tag on a "by the way" to underscore your message, or ease the going.
Aboard the white pirogue near the Arikara village, on August 20, 1806, Captain William Clark writes a letter to "Mr. Teousant Charbono."1 They parted company only three days before, at the Mandan village where, twenty-one months earlier, Charbonneau had signed on as an interpreter. "I had not time to talk with you as much as I intended, Clark begins. "You have been a long time with me and have conducted your Self in Such a manner as to gain my friendship."
He compliments Sacagawea: ". . . your woman who accompanied you that long dangerous and fatigueing rout to the Pacific Ocian and back diserved a greater reward for her attention and services on that rout than we had in our power to give her at the Mandans."
Then to the point—his affection and concern for Charbonneau's child, Jean Baptiste: "As to your little Son (my boy Pomp), you well know my fondness for him and my anxiety to take and raise him as my own child." Clark repeats the offer he made verbally on August 17th, to help the boy's father find a permanent livelihood after the expedition is over, and mentions the boy again: ". . . or if you wish to return to trade with the indians and will leave your little Son Pomp with me, I will assist you with . . ."—and so on. "If you are desposed to accept either of my offers to you," continues the captain, "and will bring down your Son your famn”—not squaw but femme, woman; he uses the French noun as a friendly gesture toward both Toussaint and his wife; then his own affectionate nickname—"your famn Janey had best come along with you to take care of the boy untill I get him."
It's a remarkable plan for the reserved, unmarried Clark to commit himself to raising someone else's child—especially one whose age and developmental stage could scarcely have offered many clues to his future personality or intelligence. Oh, he does have marriage in mind, and when the expedition is over he'll hurry back to Virginia to marry his young cousin, Judith (a year or two younger than Pomp's mother). But how bold a stroke to bring a foster child to the new union, sight unseen.
Clark's offer is in line with the orders President Jefferson had written out for Lewis: "If any of them"—Indians, Jefferson meant—"should wish to have some of their young people brought up with us, & taught such arts as may be useful to them, we will receive, instruct & take care of them. Such a mission, whether of influential chiefs or of young people, would give some security to your own party."2 Yet it's hard to find anything beyond genuine affection and altruism in Clark's letter.
As if afraid the crusty Frenchman might turn him down on all counts—or was it to capture the man's attention by a trendy hint of intrigue?—Clark adds a mysterious warning: "keep this letter and let not more than one or 2 persons see it, and when you write to seal your letter. I think you best not deturmin which of my offers to accept untill you See me. Come prepared to accept of either which you may chuse after you get down." There's a sense of urgency in Clark's tone that seems inconsistent with the circumstances, for on the 17th he had noted in his journal that Charbonneau had agreed to let him take Baptiste, that "butifull promising Child," to raise in such a manner as he deemed proper. And it's understood that it will be another year or so before the boy will be weaned.
This article was previously published in We Proceeded On, Vol. 21, No. 2 (May, 1995), 20-23.
1. Donald Jackson, ed., Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Related Documents, 1783-1854, 2nd ed., 2 vols. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), I:315-16.
2. Ibid., I:64.