Birth of Jean Baptise Charbonneau (Pomp)
February 11, 1805
Fort Mandan, located in present day South Dakota
Mother – Sacagawea of the Shoshone
Father – Toussaint Charbonneau
She had never slept alone before – the space around her dark and empty.
She searched with her hand for the warm familiar backs of her sisters - the small children curled beneath her arms. Listened for the breathing of her family safe within the circle of their lodge.
She whispered the word “fort” sending clouds of cold into the air.
Fort is their name for a lodge, she thought. A lodge with no mothers or grandmothers or children.
She moved to her back, trying to get comfortable. Her hands resting on the place where the baby grew inside her.
It was her fifteenth winter. There were the twelve winters she lived with her family in the place of mountain, pine and salmon. There were the two years as a captive of the Mandans and a year as wife to a Frenchman. Now, in my fifteenth year, I am brought to live in a fort with white men.
Her husband, a French trapper, had won her in a card game. She had been sleeping, tucked in a corner of her owners’s lodge.
“Get up, your coming with me.” The old Frenchman who drank and played cards all day was pulling her blanket off. “You’re my wife now.”
Her adopted mother cried, begging her husband to stop him but he rose his hand in the way that meant “this is done.” He had drunk the white man’s liquor and played their games. She could see shame on his face but it was done. He had gambled with the girl and had lost.
“You can still come to the corn fields and work with us. You can visit with us.” She gave her a new blanket and then turned her back. She had come to this family as a captured slave but she worked hard. She had won some affection but not enough to save her from this fate.
She had gathered her few clothes as the children silently stared. The trapper was standing outside waiting. He lived at the edge of the village in a house he had constructed of logs on top of the ground. There were other wives living there as well.
He took her to his lodge to sleep beneath his blanket. There had been no feast given by her father, no give away to honor her, no prayers or time alone in the sweat lodge. She was the youngest wife and was forced to obey the other wives and do as they said.
They had lived like this for many moons; through the planting of the corn and its harvest. The white men arrived in the time of the first snows and they had gone to see them and to dance.
A few days later, Charbeanua said that she was going to the fort to live with him there and help the white man find her family.
“I do not believe you” she said. “Why would the white man take me back to the Shoshone?”
“They want to see the ocean, the place you call the stinking lake.”
“And what of the baby” she cried. “It is winter.”
“We’ll live in the fort and when the baby is old enough we’ll head out.”
“I need to have the baby in the birthing lodge. Here in the village with the midwives and my adopted mother.”
“Get whatever you need. You’ll need to live at the fort and learn the soilders ways.”
The baby pressed down. Charbeanau had given her a pot for her morning waters as there was no place for a woman to go “pee”.
Her room was cold. The fire had gone out and snow was coming in through the spaces between the trees the white men had tied together for walls.
She wondered if the man she was promised to in marriage as a child, waited for her looking out over the fields as he brushed his horses each morning. She thought of him and if he would be there when they came back to her village.
She sat up slowly, wrapping the buffalo robe around her. Her grandmother had told her to bring her dreams with her into the morning but she no longer knew how. Her dreams were of far away places.
The dirt floor was cold as her feet searched for her moccasins - the baby too big to lean over and look with her hands.
She walked to the pot and tried to squat over it, hoping the pee would land in the pot. Later she would empty it. This was the white man’s way.
She moved then towards the fire hoping for some small ember to start the fire. Her husband and the soldier had gone hunting and had not returned. Perhaps they would never return.
She stirred the fireplace with a stick- turning over black, charred, half burnt logs in search of a flame.
As she stood, water poured down her legs. She had just gone pee. It could not be that. It was the sign the midwife had told her. The sign to go to the village and have the baby.
She reached beneath her dress and let the warm, wet fall into her fingers. She could not see but felt it slide between her fingers. She brought her fingers to her nose. There was the smell too of blood - the smells of birth; a smell that now came from her and filled the cold, empty room. It was, she thought, the smell of her mother come home from helping an auntie with a new baby. The smell of blood and a spring rain.
Her deerskin dress was wet. She slipped it off and looked for another. She would need to walk to the Mandan Village before the baby was born. She would go there and they would help her.
“The snow is deep but if I leave now I’ll be there before daylight.” She moved quickly, talking to herself, feeling for things in the dark, packing them in the cradleboard and putting them on her back.
“The baby will be born and then we will walk with the soilders back to my tribe and I will be free.”
