Charbonneau: A Ghost Town Named for a Man of “No Particular Merit”

Charbonneau, North Dakota

When Lewis & Clark came to the area that is today North Dakota, they began to recruit men and women to join the Corps of Discovery. One of their new recruits was Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian fur trapper who had been living among the Hidatsa. He had taken two Shoshone women as his wives–Otter Woman and Sakakawea (Sacagawea). Lewis and Clark saw an opportunity in hiring Charbonneau, since he could speak French and some Hidatsa, and his wives could speak Shoshone. Charbonneau was hired as a translator for the expedition, but was judged harshly by members of the Corps, and by historians in later days. Charbonneau was found to be timid in the water, and quick tempered with his wives. Although some came to appreciate Charbonneau’s cooking, in particular, a recipe for sausage made from bison meat, Meriwether Lewis said he was “a man of no particular merit.”

Nevertheless, Charbonneau was a member of the Corps of Discovery for nearly two years, from November of 1804 to August of 1806, and accompanied the expedition all the way to the Pacific and back. In later years, Charbonneau worked for Manuel Lisa’s fur company and spent considerable time at Fort Lisa, a frontier fort, the site of which is today under Lake Sakakawea near Pick City, North Dakota.

Charbonneau’s death and burial are not recorded in any ironclad form, but most historians agree that Charbonneau died in 1843, and that he was buried in Fort Mandan. Even so, Missouri residents insist Charbonneau died in Richwoods, Missouri, and some claim to be his descendants.

Charbonneau, North Dakota

Some 70 years after Charbonneau’s death, this tiny town was founded as a Great Northern Railroad town in McKenzie County, between Watford City and the Montana border. It was named for nearby Charbonneau Creek, which was in turn named for Toussaint Charbonneau.

Charbonneau, North Dakota

Charbonneau grew to nearly 125 residents at one time, but by 1960, only 15 residents remained. Perhaps it is apropos that a town named after a man of “no particular merit” is today, a ghost town.

Charbonneau, North Dakota

Charbonneau, North Dakota

Charbonneau, North Dakota

Where children once went to school, the crumbling country schoolhouse remains, enduring winter after winter, meeting each spring with a few more missing shingles.

Charbonneau, North Dakota

More of Charbonneau School

What does the landscape look like in Charbonneau, North Dakota? A look behind the school reveals all. The photo below was taken in July, 2017, when this part of North Dakota was enduring severe drought. Normally, this scene would be quite a bit greener.

Charbonneau, North Dakota

We’re told there is one resident still in the area of Charbonneau, a gentleman who lives on the east edge of town, and we’ve been told visitors have been asked to leave Charbonneau, too, so if you decide to visit, keep it in mind.

Charbonneau, North Dakota

Charbonneau, North Dakota

There is a cemetery on the hill overlooking Charbonneau, but no sign of a church.

What do you know about Toussaint Charbonneau and Charbonneau, North Dakota? Please leave a comment below.

Photos by Troy Larson and Terry Hinnenkamp, copyright © Sonic Tremor Media

15 Comments on “Charbonneau: A Ghost Town Named for a Man of “No Particular Merit”

    • A gentleman on our Facebook page said he was “politely” (quotes were his) asked to leave when he visited. Don’t know why.

  1. Troy

    Fantastic pictures. The picture at the beginning featuring Charboneau is perfect for framing . It is a picture of perfect peacefulness .

    You do great. Thanks alot

  2. The Gravning graves…I remember those making a big impression on me when I visited Charbonneau back in 2009.

    “quick tempered with his wives”

    LOL. That’s the nice way of saying he slapped around Sakakawea (incidents of which are recorded in the Journals of Lewis and Clark)

  3. Your shots of Charbonneau School are almost exactly like the ones I took when I visited!

  4. Another enjoyable adventure and a visit to Charbonneau, ND. Enjoyed the history behind the pictures! Thank You for sharing!

  5. There were Charbonneaus in the St. John area, Rene` and Clarice, when I was a child in the 50’s….possibly related? I enjoy your work very much. Thank you.

  6. I thought Manuel Lisa’s fort was north of what is now Omaha, NE? Or did Manuel have a chain of forts along the Missouri River?

    • Lisa had a chain of fur trading forts on the Missouri, and also a fort on the Yellowstone river, near the mouth of the Big Horn river. Also, I doubt Toussaint Charbonneau was buried at Fort Mandan, which was long gone by the early 1840s. It’s far more likely he was buried at Fort Clark, where he was employed. Fort Clark, and the nearby Mandan village of Mittutahangkush, is a North Dakota State Historic Site near Stanton. Please bear in mind that the townsite of Charbonneau is on private land when visiting.

  7. The Gravning grave is my grandmother and infant aunt. My father was born there in Jan. 1924. He named his sister and placed the headstone after learning she was buried with his mother. He passed away in Polson, MT in 2016. He was 16 months old when his mother died and he was sent to live with his grandparents on the homestead north of Hettinger, ND while his father went to work in the gold mines in Lead, SD.

    • Love this site! Fabulous photography!
      I grew up in South Dakota. ND was always a mystery.
      Come to find out it is so very rich in history and landscape.

  8. August 2018
    My visit – rainy, wet, muddy experience along the gravel road leading to Charbonneau. Record rain in August 2018. Easy to find using Google Maps but experienced heavy truck traffic on road to location. Still looks much the same as photos posted and worth the trip seeking this location out.

  9. Toussaint Charbonneau was a grandson of Olivier Charbonneau who migrated to Trois Reviere, Canada about 1656. Olivier’s many children propagated the name across the United States through the years. From our family tracing Toussaint had three wives. Sacagawea probably died in the Mandan Villages in North Dakota from a typhus epidemic which devastated the area. The Charbonneau name has been spelled many different ways over the years and still is. Some use one “N” and some two. Some add an “X” at the end. Others mix around the letters in the middle.

  10. Old Toussaint may have had 5 wives. He’s an uncle of mine 7 generations back. He worked most of this rest of his life under Clark. And Indian affairs.

  11. I found this story very interesting especially with that pertaining to my children and their ancestor Sakakawea

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