Overgrown Grave Site Breathes Life
Into State's Expedition History
Sacagawea's son signals a bicentennial and an onslaught of visitors to this rural community
JORDAN VALLEY -- Here in a remote corner of Oregon's high desert, an overgrown grave site is to be cleared of sagebrush and dust, and a turnout for tourists cut along the side of a gravel road.
Despite its isolation -- 457 miles from Portland and 83 miles from Boise -- the resting place of Jean Baptiste Charbonneau is being groomed for thousands of expected visitors.
Charbonneau is none other than "Pomp," one of the most famous babies of the 19th century. Today his visage graces the new one-dollar U.S. coin with his mother, Sacagawea.
Born Feb. 11, 1805, he was carried on the Lewis and Clark Expedition. His unusual presence on a military expedition helped soothe Native American tribes encountered by the Corps of Discovery, aiding the success of the trip.
His grave, discovered in the 1960s, has fallen into disrepair since being named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.
With the bicentennial celebration of the Lewis and Clark Expedition approaching in 2003, work crews began clearing sagebrush from the site last weekend, prepping for a June 24 dedication.
The grave site restoration is being done under the umbrella of the Oregon Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. New fencing, trees and roadwork on the dusty county road leading to the site are under way. State transportation workers put up new signs to the off-road site last week.
"It's kind of remarkable, the life he lived," said Roger Wendlick, associate curator of the Chuinard/Wendlick Collection at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, who is guiding the restoration work. "And he ended up here."
After the expedition's conclusion in 1806, Charbonneau went on to live a storybook life. Educated in Europe by a German aristocrat, he returned to the West as a mountain man and military scout, eventually working as a miner during the California Gold Rush before dying at 61 at a lonely stage stop near Jordan Valley in 1866.
Now he lies in the heart of the Owyhee country, rough volcanic lands of high Oregon desert and snowcapped mountains. Cattle ranches dominate the area, a place settled by miners and cattlemen in the 1860s. The grave is three miles off U.S. 95 in the community of Danner, about 17 miles west of Jordan Valley.
The bicentennial is slated for 2003 through 2006, and communities all along the trail are preparing for the tourists expected to throng to historic sites. Although far from the actual trail, the grave of Charbonneau could draw thousands of visitors enthralled with the role of Sacagawea and her child on the trip. Already, with an overgrown grave and poor signs on the highway, hundreds of people visit the site each summer.
"It will bring a lot of people in," said Mike Hanley, whose 1,000-head cattle ranch sits just out of town. "Tourism will help."
Jordan Valley, like dozens of rural communities in the West, is reeling from the effects of a changing economy. Grazing restrictions are helping slow the cattle industry, while last year the Kinross-Delamar Gold Corp. closed its mine in the area, cutting more than 100 jobs. The Jordan Valley School District has lost approximately 50 of its 142 students since the mine closed, said Superintendent Don Fluke.
Meanwhile, lower air fares, Native American gambling casinos and the lure of Las Vegas have stolen highway traffic that used to thread through this town on the way to Winnemucca and Reno, Nev.
"This highway has died," said Gary Moran, owner of the Old Basque Inn in Jordan Valley. "Anything would help."
Pomp's final stop
Charbonneau had no intention of staying when he arrived at the Inskip Station in May 1866. Chilled from crossing the icy waters of the Owyhee River, some 25 miles to the west, he came down with pneumonia and died at the stage stop.
His two traveling companions -- en route to Montana -- sent off an obituary to a nearby mining town and rode off into a shadow of history. No one is certain who they were or what became of them.
After that, the legend of Charbonneau and his grave evaporated in the dry desert air.
His earlier life is only slightly better known. He first came to Oregon as an infant, accompanying the Corps of Discovery. He turned a year old in present-day Warrenton.
Capt. William Clark took a particular liking to the boy and saw to it that Baptiste, as Charbonneau was later called, received an education in St. Louis upon the expedition's return in 1805.
As Baptiste grew, he enjoyed world culture in a way far beyond the dreams of most Americans of the time. In 1823, Baptiste traveled to Europe in the company of German nobleman Prince Paul of Wurtemburg. For six years he toured Europe, learned to speak at least four languages fluently and became a favorite in royal courts.
At 24, he came home to the West. For the next 15 years, he traveled the Rocky Mountains as a mountain man, meeting up with legends such as Jim Bridger, John C. Fremont and Jim Beckwourth. He scouted for the Mormon Battalion during the Mexican-American War in the 1840s and settled in California. He served as an alcalde for the San Luis Rey Mission, then spent about 20 years in the gold country of Central California.
His quiet death in Oregon in 1866 belied the dent he left in U.S. history.
In the 20th century, local legend among ranchers in the area told of somebody famous buried on the Ruby Ranch. Not until a historian from New Mexico teamed up with the Skinner ranching family in the 1960s was anyone sure who was in the grave.
Tracking Charbonneau's whereabouts from California to Oregon, scholars, including the late Irving Anderson of Portland, became convinced that Charbonneau was in the ground here. Anderson was one of the pre-eminent scholars on Sacagawea.
Graves beside a gravel road
When Charbonneau's obituary was discovered in an old newspaper from an Idaho mining town, historians were sure he had died at Inskip Station.
Today, Charbonneau's grave and five others sit beside a gravel road, separated from a cattle and horse range by a wobbly fence. The other graves are thought to be of a child, a woman and three men. All died in the 19th century, presumably at the fortified Inskip Station. The remains of the station sit across the road from the ranch, on private property.
The new dedication of the grave site is sure to stir up more than just dust and sagebrush in the West. Some people -- including members of the Shoshone tribe in Wyoming -- believe both Charbonneau and Sacagawea are buried on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Central Wyoming, the result of a long-standing claim that the two lived there in their last days.
A theory arose in the 1930s that Sacagawea died April 9, 1884, and was buried at Fort Washakie in Wyoming. Charbonneau is purported to be buried in the same cemetery. But most historians believe his mother died on December 20, 1812, in present-day South Dakota, and Charbonneau at Inskip Station in 1866.
There are plenty of challenges to completing the memorial site before its June dedication; Wendlick is trying to raise more than $5,000 to pay for the renovation, facilities for visitors ranging from parking to restrooms remain in short supply, and locals who live near the grave site worry over dust and traffic on a little-used rural road.
Bruce and Joni Boyle raise horses and cattle on the 6,000-acre Ruby Ranch near the grave site. And while pleased with the legacy of the remote ranch, they view the grave warily.
"We could see the good and bad of that," Bruce Boyle said.
Many ranchers in this part of Oregon feel under siege. Environmental concerns have forced cattle off land near the Owyhee River, while changing consumer tastes have hurt beef prices. Having more "outsiders" driving down rural ranching roads seems like trouble to some.
Still, the Boyles are donating about one acre of land that Charbonneau's grave occupies and are building a better fence around the Inskip Station site to allow tourists to see the remains of the stone station, without damaging it.
"We love the history of this country," Bruce Boyle said. "There is nothing you can do but support it."
By Peter Sleeth
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