Sacagawea, the 19-year-old Shoshone Indian woman who accompanied Merriwether Lewis and William Clark on the first American expedition across the Continental Divide to the Pacific Coast, might be the most famous American Indian woman of all time. Well, either her or Pocahontas. It’s too close to say. You may as well flip a coin, preferably a ‘Sacagawea dollar. Maybe that’s your answer right there. Pocahontas has never appeared on any currency.
And neither has Marie Dorion. Marie who? you ask?
Her name is hardly known today, but just six years after Sacagawea made her trek, a 21-year-old Iowa Indian woman named Marie Dorion went with the expedition that made the second such crossing to the same destination–the mouth of the Columbia River. The stories of Sacagawea’s trials, courage and endurance during her 1805-06 journey are well known. But Marie Dorion’s nearly forgotten trials were even more difficult.
Marie Dorion was the only woman on the 1811-12 overland expedition financed by John Jacob Astor, to establish a fur trading post at the mouth of the Columbia River. That second American crossing of the continent was the result of Astor’s competition with the British Hudson’s Bay Company. Astor, after having made a fortune on the fur resources about the Great Lakes, planned to establish a trading post on the coast of Oregon, to control the fur trade with the Orient.
It was Astor’s plan to trade Western furs in the Orient, receiving cargoes to exchange in England for manufactured goods needed in America. The overland expedition was to identify locations where fur trading posts could be established that also would serve as way stations to expedite communications between Astor’s Eastern headquarters and the Western trading posts, a forerunner of the pony express.
The overland expedition was only half of Astor’s detailed plan. The other half was to send the ship Tonquin around Cape Horn, carrying the people and merchandise for the trading post. Tonquin, a strong ship of 290 tons, with 10 guns and a crew of 20 men, was captained by Jonathan Thorn, a navy lieutenant on leave of absence.
Tonquin sailed from New York Harbor on September 8,1810 and arrived at the mouth of the Columbia River seven months later, after passage around Cape Horn and a stopover in the Sandwich Islands (present-day Hawaii). By that time, Thorn, who was a strict disciplinarian, was thoroughly disliked by the entire crew. Feelings for him did not improve after he lost eight seamen when he insisted on trying to cross the sand bar at low tide.
The site selected for the trading post, Astoria, was on Point George on the southern shore of the Columbia. It was not far from the location of Lewis and Clark’s 1805-06 Fort Clatsop winter camp.
Soon, the first major setback to Astor’s plan occurred. After unloading people and supplies in Oregon, Thorn took his ship on a trading mission to Vancouver Island. There disaster overcame him after Salish Indians crawled aboard. The Salish were outraged by his insolence and massacred all but one man, an interpreter, who got away. Another wounded sailor ignited the powder magazine and blew up the ship, himself, and about 200 Salish.
The overland expedition was led by an inexperienced St. Louis merchant named Wilson Price Hunt. He was believed to be about 29 years old in 1811. Although he had become a successful merchant since coming to St. Louis in 1804, he had no experience that would qualify him for the task ahead. Hunt’s party left St. Louis on October 21, 1810, six weeks after Tonquin sailed from New York. After traveling 450 miles up the Missouri River in three boats, they camped a month later 150 miles above Fort Osage, which had been established two years earlier at a site recommended by Lewis and Clark. They were to winter there at the mouth of the Nodaway River to avoid the expense of staying in St. Louis and to remove his crew from the temptations of that city.
After camp was established, Hunt went back to St. Louis, as he still needed to hire additional men, one being a Sioux interpreter. For that position he obtained the services of Pierre Dorion Junior. Dorion’s mother was a Yankton Sioux and his father, Pierre Dorion Senior was an Indian trader from Quebec, whom Lewis and Clark had engaged as an interpreter to the Yankton Sioux. The elder Dorion remained with the Yanktons to promote Lewis and Clark’s Indian policy, which was to end intertribal wars, encourage some chiefs to go as ambassadors to Washington, and for the tribes to accept trade with Americans, rather than with their usual Spanish and French traders. When Lewis and Clark continued up the Missouri River, Pierre Dorion Senior was to gather a delegation of Sioux chiefs and escort them to Washington.
Pierre Dorion Junior had been hired the previous year by the Missouri Fur Company, based in St. Louis. That company, formed in 1808 by Manuel Lisa, Andrew Henry, Pierre Chouteau and others, sent its first fur trapping expedition up the Missouri River the next year. Lisa was the most prominent Indian trader in St. Louis, as the Spanish had granted him a monopoly of trade with the nearby Osage Indians. He had been the principal supplier for Lewis and Clark. As Lisa’s employee, Dorion had gotten in debt for liquor at the Fort Mandan trading post and was looking for a way to avoid paying. Hence, Hunt’s offer of employment was a welcome outlet. Lisa was eager to keep Dorion away from Hunt, because Astor’s new Pacific Fur Company, chartered in 1810 as a subsidiary of the American Fur Company, would be in direct competition with his company.
