December 23

This Day in History

Old West

Dec 23, 1829:

Prince Wurttemberg explores the West

Embarking on the second of three wide-ranging exploratory journeys in the West, Prince Paul Wilhelm of Wurttemberg leaves St. Louis and heads up the Missouri River.

Born near Stuttgart in southwestern Germany in 1797, Prince Paul (later the Duke) of Wurttemberg was the son of King Friedrich I. As the scion of a powerful royal family, the Prince could have chosen to live out a quiet life in the lap of luxury in Germany. But from an early age he developed a passionate interest in natural science paired with a strong desire to explore the world beyond his castle walls.

When he was 25, the Prince made the long ocean journey to the United States, arriving in New Orleans in December 1822. He and his small company of retainers took a riverboat up the Mississippi to St. Louis, where the Prince met with the Superintendent of Indian Affairs, William Clark, who--along with his co-captain, Meriwether Lewis--led the famous Corps of Discovery nearly two decades earlier. Though Clark questioned whether the young German prince had the mettle to make his proposed expedition up the Kansas River to study the regional botany, he granted him a passport into the interior country.

Clark's doubts seemed confirmed when the Prince was forced to retreat down the Kansas River by swarms of bloodthirsty mosquitoes. But the Prince was tougher than Clark realized, and in the months to come, he traveled up to the Missouri Fur Company fort in South Dakota and spent three days with the Pawnee Indians along the Platte River. The young German prince must have finally impressed the veteran western explorer, for when the Prince left to return to Germany in 1824, Clark gave him permission to take along Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, Clark's sixteen-year-old foster son, whose mother, Sacagawea, had accompanied the Corps of Discovery. For six years, the French-Indian Charbonneau was the Prince's constant companion in his travels in Europe and North Africa.

The Prince returned to the United States in 1829, safely delivering the now cosmopolitan and highly educated (he learned to speak French, German, and Spanish) Charbonneau back to his home. Charbonneau went on to his own adventures, eventually becoming a celebrated fur trapper and mountain man. Meanwhile, the Prince embarked on his second American expedition, traveling into the upper Missouri River country and then into northern and central Mexico. A third expedition in 1849 took him all the way to the California gold fields.

During his journeys, the Prince gathered thousands of scientifically valuable botanical, geological, and zoological specimens, and his ethnological studies of the Native Americans were thoughtful and perceptive. Also a fine sketch artist, he provided the illustrations for his voluminous diaries, some of which were published in German and later translated into English. He died in 1860 at the age of 63, four months after returning from an expedition to Australia.

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