She opened the door of the room the white men called her “quarters.” Fear, thick in her mouth and in her stomach. Her room led to a larger room with no roof. There were more rooms, like hers lined up along the walls – rooms for the soilders. It stood tall like trees on the prairie. The Indians had laughed when they saw it. Charbeanau said this was how the white men did it; made walls to keep the Indians from killing them.
All the Indians she knew enjoyed visitors and treated them well; trading and playing games so this still did not make sense to her- this wall around their ugly village.
The snow had stopped, leaving in its places a moon that drifted slowly from beneath an early morning cloud. She moved towards the gate’ quiet so as not to wake the soilders.
“The moon rests just beyond the corn fields each morning of winter. She whispered to reassure herself. “I can follow it there.”
With her hand on the gate, she felt the first strong pain of labor and dropped to her knees. When it passed, she took a deep breath and stood.
She opened it, looking out into the snow. There were no footprints.
“Hey there. Whose out there?”
She heard a man’s voice and started running through snow as high as her knees. He caught her by the arm and drug her back to the fort; the gate shutting behind them.
She spoke to him through her tears trying words in Shosohone, Mandan, French.
She pointed to the baby and in English cried, “No fort. No fort.”
More men gathered around her.
Lewis, the chief of the white men came out.
He looked at the young Indian girl. And then at the ground.
His thoughts raced within him. They had hired a dispticable Frenchman with a terrible reputation for a guide. Clark had argued that his wife knew Shoshne and they would need her. They were a military operation and did not bring women let alone women with babies, Lewis had argued.
Clark had won and they had moved the couple into the fort. All her women friends came too but he had sent them back. It was more like a party than a military operation; distracting to his men.
He kicked the snow. Where was Clark anyway and her no good husband. Now she was having a baby and no one was around and it was a blizzard to top it all off.
The young girl swayed with the next contraction; her head bent and her breath heavy.
Lewis looked up at the sky, trying to find an answer. He had books and guns, medals and speeches. Jefferson had devoted a year to his training but nothing had prepared him for this. He turned to the men who stood there watching and waiting.
“ She’ll stay here with us. The snow is too deep for her to walk back to the village. I told Clark I’d watch after her and besides we have a doctor here.”
She sunk on her knees in the snow burying her head in her hands.crying. “no fort”
Lewis told two men to go get an Indian midwife when it got light and bring her back. They nodded but when the snow proved too deep they turned back.
Lewis gently pulled her up and returned her to her room. He lit the candle and tried to smile.
He is trying to be kind to me, she thought, but the only kindness is to let me go.
They spoke each in their own language until the white man gave up and left her to her labor. He would advice the doctor of the situation.
She stood in the dark, staring at the candle.
The door opened and the black man came in with wood in his arms.
They watched each other as he worked to light the fire. The wood was wet and the fire smoky but the girl crept closer, grateful for the warmth.
“You are a slave like me.” she whispered. “Charbeabua told me you are a slave too.”
She looked into his eyes, black like her own and asked even though he did not know her words.
“Do you have a family like I do waiting for you to come home.”
He did not answer but she knew he did. Somewhere far away a mother and father and even a wife and children. Waiting. Was her family still waiting for her.
As the room grew warmer, she threw off the heavy robe and squatted, her feet flat on the ground beneath her. Rocking back and forth.
Daylight came in through the logs of the fort.
She began to draw with a stick in the dirt as she had done as a child. Pictures of horses and tipis, the river and the animals and the salmon. The black man watched her, not leaving.
She sang as she drew her pictures. Rocking and singing and drawing; stopping for the pains and then starting up again.
I am the daughter and grand daughter of women of the Lenhi-Shoshone I come from the great mountains who give us berries, the streams who give us fish, and the earth who blesses us with the wise, gnarled hands of the roots. I come from the place where I was honored by my tribe when I dug my first roots.
The black man, the one they called York nodded and motioned for her to go on.
The old ones said we once lived on the great plains where the buffalo are but when I was a child we were afraid of that place and only went there when we were hungry and needed to hunt the bufallo. The Blackfeet and Hadatsa, wanting our beautiful horses, raided our camps; pushing us further and further into the mountains for safety.
She stopped to stand and walk around the room, continuing her story as she walked. Stopping when the waves came within her. Walking and stopping and telling her story.
