On a summer day in 1971, a time when America still danced to the music of Woodstock even as it marched in the protests of Vietnam, the descendants of two men who had been part of the Lewis and Clark Expedition stood quietly in a secluded cemetery along a gravel road in southeast Oregon.
These cemetery visitors the great-great-grandson of Captain William Clark and the great grandson of Sgt. Patrick Gass had come to say good-bye to a man who had shared their grandfathers' journey: Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, son of Sacajawea.
Because Charbonneau had died in 1866, 105 years before the dedication of his grave site at Inskip Station, a former stage stop west of Jordan Valley, the ceremony was long overdue. But the site itself, in a land of sprawling distance and far horizons, was perfectly appropriate, for Charbonneau's life had been an odyssey of adventure, and the tale of his death at Inskip Station begins with his birth on the upper Missouri River in 1805.
Born in the Mandan village where Lewis and Clark spent their first winter, Charbonneau spent the first nine months of his life traveling on his mother's back as the Corps of Discovery struggled up the Missouri, across the Rockies and down the Columbia to the sea. Along the way he managed to steal part of William Clark's heart. In his journals, Clark calls him "a beautiful promising child" and "my little dancing boy Baptiste," to whom he gave the nickname "Pomp."
So fond was Clark of Charbonneau that on the return trip to St. Louis he not only named two landmarks on the Yellowstone River for the boy, but also offered to adopt him.
"As to your little Son (my boy Pomp)," Clark wrote to Toussaint Charbonneau, Sacajawea's husband who accompanied the Corps of Discovery as an interpreter, "you well know my fondness for him and my anxiety to take and raise him as my own child."
According to some stories, after the 1812 deaths of Sacajawea of a "putrid fever" and of Toussaint in an Indian attack on the upper Missouri River, Clark became the guardian of both Jean Baptiste and his baby sister, Lisette. After this, Charbonneau's list of adventures grows even more impressive.
At age 18 he met a German prince who took him to Europe and showed him the sights for the next six years; at age 24 now fluent in German, Spanish, and French he returned to America, where he traveled the West as a trapper, hunter and guide; at 41 he scouted the western route for the Mormon Battalion from New Mexico to California; at 42 he entered government service as the chief magistrate of the mission at San Luis Rey, Calif.; at 43 he joined the California gold rush.
Then at age 61, after hearing news of gold strikes in Montana, Charbonneau decided to head east. But he never left Oregon. Instead he contracted pneumonia soon after crossing the Owyhee River and made it only as far as Inskip Station, where he died.
All that's left of the old station today are broken chimneys, toppled walls and a crumbling corral as well as the remnants of mud-mortar, steel bars and rifle-ports. The significance of the place, however, lies in its meaning rather than its appearance, for in the 1860s and 1870s the station gave refuge and rest to a multitude of travelers heading for the gold fields of Idaho and Montana.
Using the lava so abundant in this area that lies near the confluence of Cow Creek and Jordan Creek, Edward "Doc" Inskip and Frank Osgood built the house and corrals to offer not only food and lodging, but also protection from Indian raids, which were a recurring threat during the era.
"If ever one settlement more than any other suffered raids, in the history of savage-ridden America," reported The Owyhee Avalanche, the area's first newspaper, "we believe Jordan Valley is entitled to that distinguished consideration'.''
To protect the growing number of travelers, the army built Fort Lyon, and manned it with three companies of cavalry and a detachment of infantry, a total of 150 men and two officers. Still, the conflicts between Indians and settlers continued. Less than three months before Charbonneau arrived in the spring of 1866, for example, the Avalanche reported that "The Indians are still murdering and burning in Jordan Valley."
Three weeks later, the newspaper carried the news of an all-night siege: "Frank Osgood and the Inskip Ranch were attacked by probably twenty-five savages They kept indoors and were besieged at 8:00 in the evening and continued until 8:30 the next morning." As a result of such battles at the station, "The house is completely riddled with bullets and quite a quiver of arrows."
As dangerous as the Indians were, however, the soldiers could be even more troublesome.
"We were visited by a band of cutthroats (commonly called New York wharf rats) in the shape of U.S.A. Regulars," Doc Inskip wrote to the Avalanche in 1865. "They stole everything they could get their hands on about the ranch flour, rice, sugar, coffee, potatoes, liquors, hay to sleep on, and robbed the corral of the fence posts and wood pile for fuel I think these men are more to be dreaded than the native Indians of the country."
When you visit the site today, you can travel the same route as the soldiers and Indians, the miners and freighters by taking the Danner Loop Road, which follows the old Skinner Toll Road along Jordan Creek, the gravel skirting the edge of lava flows and grassy pastures and the wide-eyed stares of white-faced Herefords. The best time to see this country might be morning, when the sun pushes above the eastern horizon to light the sagebrush, making it glow silver and green across a low, rolling plain where the highest points are the power poles that serve as perches for red-tailed hawks.
On this early morning at Inskip Station, the sagebrush cackles with the voices of pheasants, while owls and robins battle in the branches of the hop tree growing from the old house's foundation. At the top of a half-alive poplar along the road, a hawk calls, flies and then soars across the sky. And across the road lies the cemetery, a small square of earth that holds the rock-layered graves of six people, including that of Jean Baptiste Charbonneau. A nearby marker describes him as "a pioneer of the West of pleasant manner and esteem in the community."
Wedged into the grave's lava pile is a pink silk rose; etched into its stone-mounted plaque is a simple epitaph: "Under the wide and starry sky " It's the first line of Robert Louis Stevenson's eight-line poem, "Requiem." And perhaps it's fitting that the poem's next two lines Dig the grave and let me lie:
Glad did I live and gladly die never made it onto the plaque. For Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, who roamed across two continents with European royalty and Rocky Mountain trappers before reaching the end of his final journey at Inskip Station, seemed to be a man with a lot of living still left to do.
Story, photos by