This story begins in 1805 when Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau is born before an advancing wave of white settlers moving westward in North America. His mother is an Indian woman, Sacagawea; his father is French, Toussaint Charbonneau. Carrying her baby on her back, Sacagawea will lead the Lewis and Clark corps party northwest along the Missouri River until they are forced to follow her lead cross the Rocky Mountains.
Upon reaching the Pacific, the explorers and their party build small Fort Clatsop. Sacagawea has nicknamed her son, “Pompy,” meaning Little Chief in honor of her Indian heritage, but throughout Across the Endless River, he is mostly known as Baptiste. As a youngster, he grows up in two places. Part of each year he lives with his Mandan cousins mastering all the physical traits and skills known to Indian braves. He wears moccasins.
He wears shoes the rest of the year, living in Saint Louis in Captain Clark’s house where he is taught the proper manners and customs of white people. Initially, he hates this adaptation, particularly the footwear, shirt, pants, and a brimmed hat.
In spite of his readiness for the agonizing ritual where Indian adolescents are initiated into manhood, because of his mixed blood, Baptiste is spared the tortuous ceremony. He must stand aside as pure-bred braves are skewered through their skin in various places and hung aloft until unconscious — a sure sign that the Great Spirit is moving. Exclusion troubles him deeply because he identifies closely with his Indian roots.
While leading several men to meet real Indians face to face and see them in action on a frenetic buffalo hunt, one of these explorers, a French Duke, realizes Baptiste’s intelligence, particularly his facility with languages. This duke is also a collector of New World specimens he can ship back to Europe—a collection he’ll distribute to influential French scientists and noblemen.