If I had stayed there I would have married the man I was promised to as a child. I would be giving birth there with the grandmothers in a willow lodge of our village. My labor would be made easier by the medicines of my grandmother and the songs of the women who wait with me. My son, relative to many chiefs would be celebrated with a feast of salmon and the sweet cakes of salmonberry. He would be wrapped in a blanket of soft antelope and his cradelboard would have been decorated with white shells that we traded for with the people from the Stinking Lake a twenty day walk from our home.
He knew the baby was coming, had watched the midwives in the slave quarters and heard the sounds of the women coming through the open windows. Had been there when his own children came.
She needs women, she needs her own people he thought as she began talking again.
“ I was stolen from my people while picking berries shortly after the ceremony in which I dug my first roots. My captors traveled a long way to their home by the three rivers where I became a slave to one of their families. They were not cruel to me but I was not honored or cared for either. I worked hard in their gardens and cared for their children.
She was quiet more often. She watched the black man rise and go to the door. .It was warm now. He heard him argue with the men outside.
He returned with water in a metal cup. Cold.
As his hand came near to her, to bring her water, she grabbed onto his hands and cried.
When the white men, the captain and the doctor ,heard her cry they came in and told the man, York, to leave. She shook her head and begged him to stay but he did not. They did not understand.
She went to her bed and stared at the logs in the walls.
They stared down at her for a long while, watching as her body grew hot and tight. Her eyes shut and her teeth clenched. She did not tell them her stories or walk or draw in the dirt.
She lay on her bed screaming.
The doctor remarked that he thought Indian women were quiet in labor. He felt her pulse and lifted her eyelids and shook his head.
She spoke to them in Shoshone.
“I’ll have this baby in the snow. Leave him to die there. Die with him. Leave our bodies for the wolves to give to their young.’
The two men went to Lewis’s quarters and discussed the case. She was now a vital link in the expedition’s success. She could not die in childbirth.
“Have you had much experience in birthing babies?” Lewis asked the doctor.
The doctor shook his head. “I am a military man like you. I have studied it some; the complications and how to be of assistance to the midwife. I read once that rattlesnake tail might be of use. I have some so lets try that.”
The doctor searched htrough his bags and found the desired remedy.
Pleased that he had some way to assist in the situation, he entered the room .and placed it in the young woman’s mouth. Smiling down at her, he nodded and left her once again.
The medicine was bitter and dry in her mouth. She spit it our, in disgust and then began to vomit with wave after waves rising from her stomach until there was no more. She could no longer tell where the pain was coming from or what was trying to come out.
She rinsed her mouth and looked around. Looked at the door where the doctor and Lewis waited. Looked at the wooden walls of her cell and fell to the floor exhausted and slept.
She took comfort in her dreams. Dreaming that she was there in her father’s lodge. The men were in the sweat lodge praying for her and her aunts were braiding her hair. Sweet herbs were being thrown on the fire and oils rubbed on her back and legs.
When the pains ended, she returned to these thoughts; holding on to them as if they were a real hand there beside her.
She began to make a nest, piling blankets and skins in a circle. Building, straightning, changing. Kneeling, then squatting. Crawling on all fours. Singing and crying until it was as she wished.
Collapsed, folded, rolled in a ball.
She heard the heard the songs of her childhood.
They sang of the old ways but told her she must love and care for this baby. He would carry their blood as sure as he carried the blood of the old trapper. He was their grandson.
Sacajawea slept deeply. Slept and woke with the power of those dreams deep inside her, growing like a river that needed to come out growing as the baby continued his way out.
Quiet now; the fight over, she let the baby open her. Her garandmothers sitting beside her; singing to her. Her sister waiting. The baby opening her.
As the baby made its final push within her she called out and reached down to feel his head round and warm between her legs and then to feel him unfold in her own hands. Bringing him up near to where she could see him.
His eyes were open. He wrapped his small hand around her finger staring past her, over her shoulder at the grandmothers who waited and watched, smiling in the corner.
Then he turned his eyes with a smile towards her breasts and began to lick then suck on her nipple.
York came in to add wood to the fire. Seeing the baby, he smiled.
He stroked her head and the baby’s and whispered the prayers of his people to this new baby, thinking of his own pregnant wife who he had to leave when they left on this journey.
The captain and the doctor came and examined the baby and congradulated each other for their work. It was late afternoon and already growing dark.
“I will have to note the rattlesnake tail as an excellent remedy for childbirth.” The two men smiled, pleased with their day’s work.
Outside Clark’s dog barked. The men were returning from hunting. Soilders ran out into the snow to tell them the news.
“The baby. The baby is born.” Clark handed his horse to York and hurried into the room.
