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Charbonneau's Grave

One of the great things about road trips are the unexpected discoveries you often find along the way. Sometimes these discoveries are right next to the road, while others a require detour off the beaten path. Of course, one of the inherent challenges with making stops on a road trip is that it is sometimes hard to break the forward momentum of the journey. This is all the more so if you are traveling with other people. When you're the lone photographer in the group, your traveling companions may get annoyed at regular stops for you to wander around and make photographs.

Some stops are obvious: you know the payoff, whether photographic or simply educational, will make stopping the car and taking a short break from the road worthwhile. Others are not so clear, especially if there is a deadline to meet, or a certain number of miles that need to be traveled by a certain time. But if there is time for a short break, or even a detour, I always recommend it. Because you never know what you might find, and sometimes that impromptu interruption in the journey can lead to very satisfying photographs, or an experience that stays with you long after the trip is over.

On recent trip to southwest Idaho to take care of some family matters, my brother and I were driving through the high desert of southeastern Oregon when we passed a small historical site sign by the side of the highway. It promised a location connected to the Lewis & Clark expedition: Charbonneau's Grave. We were both intrigued. We were passing through a pretty desolate region that was hundreds of miles south of the route that Lewis and Clarke had taken on their famous journey. How was a historical site in this remote corner of southeastern Oregon linked to the Lewis & Clark expedition? As we had plenty of time for the rest of our drive that day, and as we both appreciate a good historical detour, I turned the car around and returned to where we had seen the sign. This was not a roadside historical site. The sign pointed us to a snow covered gravel road that led into the desert and informed us that we had 4 miles to travel. The sky was a mixture of clear winter blue and gathering clouds as we headed down the frozen road that unfolded like a white ribbon over the sagebrush covered terrain. After 3.5 miles we reached the former town site of Danner. To call it a "town" today would be quite stretch. It may have been a town once, but now it is no more than a handful of cattle ranches and a relic structure of an old general store. About a half mile beyond the old general store we found the Charbonneau gravesite.

Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, 1805 – 1866:

"As a baby, was with his mother Sacajawea,
a member of the Lewis & Clark Expedition

As a man, was a pioneer of the West
of pleasant manner
and esteem in the community"

The Sacajawea dollar coin showing the infant Charbonneau on his mother's back

Charbonneau led quite an interesting life. After spending his youth in America, he travelled to Europe when he was eighteen where he spent six years and became fluent in English, German, French and Spanish. He returned to America in 1829 and travelled extensively in the far west for the next 40 years. During this time he was a mountain man, interpreter, magistrate, hotel manager, and gold miner in the California Gold Rush of 1848-1849. He left the California gold fields in 1866, reportedly for a new gold strike in Montana. It was on this journey that he contracted pneumonia, which would eventually lead to his death. Though exact accounts of the reason for his pneumonia are lacking, the most common story is that while crossing the Owhyee River (near present-day Rome, Oregon) there was an accident during the crossing and Charbonneau went into the river, which was probably running high and cold from winter snow melt. He was taken to Inskip Station (present day Danner) and died on May 16, 1866.

The current grave marker was placed by the Malheur Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1971. There are five other graves here near the site of the old Inskip Station, a stone ranch house that served as a stage stop in the 1860s and the ruins of which are within sight of Charbonneau's grave. Over the years visitors have left all manner of objects on and around the tombstone, everything from coins and small stones, to seemingly random artifacts including the following: a pocket knife, a magnifying glass, toys, wrist bands, a ceramic figure of a cowboy, a small green plastic lizard, shoes, a live bullet, an empty wine bottle, a gold pan, beads, a rosary, a puka shell necklace, and a car air freshener that, judging from its shape, was once infused with a fresh pine scent.

The top of Charbonneau's grave marker is covered with artifacts left by visitors.

As roadside detours go, there wasn't a lot to see here, and I did not make any significant photographs, other than ones documenting the site. But it was still one of the more interesting roadside detours that I have made. Maybe it was the unexpectedness of finding it out in the middle of a vast, desolate and mostly empty landscape. Or perhaps it was the mood of that day, with gathering clouds and a chill wind blowing across the snow dusted hills, and the small graveyard beneath that big sky. Or maybe it was just that I learned a story that I didn't know before. And quite a story it was, too. The story of a life that began on a famous journey of exploration and ended decades later on a journey to find gold.

Looking across the road from Charbonneau's grave site.

© 2011, Seán Duggan • all rights reserved

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