Dorion’s wife, Marie, and their two sons ages 2 and 4 were with him in St. Louis and all four left with Hunt in the spring. It is believed that Dorion had taken the young Iowa Indian woman for a wife about 1806, after abandoning a Yankton woman named Holy Rainbow. En route up the Missouri River Dorion learned that Lisa intended to have him arrested at the frontier town of St. Charles, in western Missouri. That news prompted Dorion and family to leave the boat. After Hunt had departed from St. Charles, Dorion rejoined him, but without his family. All were not contented in the Dorion family. Pierre and Marie had quarreled; he had beat her, causing her to flee into the woods. Not wanting to delay, Hunt shoved off without her. The next morning, though, Marie and the children voluntarily rejoined them.
The party continued upriver to Fort Osage, where they stayed three days. Again the Dorions quarreled. Marie wanted to stay with new-found friends, so Pierre had to physically place her in one of the boats. Marie’s desire to not undertake the journey may have been influenced by the fact that she was then about three months pregnant. There is no record that she ever again rebelled and the couple remained together until Pierre’s violent death.
Nine days after the Tonquin party established Astoria, Hunt’s party left their winter camp on April 21, 1811. At that time, the expedition was composed of 60 persons, five of whom were partners of Astor’s Pacific Fur Company. With Hunt were two English naturalists, John Bradbury and Thomas Nuthall. The employees were not mountain men but were mostly French-Canadian river-men, similar to those that Astor’s American Fur Company employed in the Great Lakes region. The armament on their four boats consisted of two howitzers and a swivel gun. They were not the only expedition on the river. Behind and gaining on them was Lisa’s party, which had left St. Louis on April 2.
Lisa was going up the Missouri to collect the furs his trappers and traders had obtained during the winter and to search for his partner Andrew Henry, who had not been heard from for two years. Blackfoot Indians had dislodged Henry from a post that he had tried to establish at the Forks of the Missouri River in what would become western Montana. That was at the junction of the three rivers that Lewis and Clark had named the Jefferson, the Madison, and the Gallatin, with the Jefferson leading them southwest toward the Lemhi Pass and across the Continental Divide. Most of Henry’s men had returned to St. Louis, but Henry and a few others had crossed the Continental Divide and built Fort Henry near the headwaters of the Snake River (in present-day southeast Idaho).
Lisa was not only in a competition race with Hunt, but he was also trying to catch up with Hunt so they could pass through Sioux country together. The word was out that the Sioux were upset, insisting on collecting a sizable payment from all river-men. Lisa sent a message to Hunt to wait up, but Hunt pressed forward.
On May 26, 1811, Hunt met up with three veteran hunters, who were on the way to St. Louis–Edward Robinson, John Hoback and Jacob Reznor. They had been with Henry the previous year and had spent a few months at Fort Henry. Although they were headed back to Kentucky, Hunt persuaded them to join him and go all the way to the Pacific Ocean. They in turn persuaded Hunt to change his route. Instead of following Lewis and Clark’s path to the Forks, through Lemhi Pass, and north to the Lolo Trail, they told him he should take a southern route to avoid the Blackfeet. Those three were about Hunt’s only experienced mountain men, although one of the partners, Ramsey Crooks, had been trading up the Missouri.
Lisa caught up with Hunt just below the Arikara village, near the northern border of present-day South Dakota, and together they reached that Indian village at the mouth of Grand River on June 12. Hunt’s new plan called for him to leave his boats there and go overland, but his departure was delayed until July 18, because of the difficulty of bargaining for horses. When at last his party left, he had only 82 horses, most of which were used as pack animals. The partners, plus Pierre Dorion and the two children, rode, but Marie walked until after additional horses were obtained from the Cheyenne and Crow Indians.
Lewis and Clark had wintered with the Mandans, just upriver from the Arikaras (in present-day central North Dakota). They started out early in the year, when the ice melted, reaching their goal in early November. Hunt wintered in Missouri, did not reach the Arikaras until June, 1811, and did not get underway overland until the middle of July. Thus he was forced to spend the following winter trying to get through the mountains, not reaching Astoria until February, 1812.
Hunt left the Arikaras moving west and southwest, crossing into present-day Wyoming near its extreme northeast border. They skirted the northern side of the Black Hills, within view of Devil’s Tower, continuing in an approximate straight line to cross the Powder River just south of its junction with Crazy Woman Creek.
It was a few miles south of that area, near present-day Kaycee, where 65 years later the Battle of Powder River and the Battle of Dull Knife occurred. Cheyenne chief Little Wolf was camped there when General George Crook’s forces under J.J. Reynolds attacked on March 17, 1876. Both Little Wolf and Dull Knife were there when Colonel Ranald Mackenzie struck on Thanksgiving Day that same year.
