2012 articles About Offbeat Oregon 2012 articles 2011 articles 2010 articles 2008-2009 articles About me Store (the Finn J.D. John Centre for Crass Commercialism and Filthy Lucre)
Link to Web site for Wicked Portland: The Wild and Lusty Underworld of a Frontier Seaport Town z

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The Glenesslin, under almost full sail, grinds against the rocks at the base of Neahkahnie Mountain.

was this shipwreck insurance fraud or just drunken incompetence?

On a beautiful clear October day, astonished beach-goers watched a big windjammer simply turn and sail straight into the side of a mountain. Why would her crew do such a thing? Here's the story.

.44-caliber Colt Dragoon revolver, designed in 1848.

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No one has ever found it — or if they have, they've been awfully discreet. The Triskett Gang had stolen it hours earlier from the assaying depot in the town of Sailors' Diggins. Here's the story.

US Coast Guard 47-foot motor lifeboat takes on a heavy sea off Cape Disappointment.

tired of seeing mariners die, lighthouse keeper took action.

In 1865, Joel Munson watched 17 sailors drown on the Columbia Bar. But when their lifeboat washed up near his lighthouse, it gave him an idea — an idea that lives on today in the U.S. Coast Guard. Here's the story.

Delake Rod and Gun Club as it appeared in 1960.

mysterious mansion was haunted only by olympic medalist's dream.

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U.S. Coast Guard cutter Algonquin.

bootleggers save sailors' lives, but get thrown in jail anyway.

In the early years of Prohibition, a Canadian rumrunner entered U.S. territorial waters to save the lives of nine castaways — and got caught and sent to jail anyway. Here's the story.

Bobbie the Wonder Dog

Bobbie the wonder dog's 2,400-mile odyssey.

Left behind in Illinois, the big collie dog walked home to Silverton, Oregon. It took him six months. Here's Bobbie's story.

A modern reproduction of a classic Concord Stagecoach.

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This crater marks ground zero in the Roseburg Blast. It's about 60 feet across.

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Part of the historic entry to Portland's Chinatown.

he dressed in rags like a beggar, so no one would know ...

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Steamer Admiral Evans, f.k.a. Buckman, which the two would-be pirates tried to hijack

THE dumbest would-be pirates in the history of the universe.

Their plan: Hijack a passenger steamer (that's it, in the thumbnail above), run it aground and sneak off into the bushes with 3 tons of gold. Do I need to mention that it didn't work out? Here's what happened.


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The steam schooner J. Marhoffer was almost brand-new when, burning fiercely from stem to stern, it piled onto the rocks near Depoe Bay. It's the remains of this fiery shipwreck that gave Boiler Bay its name ...


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Maritime madam Nancy Boggs kept her bordello on a barge floating in the river, until a police raid cut it loose. But the captain and crew of a sternwheeler came to save the day. Here's the story.


take off to the province of oregon, eh?

Few people know how close Oregon came to officially becoming a British possession under the treaty that ended the War of 1812. Only the presence of a handful of scattered, starving survivors from Astor's fur enterprise prevented it. Here's how.


timberline lodge could have been a glass skyscraper

Calling the plan a "profit-making eyesore," a Forest Service manager nixed 1920s plan for a modern steel-and-glass structure with an aerial tramway. You can read about it right here.


pixieland: an edgy, vanished amusement park

Built in the late 1960s as a "fairy-tale history of Oregon," the amusement park lasted just a few years before slipping into receivership. Today, all that's left of this odd and uniquely Oregonian story is a dilapidated guardshack.

Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Life of Sacagawea’s mountain-man son a tantalizing mystery

Jean-Baptiste “Pomp” Charbonneau, the baby born to Sacagawea during the Lewis and Clark expedition, is one of the most important figures in Oregon history — but we know almost nothing of his life.

An old postcard image of the statue of Sacagawea and her infant son Jean-Baptiste "Pomp" Charbonneau, in a Portland park.
A hand-tinted postcard, circa 1915, depicting the statue of Sacagawea
and baby Baptiste, unveiled for the first time at the Lewis and Clark
Exposition in Portland in 1905. Today it still stands in Washington Park.
(Image: Chas. A. Lipschuetz Co., Portland)
By Finn J.D. John — July 25, 2011

Out of the entire Lewis and Clark expedition, only one member ever set foot in the Oregon territory again — and he’s actually buried here.

That would be “Pomp” — Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, the baby born to Sacagawea in a birch-bark canoe in Fort Mandan (now North Dakota).

A frontier Renaissance Man?

Charbonneau led a life of extremes, even by the standards of his time. Raised and educated in St. Louis, he traveled to Europe to spend six years in the court of a German duke, helped the Mormons invade Mexico, and became one of the most respected “mountain men” of the West. He spoke (no one really knows how well) at least half a dozen languages, probably more. A picture of him — or, rather, a picture of a baby that’s supposed to be him — is on the ill-starred “golden dollar” coin released several years ago; it’s the only picture of an infant ever to appear on American money. One of the scenic landmarks of the Rockies, Pompey’s Pillar, is named after him.