He knelt beside them and asked that stewed fruit and the best soup be prepared.
“Where are the midwives?”
He looked up at Lewis and the doctor?’
“You told us not to let the Indian women in the fort. That it was too noisy.”
Clark’s face grew red with anger.
“She did this alone?”
He ordered Charneanua who had entered the room to go to the village and bring women to care for her.
Then he turned to hold the baby.
Charbeanea having not yet left the room said, “He’ll be named after me. Jean Baptise.”
He was wet and covered with snow and stood at the door.
Sacajawea whispered “Pomp. I will call him Pomp. It means first born.”
“Pomp” announced Clark as he stood. “We’ll call him Pomp as she wishes.”
He held him up then for all to see.
“Well, little Pomp, as soon as you are ready we are taking you to see the great Pacific Ocean. “
As he returned him to his mothers arms, he whispered ,”or perhaps it is you who will keep us safe on this journey; you and your remarkable mother. “
The moon returned, filling the room with light through the cracks in the walls of the fort.
Sacajawea slept then dreaming of the great rivers and mountains she would cross with her baby on her back. She knew now that there were worlds beyond her own village and the villages of the Mandan.
She looked at the walls around her and down at her sleeping baby who was neither white nor Indian but a person who walked in two worlds. The young Shoshone girl slept that night with family again; the warmth of his body close to her own beneath the robes of the buffalo robes on the shifting landscape of history.
Birth of Jean Baptise Charbonneau as told by his mother
February 11, 1805
Mother – Sacagawea of the Shoshone
Father – Toussaint Charbonneau
In this circle of women, I am called to share the story of my son’s birth; the one in which I stood one foot in each land with a river filled with the desires of many passing between. A river that brought people from the four corners of the medicine wheel to the place where I walked with my son on my back to the great water which we then knew only as the stinky lake.
I was the daughter and grand daughter of women of the Lenhi-Shoshone in the northern Rocky Mountains where the mountains gave us berries, the streams gave us fish, and the earth blessed us with the wise, gnarled hands of the roots. In the place where I was honored by my family and tribe when I dug my first roots.
The old ones said we once lived on the great plains where the buffalo are but when I was a child we were afraid of that place and only went there when we were hungry and needed to hunt the bufallo. The Blackfeet and Hadatsa, wanting our beautiful horses, repeatidly raided our camps; pushing us further and further into the mountains for safety.
My birth story would be different if I had stayed there with the Shoshones in the land of the great pines and married the man I was promised to as a child. I would have given birth there with the grandmothers in a willow lodge of our village. My labor would have been made easier by the medicines of my grandmother and the songs of the women who waited with me. My son, relative to many chiefs would have been celebrated with a feast of salmon and the sweet cakes of salmonberry. He would have been wrapped in a blanket of soft antelope and his cradelboard would have been decorated with white shells that we traded for with the people from the Stinking Lake, a twenty day walk from our home.
I was stolen from my people while picking berries shortly after the ceremony in which I dug my first roots. I believe that to be about twelve years of age. My captors traveled a long way to their home by the three rivers where I became a slave to one of their families. They were not cruel to me but I was not honored or cared for either. I worked hard in their gardens and for the first time knew no hunger. I believe that I would have married a kind, handsome son of one of their chiefs but one night my adopted father lost a card game and gave me and another slave girl to an old French trapper who was known for his selfish ways, gambling and drinking. My adopted mother clung to me and cried out but there was nothing to do in those times once the father had decided. I believe he was sorry but he had no other choice and turned his heart against me and said I was only a slave girl. A stupid Shoshone snake girl and led me to my husband. I did not cry but took up my duties as a wife just as I had done as a slave. Of course I was now a woman and was expected to lie under the buffalo robes with this man who smelled so badly and did not sweat or keep himself clean.
In a short time, a baby grew inside me and I carried out my responsibilities with some fatigue. I still lived amongst the Hadatsa and had made friends with the women and other girls as we worked in the gardens. I was no longer a slave to them but to my husband
which was worst. I often thought about my family in the mountains and hoped that one day I would return there as my friend had. It would be harder to escape with a baby but I thought about it as I hoed the fields of corn, squash and beans that kept me from hunger. I longed to teach my people how to grow food so they too would not know hunger. I took joy in the happy faces of the sunflowers and the colors of the corn in that time when I first felt the baby move like the soft wind within me.