Between the Powder River and the Big Horn Mountains to the west, Hunt’s party bisected the region where the famous Bozeman Trail was to run along the foot of the Big Horn Mountains from Fort Laramie north to Montana Territory. That first attempt to create a road in the Powder River country sparked the Red Cloud War of the 1860s. The point at which the Bozeman Trail intersected with Hunt’s route was very near where Fort McKinney would be erected in 1877. Just to the north was where Fort Kearny would be built and where the Fetterman Fight and Wagon Box Fight would take place.
While with the Arikaras, Hunt had employed a veteran mountain man named Edward Rose, although Hunt did not trust him. Rose had been an employee of Lisa, and he had lived with the Crow Indians. Before abruptly leaving the Astoria Expedition, Rose and some Crow friends helped Hunt and the others make two difficult mountain crossings, showing them the Powder River Pass in the Big Horn Mountains of north-central Wyoming. That 9,666 foot pass, which was previously unknown to them, is between the 12,420 foot Mather Peak and 10,555 foot Hazelton Peak.
The expedition reached the Bighorn River probably north of present-day Worland. They followed it south to the Wind River, and proceeded up near its headwaters. There they crossed the Continental Divide at Union Pass, which separates the Wind River and Gros Ventre ranges. They sighted the Grand Tetons, calling them the Pilot Knobs. Union Pass had been recently discovered in 1807-1808 by John Colter, then an employee of Lisa and formerly with the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Colter was also the first white man to see Jackson Hole, Pierre Hole, the Teton Range and the Yellowstone Park area. The Grand Tetons and Pierre’s Hole received their present names in 1818-19 by a party of the Hudson’s Bay Company headed by Donald McKenzie. After passing through Teton Pass, Hunt’s party proceeded northwest to the abandoned Fort Henry, near present-day St. Anthony in southeastern Idaho. Their journey that far had been aided by the guidance of the three hunters Robinson, Hoback and Reznor.
At that point, along the headwaters of the Snake River, Hunt made a nearly fatal error of judgment. He abandoned his horses and constructed 15 dugout canoes. Since the Snake was a contributory of the Columbia River, Hunt assumed that the remaining 1,000 miles could be made by water. They soon found out differently. At Fort Henry, the party divided. Some men, including the three new hunters, were dispatched on trapping expeditions, to make their separate way to Oregon.
After leaving Fort Henry on October 18, 1811, the rest of the Hunt party soon encountered a series of rapids, where portages had to be made along high bluffs. While attempting to run one set of rapids on October 28, about 340 miles below Henry’s Fort, a canoe wrecked and one man drowned. After some of the men scouted the river ahead, they were forced to recognize the futility of trying to travel by water. The river was declared unnavigable.
Now without horses, it became necessary to cache a large part of their supplies and continue on foot. To increase the chance of obtaining game to supplement their meager supply of food, the party again split, with half traveling on each side of the river. One party of 18 men, under Ramsey Crooks, walked along the south bank of the barren, rocky Snake River. Another 18 led by Hunt, including the Dorion family, stayed on the north side. A third small group, giving up, left to retrace their steps.
Upon encountering a small Indian band on November 17, Hunt succeeded in buying a horse to use as a pack horse. Two days later, he obtained a second horse for his personal use. At the next Indian camp that they stumbled on, an Indian claimed that Hunt’s second horse had been stolen from him. Hunt was forced to give it up, but he was able to buy two others.
Pierre Dorion was also able to buy a horse for his family, so that Marie and the two children were again able to ride. They had been walking since leaving the canoes. Since the children were presumably ages 2 and 4, Marie must have carried the younger one on her back most of the time, even though she was by then eight months pregnant.
Near the end of November, Hunt’s party was forced to start killing their few horses for food. Dorion resisted all efforts to kill his horse, even though it was almost starved. Having been away from the river for some time, they did not reestablish communication with Crooks until early December. Finding Crooks’ party in worse physical condition for lack of food, Hunt was forced to spend much time and effort getting some horse meat across the river.
Twice in November and December they had to stay in Shoshone Indian camps for a short time because of the heavy snow and their lack of food. One time, they came upon a Shoshone camp that had a small herd of horses. The temptation was too great. They scared the Indians away and seized five mounts.
Marie Dorion’s third child was born on December 30, 1811, but the baby died about eight days later. Apparently, Hunt’s concern for Marie’s welfare was not comparable to the concern Sacagawea had received from Lewis and Clark, for Marie gave birth to the child alone and caught up with the party the next day. It was another five weeks before Hunt’s party struggled into Astoria on February 15, 1812. A party of hunters under Mackenzie, one of the partners who had separated at Fort Henry, had arrived a month earlier.
