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The Charbonneau family was discharged from the Corps of Discovery on August 17, 1805, at the Hidatsa villages on the Knife River. Charbonneau was paid $500.33 1/3. Thus ended one of the most fascinating – if improbable – cross-cultural alliances in American history.

Sakakawea Over Yonder Painting
Sakakawea Over Yonder
Painting by Vern Erickson

The Sakakawea story does not end along the Knife River, however. On August 20, 1806, just as the Corps of Discovery was leaving the present state of North Dakota, William Clark wrote an extraordinary letter on board the expedition’s pirogue. After expressing friendship for Charbonneau and apologizing for not having had time to discuss the future with him in the hurried last days with the Mandan and Hidatsa villagers, Clark wrote, “your woman who accompanied you that long dangerous and fatigueing rout to the Pacific Ocian and back diserved a greater reward for her attention and services on that rout than we had in our power to give her at the Mandans.” What an extraordinary sentence from the pen of an army officer, a Kentucky gentleman, and the busy leader of a military reconnaissance. Clark continued, “Charbono, if you wish to live with the white people, and will come to me I will give you a piece of land and furnish you with horses cows & hogs.”

The Charbonneau family did come to St. Louis – probably in 1809. William Clark made good on his promise to supervise the education of Jean Baptiste, who went on to have a long colorful life in Europe and the American West.

By 1812 Sakakawea and Charbonneau were back upriver, at Fort Manuel just below the North Dakota-South Dakota border. There, on December 20, 1812, the factor at Fort Manuel announced that Sakakawea had died of “putrid fever.” This seems to accord with William Clark’s understanding. In his account book of 1825-1828, Clark listed Sakakawea as dead.