An old postcard image of the statue of Sacagawea and her infant son Jean-Baptiste "Pomp" Charbonneau, in a Portland park.
The "golden dollar" coink, featuring a young Sacagawea and baby Pomp.
Of course, what the two actually looked like is anyone's guess.

Yet nobody today has any idea what he looked like. For such a literate fellow, he seems to have written almost nothing beyond official documents. He drifts through early American history like a frontier ghost, and half the stories you’ll hear about his life have been made up to fill the more enticing holes in what we actually know.

A first-class education

Here’s what we do know. After returning from the expedition, William Clark kinda-adopted the little guy and made sure he got as close to a first-class education as you could get in early-1800s St. Louis — which is better than you might think.

This was probably fair. Lewis might well have owed his life to Pomp. The baby served as an irrefutable demonstration of peaceful intentions with every Native American tribe the Corps of Discovery met on its path west. Without him and his mom in the canoe, it’s entirely possible (and, actually, rather likely) that the entire Lewis and Clark expedition would have been annihilated in a bloody misunderstanding somewhere along the upper Missouri before ever getting near the West Coast, and consequently Oregon would have ended up as a colony of either Spain or England.

Travel to Europe

When Charbonneau was 18 years old, the lad met Duke Paul Wilhelm of Wuerttemberg, who was on a tour of the American wilderness. When the duke returned to Europe, the lad went with him. Nobody knows for sure if he went as a friend and companion or just as a servant — or even as an exotic-specimen exhibit; he was, after all, half Native American, and already very much a frontiersman.

In any case, when the duke returned six years later, so did Charbonneau. During his time in Europe, he’d picked up some Spanish and German to add to the English, French, Shoshone and Hidatsa he already had. He probably knew some other Indian languages too.

Back into the wild

At that point, Charbonneau plunged back into the wilderness. You might think that, fresh from a European court, his options in St. Louis and even back East would be pretty good. But throughout his life, the men he’d looked up to — his father and Clark — had been frontiersmen who’d won their stripes by going into the wilderness. Plus, he was half Indian; no matter where he went back east, he’d be an outsider. On the frontier, guys like Joe Meek, Jim Bridger and Kit Carson wouldn’t judge him by his ethnic background — or, if they did, they’d count his Indian heritage as a good thing. Westward he went, again.

What followed was a life spent trapping beaver, shooting buffalo, exploring, negotiating and fighting with Native Americans and digging for gold. His skills in Spanish and several Indian languages made Charbonneau a major asset during the Mexican war, and after the hostilities ended he served for a time as a magistrate at the San Luis Rey Mission near San Diego.

Rushing for gold

When gold was discovered in northern California in 1848, Charbonneau found himself in perfect position — a local, managing the hotel in the town of Auburn. He spent 16 years working the diggings there. He also apparently fathered a child with a woman named Maria there — his second, actually; the first, with a German woman in Wuerttemburg, died in infancy. What happened to Maria is anybody’s guess; beyond a birth record, the mission records are silent about her and her baby, about whom we don’t even know a name.

Eventually, the California gold petered out and Charbonneau heard of a rich strike in western Montana. On his way there, he cut across the southwest corner of Oregon — and that’s where, after getting soaked crossing the Owyhee River, he got pneumonia (or something similar, possibly alkali poisoning) and died.

The quest for Pomp’s grave

Historical marker on the site of Pompey Charbonneau's grave.
The sign denoting the site of Charbonneau’s grave near Danner, Ore., a
national historic landmark. [Larger image: 800 x 600 px]

For decades his grave site was a mystery, too. But in the little high-desert community of Jordan Valley, a persistent bit of local folklore that held that Charbonneau was buried in one of six modest graves on a local ranch — a grave that was only known for sure to hold a “half-breed Indian.”

Ranch owner Mike Hanley made it his mission to learn the truth, and with the help of some professional researchers, he got to it: The “half-breed Indian” was indeed the inimitable, multilingual mountain man himself.

Today the grave site is a national historic landmark. Its occupant is immortalized with a baby picture that probably looks nothing like him, on a coin that’s become almost as obscure as the life story of the man himself.

History shows us just enough of Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau’s story to know there’s a great story there. Unfortunately, it looks like we’ll never really know it. All we know for sure is that had it not been for Pomp, Oregon would be a totally different place today — maybe even part of an entirely different country.

(Sources: Furtwangler, Albert. “Sacagawea’s Son,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, winter 2001; Morris, Larry E. The Fate of the Corps. New Haven: Yale Press, 2004; Friedman, Ralph. The Other Side of Oregon. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 1993)

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