Because of Crooks’ poor health, Hunt was forced to leave him with an American hunter named John Day and four Canadians to rest on the north side of the Snake River. They stayed there three weeks before continuing, arriving at Astoria on May 11, 1812. Crooks and Day had been picked up by David Stuart, one of the partners, who was leading a small canoe party up the Columbia River. Altogether, only 45 of the original 60 men reached Astoria, compared to Lewis and Clark, who had only one death (it was due to appendicitis) on their entire expedition.
In July 1813 the Dorion family left Astoria on a beaver trapping trip. The party, led by John Reed, established their base of operations for the winter up the Snake River, at the mouth of the Boise River in present-day southwest Idaho, beyond the area now called Hell’s Canyon. There, the party was divided into smaller units with Pierre Dorion, Giles Le Clerc, and the Kentucky hunter Jacob Reznor assigned to trap along the Boise River.
Marie and the children remained at the base camp. In January 1814 she learned from friendly Indians that a band of Bannocks were burning other camps, so she set out on a horse with her two children to warn her husband. Three days later she discovered their hut and found Le Clerc wounded. They had been ambushed that morning, while on their trapping line, and Pierre and Reznor were killed. Marie got Le Clerc on the horse with her children and set out for the base camp, but he died two days later. At the base camp she found Reed and all the men in camp killed and mutilated. Leaving immediately, Marie headed back, seeking refuge with friendlier Indians along the Columbia River.
After nine days of struggling through snow, Marie was forced to halt and build a crude hut. Living on horse meat and melted snow, the three of them stayed there for 53 days. In mid-March, Marie and the children set out on foot. She was wandering partially snow blind, when rescued by Walla Walla Indians and taken to their village. There she was found in April by members of the Astoria group who were on their way back to St. Louis. They took her to Fort Okanogan, a Canadian fur station owned by the North West Company, located in the northeastern part of present-day Washington.
Marie lived at Fort Okanogan for several years, with a French-Canadian trapper named Venier. Their daughter, Marguerite, was born about 1819. Marie later lived with Jean Baptiste Toupin, who was a French-Canadian interpreter at Fort Nez Perce (later called Fort Walla Walla), another North West Company trading post, at the juncture of the Columbia and the Walla Walla rivers. It had been constructed in 1820 and lasted until it was burned by Indians in 1855. By Toupin, Marie Dorion had two more children: Francois (born about 1825) and Marianne (born about 1827).
In 1841 the Toupins settled on a farm in the Willamette Valley near Salem, Oregon and on July 19 of that year, they were formally married in a Roman Catholic ceremony. Marie died in 1850 and was buried at the parish church of St. Louis, 12 miles northeast of Salem. The officiating priest recorded her age as about 100, which was in error by about 40 years.
Marie Dorion’s story became well known in her lifetime through the published recollections of Astoria pioneers and through Washington Irving’s book Astoria. Since then, her name has been largely forgotten.
Astor’s entire endeavor to control the northwest fur trade came to an end soon after the beginning of the War of 1812. When a supply ship failed to arrive and news that a British warship HMS Raccoon was approaching, the partners were forced to sell Fort Astoria to the North West Company of Montreal. It was renamed Fort George. Astoria’s legacy was that it was the first permanent American settlement in the Pacific Northwest, and it became a strong argument in the United States’ claim for that land. The immediate result of Astor’s presence was that the North West Company had hastened to take control over the area. Representatives of that company arrived in the area just four months after Tonquin.
Hunt was not present when Astoria was sold. He had left Oregon on August 4, 1812 on Beaver en route to New Archangel, Alaska, to negotiate trade with the Russian-American Company. He sold a cargo of supplies for sealskins that he took to the Orient by way of the Sandwich Islands, where he left the ship. After learning of the declaration of war, he chartered Albatross and returned to Astoria, arriving after his partners had already arranged to sell out to the North West Company.
Before learning of the beginning of war, some of the Americans made plans to return to the East overland, carrying dispatches. One group of six men, led by Robert Stuart, left in June 1812, the month war was declared. Both Stuart and his uncle, David Stuart, were partners who had traveled west on Tonquin. With Stuart were both Ramsey Clark and John Day, who had had such a bad experience traveling with Hunt. Their route took them much farther south than Hunt’s westward expedition and was extremely difficult, causing them to go many miles out of the way. In the process they discovered a pass through the Rockies in what would become Wyoming. At an elevation of only 7,550 feet, South Pass was later to become the preferred route for the Oregon Trail. The Bonneville Expedition took the first wagon through South Pass on 24 July 1832. A large portion of Hunt’s route along the Snake River became part of the Oregon Trail.
This article was written by Wayne Jewett and originally appeared in the October 2000 issue of Wild West magazine.
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