A PROMISING LIFE
Coming of Age With America: A true story.
Baptiste Charbonneau is a unique mixed race witness to the march of Progress in the early republic. As General William Clark’s ward, he sees proud Indian chiefs humbled before American power, is there when the first steamboat docks, sees his young friends join William Ashley’s historic trapping expedition, knows Manual Lisa. When Prince Paul of Wurttemburg encounters him at 18, he is so charmed he invites Batiste to go back to Germany with him. Baptiste stays for seven years, sees American from a new perspective, meets the men and omen who will constitute the largest immigrant population in the new land after those from the British Isles. When he too returns to St Louis, well educated, fluent in several languages, he must choose his own path to the place he will have in the rapidly changing society.
“As an infant, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau traveled with his mother, Sakakawea, and father, Toussaint, on Lewis and Clark’s expedition, after which Captain Clark offered to “raise this ‘beautiful and promising child’ as his own son.” McCully (Ida M. Tarbell) provides a fascinating fictionalized history of Baptiste’s life from 1810, when his parents delivered him to Clark’s care in St. Louis, through 1830, when he returned from European travels. His mother’s admonition – “You will have a different life…. White men are spreading their ways everywhere…. Learn!” – guides Baptiste to excel at school while observing America’s turbulent growth: treaties taking land from native tribes, the steamboat bringing “drastic change that favored a few and ruined others,” elections (in which he could not vote), Clark’s ownership and abuse of slaves, and the work of missionaries, blacksmiths, furriers, and adventurers. “I will always be pulled in two directions, an educated man of Shoshone and French blood, on the outside looking in,” Baptiste reflects. A tumultuous period in American history comes alive through the eyes of this compelling protagonist.”
For as long as he can remember, JBC has been told that a promising future lies ahead of him. His mother is Sakakawea, who gave crucial help to Lewis and Clark on their expedition of discovery. And thanks to her, Baptiste’s life changes forever when Captain Clark asks to raise “this butifull promising boy” in St Louis. But by the time Baptiste arrives in the bustling, polyglot city, Clark has married and fathered his own son. Baptiste finds himself enrolled in a boarding school for mixed blood boys. Clark pays his tuition, but if he has a plan for the boy, it is a mystery.
Sakakawea is firm: she charges Baptiste to “learn everything” – reading, writing, languages and more. Baptiste’s life becomes a whirl of new experiences: lessons, duels, dances, elections. He makes friends and undertakes unexected to journeys to far-off places,
But he also witnesses the injustices Clark, as US Agent for Indian Affairs, forces upon the Osage, the Arikara, the Mandan and many others. Baptiste sees the effect of what some call “progress” on the land and on the people who have lived there for centuries.