Thursday, February 19, 2015


How close we are to our distant past…

Jean Baptiste Charbonneau was the child carried by Sacagawea across the span of the continent while accompanying Lewis and Clark in 1804-06.  Captain William Clark is said to have nicknamed him “Pompy” or “Pomp.”  We learned about him as grade school kids, remember?

[Note:  Clicking on any image accompanying this post will enlarge the photo and render most print therein, readable.  It might be worth doing.]

In May, a few years ago, I found myself at Pomp’s resting place at Inskip Ranch on the Owyhee River near Danner, Oregon.  There, he’d fallen from a horse, taken ill and died at age about my current age: 61.  He was en route to the Idaho/Montana gold mines. 

Later that summer, I visited Fort Clatsop, the spot on the Oregon coast where Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery wintered with Sacagawea and her son in 1805.

Curious about the man this child had become, I did what all great students of history do:  I Googled his name.

While crossing the continent to find the Pacific Ocean was a spectacular discovery, what I found was pretty neat as well.  Charbonneau spent about a dozen years rooting for gold at a sinister sounding place called Murderers Bar and clerking at an Auburn  hotel - both within a day’s walk of my suburban Placer County home.

A favorite area walk has been following the grade of the old railroad past the confluence of the north and middle forks of the American River to the Mountain Quarries limestone quarry. 

Along the route, the Mountain Quarries Railroad Bridge, built in 1911, was the longest concrete railroad bridge in the world at the time. 

A mere half-mile beyond, the USGS has located Murderer’s Bar.  The pin is on the south side of the Middle Fork. What may be a rather conflated story about an incident at Murderer’s Bar - perhaps prompting its place name - is shared by the Seaside (OR) Historical Society Museum Locals share that Charbonneau may have established a hostelry or way station here with, perhaps, James Beckwourth. 

Hiking past the quarry and scrambling through thickets and over boulders, a concrete post (probably from the quarrying era) is found here…

...and a bedspring (perhaps from the hostelry?) there…

...but not a lot of flat ground for any type of establishment.  Perhaps it is lost to the slagheap from the limestone quarry. 

Still, I can’t shake the feeling that I am walking in Pomp’s footsteps.  I go home happy.

Months later, I am exploring Mammoth Bar, a spot on the north side of the Middle Fork. 

Annotated photo. Click to enlarge. 
Located in the Auburn State Recreation Area, several old trails and roads once frequented by miners, foresters, squatters and those just passing through are now enjoyed by mountain bikers, equestrians and hikers.  They are well marked. 

Halfway down the paved stretch to Mammoth Bar is a sign indicates a trail leads to Murderers Bar.

The several hundred yard walk is much easier – no thickets or boulders - leading to a sweeping, gradual slope on the depositional side of the river's curve, much more suitable for building a rustic townsite.

A survey of the lay of the land just a few feet about river level indicated crude foundations and a bit of land leveling may have taken place a century or more ago.

Rusted detritus from those earlier days protrude from rocks along the river’s edge. 

The Middle Fork provides a springtime soundtrack is quite pleasant.  The pooling water, on a warmer day – and there are many quite-a-bit warmer days in summer – invites a swim.  Fishing trails lead both up and down stream until blocked by rocky bluffs.

Not a bad place for Pomp to reside for a while, pan for color and help out his fellow Argonauts.  

I clocked the distance from Murderers Bar to home.  Eighteen miles and change. 

On that journey home, the grade-school boy in me realized: I’d hung out where Jean Baptiste Charbonneau had hung out.  I’d walked where he’d walked.  I was only, like, two or three degrees of separation from him, from Lewis and Clark and another degree from Thomas Jefferson!

Then I did something no legitimate seeker of truth might do.  I checked Wikipedia.  Here I discovered that “Charbonneau lived at a site known as Secret Ravine, one of 12 ravines around Auburn.”  Secret Ravine runs just behind our house.

Well hell!  I think.  I probably cross Pompy's footsteps just gettin' to the mailbox.


Additional Resources: 

The previous Church of the Open Road entry about Pomp Charbonneau may be found here:

About the life of Pomp Charbonneau and some folk’s belief about his impact on Oregon history, please see:

Under the heading “Who was Jean Baptiste Charbonneau?” the omit specific mention of his time in California’s Gold Country or his life on the American River:

Thankfully, the Placer County Historical Society fills in some gaps with this:
(Note: To navigate the PCHS site, in the left hand column, you'll need to click on the word "Charbonneau.")

Auburn State Recreation Area Trail Information:

© 2015
Church of the Open Road Press

1 comment:

  1. I love historic places like that. Thanks for posting.