Let’s start with an Indian woman, born in 1786, who married a man of French-Canadian heritage. She and her husband served as interpreters to a famous expedition west in the early part of the 18th century. That trek took them across what would become Idaho. She went along to assist with interpretation, taking her son, John Baptiste with them. Her name has been the source of some speculation over the years, though it wasn’t because the pronunciation was in dispute. Marie is a common enough name, though not so common at that time for an Indian woman. The dispute has been whether she ever had a non-Anglo name.
No, this wasn’t Sacajawea, though the parallels are striking. This was Marie Dorion, a contemporary of Sacajawea perhaps born the same year. She very likely knew Sacajawea when they both lived in St. Louis.
Sacajawea was Shoshoni; Marie Dorion was Iowan (the tribe, not the state).
Marie’s husband was Pierre Dorion, Jr. His father, who had served as an interpreter for Lewis and Clark, was French-Canadian and his mother was Yankton-Sioux. With Marie’s Iowan heritage, the Dorions became valued members of the expedition. Between the two of them they spoke French, English, Spanish, and several Indian dialects.
The expedition, which I have studiously avoided naming up to this point, was one financed by fur magnate John Jacob Astor in 1810 in an attempt to claim trapping territory for his newly formed Pacific Fur Company. Astor and his partners chartered two expeditions, one by sea and one by land and river. The members of the ocean expedition built an outpost on the Columbia called Fort Astoria. The fort became the first American settlement in the territory. The Hudson Bay Company, and not incidentally, the British, had ambitions in the area as well.
Astor partnered with Wilson Price Hunt for the overland expedition that was to launch from St. Louis and explore trapping territory all the way to Fort Astoria. Hunt, a New Jersey native and St. Louis merchant would lead the cross-country expedition, in spite of his lack of experience in such endeavors. The group was often called the “Astorians” though Astor himself wasn’t along on either expedition.
On April 21, 1811 the Hunt Party left their winter camp at Fort Osage, near present-day Sibley, Missouri to begin the bulk of their trip west. The ocean-going Astorians had done their part, establishing Fort Astoria nine days earlier, though not without some loss of life due to the treacherous sand bar at the mouth of the Columbia.
The Hunt Party was a large one, consisting of some 60 men. Oh, and one woman. Most were French-Canadian river men, known as voyageurs, since much of the expedition was expected to take place on rivers, just as the Lewis and Clark Expedition had a few years earlier. Worried about a confrontation with hostile Blackfeet, the Hunt Party would cut down through present-day Wyoming and cross the Continental Divide at the headwaters of the Snake River. They hoped to take that unexplored river all the way to Fort Astoria. Abandoning their horses near the headwaters, the Hunt Party built 15 dugout canoes to that end.
The Hunt Party ran into a tad of trouble at Caldron Linn, about 340 miles downriver from where they put in. On October 28, 1811, they lost a canoe, a man, and the desire to travel further on the Snake, which, after a few days of scouting, they declared unnavigable.
Without horses and with suddenly useless dugout canoes, the Hunt Party cached most of their supplies and split up, with about half travelling on either side of the Snake River, setting out on foot for Fort Astoria. Smaller parties would have a better chance of finding enough food to sustain them.
Hunt took the northern route. The Dorian family, Pierre, Marie, John Baptiste, who was four, and Paul, who was two, walked along with him. Well, Marie Dorion carried the two-year-old much of the way, though she was by this time several months pregnant.
They were able to trade for a couple of horses near today’s Boise, but by the time December rolled around the horses had become food. Near starvation they stole several horses from a Shoshoni camp to help them along their way.
The Snake River, which they called the Mad River, proved more obstacle than travel route. Hunt’s party struggled downstream into Hells Canyon only to find the rest of their party slogging back upstream on the opposite side of the river, discouraged by the steep cliffs and relentless rapids ahead.
Marie stayed behind while the rest of the expedition set out on December 30, 1811. She gave birth to her baby, alone, near today’s North Powder, Oregon. Marie then caught up with the rest of party the next day. The baby died a few days later. Most of the bedraggled Hunt Party—45 of the original 60—finally made it to Astoria on May 11, 1812.
And that’s where we’ll leave the story for today. Stop by tomorrow to hear the heroics of Marie Dorian when she travelled back to present-day Idaho.