One day some white men and one black man came down the river and I was allowed to go with my husband to meet them. He came back and said that he had agreed to be their guide and I would be a translator when they reached the land of my people. I could not believe my happiness and was then thankful that this ugly husband would bring me back to my family who would surely bargain and trade to keep me with them. It was decided that we would leave with the first signs of spring; a time when my baby would be born and old enough to begin the journey. My husbands second wife would not go and was jealous because I had been chosen to go with the white men on this journey. She was older than me and instead of caring for me as was the tradition, she made me work harder and kept food from me. Because she was not going on the expedition, she remained in the village where she would live while we were on our journey.
Although it was an honor to move into the white man’s fort, I was lonely for the other women and was worried that my baby would come with no woman near to help me. I fretted about this so much that my husband let the women stay with me most nights. It was winter so we sewed and told stories by the fire making great fun of the dancing men at the fort and laughing loudly. One night the captains said it was too noisy and made all the women but me leave and said they could not come in when the gate was locked.. I was terrified to think who would be with me at my birth. I told my husband that I needed to return to the village until the baby was born but he did not listen. On the morning of my birth, he went out hunting with Captain Clark. I was quite alone at the fort that was square and not round like the lodges of my people. I had many dreams in those nights before my birth when my body was too round to find sleep. I wrapped the soft furs around me and tried to think that my mother and sisters were underneath them but they were not there and I was alone when my labor began on the cold morning when I rose to make the fire.
I tried, in my small room to keep the songs of the waves that were crashing within me quiet but the waters leaked out and I began a song that I had heard as a child in my mountain home. far from the Missouri River. The snows were deep and although Captain Lewis sent for an Indian midwife no one came because the man they sent became distracted and did not give the message. I waited but no one came. I remembered that I was only a slave girl from the Shoshone and laid on my blanket weeping. There was no pole placed for me to hold onto as I labored and no drums to walk to. It was a long day and I took the belongings of that small room and arranged them in a wheel such that I had seen my people do in ceremony. I made the center and the round outer circle and piled furs at each point- north, south, east and west. It was a small circle made of rabbit skins but served to comfort me and to occupy the time in which it seemed the baby would never come out. My husband's other wife was told to tend to me by the captain but she refused because I was going to the ocean and she was not. Alone except for the doctors from the fort who sometimes came in and stared at me uneasily. I think they were disappointed because they had heard how easily Indian women give birth. They shook their heads and talked in their language and came back with a bitter medicine that made my fear come out my mouth and onto the ground. I could not get up but stood like an animal on all fours crying the gentle noises of a small baby animal. I believed I could feel no greater terror than being ripped from my family and my land but there it was again; the ripping waves of pain and all the sorrow of the last years. The room was dirty and full of smoke for the firewood was wet and the snows deep and the men unable to tend it properly for fear of me. Through the smoke and my tears, the white buffalo midwife came. She helped me get out a soft antelope blanket for my baby and helped me to stand and lean the best I could on the side of the fort. I felt her arms around me, this beautiful white buffalo midwife who stayed with me, warm and reassuring for the last moments when my son swam from within me like the salmon of my childhood rivers.
The captain and his doctor heard the baby’s cry and were relieved. I wrapped him in the soft skins and whispered my name for him, “Pomp” which meant in my language, “first born son.” They brought me warm stewed fruit and hot tea. The white buffalo midwife spirit stayed with me all that day. She told me this son came from the north and the east. From the cold north of the white man and the sweet, yellow innocence of my people in the east. She told me he would see and travel many great waters as he walked the way of wisdom. She helped guide my hand as I delivered my afterbirth and helped me place the soft skin of the rabbit beneath me for the bleeding. In my village, I would have been tended in a special hut and would never have let blood fall on the floor of our home but the white man did not seem to notice or care. I worried that it would bring bad fortune but knew we would soon leave this place.
When my husband returned he named him Jean Baptise but Captain Clark liked the name Pomp and this is what we called him. The chief of the Hadatsa came and blessed him but I think it was to impress the captains but it did not matter any more for he was my son. My sweet little Pomp. The pain of my birth became small along side the journey we would take. I am sorry that I did not spend more time with my son and watch him grow to be a man but ah such as it is with mothers. Captain Lewis wrote that it was a particularly violent birth but what does he know of giving birth. He thinks it was it was his medicine that made Pomp come out but it was the spirit of the rattlesnake who called her sisiter the buffalo who helped him to know that he, this son of the east and north could come out from his hiding place within me and walk this earth.