When Lewis & Clark came to the area that is today North Dakota, they began to recruit men and women to join the Corps of Discovery. One of their new recruits was Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian fur trapper who had been living among the Hidatsa. He had taken two Shoshone women as his wives–Otter Woman and Sakakawea (Sacagawea). Lewis and Clark saw an opportunity in hiring Charbonneau, since he could speak French and some Hidatsa, and his wives could speak Shoshone. Charbonneau was hired as a translator for the expedition, but was judged harshly by members of the Corps, and by historians in later days. Charbonneau was found to be timid in the water, and quick tempered with his wives. Although some came to appreciate Charbonneau’s cooking, in particular, a recipe for sausage made from bison meat, Meriwether Lewis said he was “a man of no particular merit.”
Nevertheless, Charbonneau was a member of the Corps of Discovery for nearly two years, from November of 1804 to August of 1806, and accompanied the expedition all the way to the Pacific and back. In later years, Charbonneau worked for Manuel Lisa’s fur company and spent considerable time at Fort Lisa, a frontier fort, the site of which is today under Lake Sakakawea near Pick City, North Dakota.
Charbonneau’s death and burial are not recorded in any ironclad form, but most historians agree that Charbonneau died in 1843, and that he was buried in Fort Mandan. Even so, Missouri residents insist Charbonneau died in Richwoods, Missouri, and some claim to be his descendants.
Some 70 years after Charbonneau’s death, this tiny town was founded as a Great Northern Railroad town in McKenzie County, between Watford City and the Montana border. It was named for nearby Charbonneau Creek, which was in turn named for Toussaint Charbonneau.
Charbonneau grew to nearly 125 residents at one time, but by 1960, only 15 residents remained. Perhaps it is apropos that a town named after a man of “no particular merit” is today, a ghost town.
Where children once went to school, the crumbling country schoolhouse remains, enduring winter after winter, meeting each spring with a few more missing shingles.
More of Charbonneau School
What does the landscape look like in Charbonneau, North Dakota? A look behind the school reveals all. The photo below was taken in July, 2017, when this part of North Dakota was enduring severe drought. Normally, this scene would be quite a bit greener.
We’re told there is one resident still in the area of Charbonneau, a gentleman who lives on the east edge of town, and we’ve been told visitors have been asked to leave Charbonneau, too, so if you decide to visit, keep it in mind.
There is a cemetery on the hill overlooking Charbonneau, but no sign of a church.
What do you know about Toussaint Charbonneau and Charbonneau, North Dakota? Please leave a comment below.
Photos by Troy Larson and Terry Hinnenkamp, copyright © 2017 Sonic Tremor Media
Troy Larson is an author, photographer, gentleman adventurer (debatable) from Fargo, North Dakota, and co-founder of Ghosts of North Dakota. @NorthDakotaTroy