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Julie Rittenberry: Honoring the Members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition

By Rachael Higham

In honor of the veterans who have served our country, every December, wreaths are placed on grave sites throughout the world. Seven years ago, the Lewis and Clark Trust started the Honor and Respect project to honor the Lewis and Clark veterans and tribal people who aided the expedition by laying wreaths on their grave sites scattered throughout the country. During this time, V. F. W. Posts, American Legion Posts, libraries, interpretive centers, and individuals have all volunteered to be part of this project, ensuring that the members of this expedition are remembered, recognized, and honored for their service.

To further recognize the Lewis and Clark Expedition and Tribal People, as well as the volunteers who are part of the Honor and Respect Project, I had the privilege to interview Julie Rittenberry, who places a wreath each year at Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau’s grave site.

Photo by Julie Rittenberry.

The youngest member of the expedition, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, nicknamed Pomp by Clark, was born on February 11, 1805, when the expedition was in Fort Mandan (North Dakota). He was the son of Sacagawea and Toussaint Charbonneau and was named after his paternal grandfather. At two months old, he accompanied his parents as they set off with the Lewis and Clark Expedition; having a mother and baby along on the journey was a signal to the tribes that the group had a peaceful purpose.  On July 26, 1806, Clark discovered a sandstone outcrop in Montana along the Yellowstone River. He named it “Pompy’s Tower,” in honor of Jean-Baptiste, and it is now a national monument named Pompey’s Pillar. After the expedition, Clark offered to provide Jean Baptiste with an education, and in 1812, Charbonneau went to live in St. Louis.

As an adult, Charbonneau traveled through Europe for six years and, upon his return to America, roamed the far West as a mountain man, guide, interpreter, magistrate, and gold prospector. In 1866, when he was heading to Montana from California to seek a new gold strike, he became ill while in Oregon.

He died on May 16th at Inskip Station and was buried nearby at the mouth of Cow Creek. His grave is west of the present-day town of Jordan Valley, near the Oregon and Idaho border. On March 14, 1973, his gravesite was designated a Registered National Historic Place.

Interview with Julie

Julie embodies the spirit of exploration and adventure, and it is no surprise that she has embarked on the five-hour round-trip drive from Boise, Idaho to Eastern Oregon for the past three years to place a wreath on Jean Baptiste Charbonneau’s grave site. Julie stated that when she was fortunate enough to move back to Idaho with her husband in 2010, she “fell in love with history all over again” and spent her time exploring the backcountry and history surrounding the area.

In one such adventure, she traveled with two others to parts of Southern Idaho and Eastern Oregon to explore different areas where some of the earliest settlers lived. While on this trip about seven years ago, they were traveling down a gravel road in Oregon and happened upon Charbonneau’s grave site. When recalling the experience, Julie said, “at that time, it was wide open in the desert and people had left trinkets-it was all cluttered with trinkets, and it just gives me goosebumps thinking of what I saw. It just meant a lot to me to run into that.”  Although Julie does not consider herself a student of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, she loves the story of the journey, especially in the West and admires the strength of Sacagawea.

Photo by Julie Rittenberry.

It was because of this initial experience discovering the grave site and her interest in the expedition that made Julie, who was also in the military, decide to volunteer when asked by the commander at her V.F.W.

The drive to the site is through a pass that can be treacherous if it snows and the sparse landscape of sagebrush and bitterbrush in the Oregon desert. The site is in a very remote part of Oregon, and the only town near it is the small town of Jordan Valley.

Although it is a remote drive through an often-harsh landscape, Julie loves the trip and takes a new person with her each year.

In the time between her accidental discovery of the gravesite and when she started volunteering, there have been improvements to the site. Julie said that they have “put a beautiful fence up with an iron gate depicting the grave site, and the markers are still there and still a few trinkets. There are now road signs on the paved roads saying that there is a site out there.” Additionally, there is a flagpole there, and Julie brings a flag along with the wreath in case a new one is needed.

She explained that the trips each year have been incredibly meaningful to her. To the people she has taken with her, namely the friend she took the first year, had also asked to do the trip again. It is Julie’s hope that she can continue to bring new people on this expedition and expose them to a piece of the natural beauty and history of this area. She further hopes that the project will gain more recognition and that if there is a time when she cannot do it, someone else will take over and continue to place a wreath at the grave site of Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau.

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