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Portraits of Women in the American Fur Trade

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Madame Marie Dorion


The journey to Astoria for the woman was a thirty-five-hundred-mile, thirteen-month trek requiring courage, uncompromising physical strength, mental anguish, and true love and devotion to her husband and family.  Her journey certainly rivaled that of the more famous Sacajawea in terms of hardship and difficult circumstances, and stands as a testament to the woman’s fortitude. But add to that her later trials, when she found herself alone two hundred miles from a friendly face in the middle of the mountains in the dead of winter, it clinches her distinction as a truly remarkable person. Her heroic efforts to survive and keep her family alive have earned her recognition as one of the foremost pioneers of the Northwest United States.


Her real name is unknown. She is recorded as “Marie” later in life, but contemporaries referred to her as “the Dorion woman” because of her husband, Pierre Dorian. She was born in the Red River country near present day Arkansas in 1786. Coincidentally, this is the same year the Shoshone woman Sacajawea, who traveled with Lewis and Clark, was born. The Dorion woman was a member of the Iowa tribe, and there are assertions she may have been Métis, or French mixed blood, although no definitive evidence has been found to support this fact. Being Métis would explain her readiness to marry and remain with French husbands throughout her life and her inclination to follow Catholic traditions.


The name “Marie” was first recorded in 1839 at the baptism of her daughter Marguerite Vernier, although use of the name probably predates this. “Marie” is a commonly used French term of endearment, and it is likely that Pierre called her this during more intimate moments. Wilson Price Hunt’s journal and John Bradbury’s journal both called her “Dorion’s squaw” or “the Dorion Woman.” The term “Madame Dorion” was also used, and according to Jerome Peltier, it was a term well earned when she later lived in the Oregon territories.


The early years of her life were uneventful; her childhood was that of a typical American Indian girl living in an Iowa village, learning the ways of an Iowa woman. But it was the skills she gained through her training for womanhood and the lifestyle of her upbringing that played a significant role in her fortitude as an adult. Indeed, it can be said that her survival was due to the fact that she was Iowa.




Back into the Wilderness


Pierre Dorion found himself assigned to the detachment led by John Reed. Reed had been a member of MacKenzie’s group that had separated from Hunt at Milner and traveled to Astoria by way of the Weiser, Salmon, and Clearwater Rivers. He had made a second trip in 1811 along that route in an attempt to retrieve the merchandise cached when they had abandoned the river, but the stores had been looted. He then had made his way back to Astoria over the same route. As he was now fairly familiar with this country, it was determined that his group would again travel to the upper waters of the Snake River and find the three Kentucky backwoodsmen who were trapping that area of the wilderness. They would then build an outpost in a likely spot along Hunt’s original trail and secure as many skins as they could. The following summer they would be picked up by one of the parties traveling east to St. Louis.


Reed’s group consisted of himself, a morose mixed-blood named Delaunay, a hunter named Giles LeClerc, Francois Landry, Baptiste Turcott, Andre La Chappelle, all voyagers; Pierre Dorion, the Woman, and the two boys, now aged seven and four. They traveled the route with which Reed was familiar, up the Colombia River, up the Snake River to the Clearwater, then into the Salmon and finally to the mouth of the Weiser. From here, they traveled to the Boise area, where they built a post on the bank of the Snake River near the mouth of the Boise River for the security of themselves and their trade goods.


Tragedy struck three times that fall, and Reed lost valuable men. Jean-Baptiste Turcotte died of scrofula, a tubercular infection of the lymph nodes. While the majority of TB affects the lungs, the bacteria can also attack other parts of the body. Francois Landry was thrown from a horse and killed. And the half-mad Pierre Delaunay wandered off to be seen no more. Dorion later reported seeing an Indian with his scalp, recognizing it by its color.


The loss of personnel was felt only temporarily, for they were replaced by Kentuckians Jacob Reznor, John Hoback, and Edward Robinson, who stumbled more dead than alive into camp, stripped of all their worldly possessions. They had run into hostiles and had been robbed of everything they had, barely escaping with their lives.


Shortly after the backwoodsmen arrived, Reed decided to move their base to a safer location; a new post was constructed some distance away on the other side of the river, where they knew the Shoshone to be friendly. Prudence had dictated the move because initially, natives near the first post were friendly. But after the Reed party arrived they became a nuisance, asking for guns and ammunition, which Hunt refused to trade to them due to two overt acts of hostility: La Chappelle’s capote (blanket coat) was stolen and an arrow was shot into the flank of one of the horses. Good judgment dictated that they move.


The second post was finished by November 1813 and was a wintering house, and here Marie Dorion took her usual place as factotum, completing any work that needed to be done. She did the cooking and dressed hides and pelts for the men while they were out trapping. She made and mended clothing, took care of the boys, gathered food, and helped in any way she could be useful, filling many necessary roles at the outpost. When winter arrived, Marie and her kids were prepared. They holed up with Reed and several other traders and trappers in the expedition’s main trading post, well supplied with everything they would need to get through a high-country winter.


Washington Irving in chapter 62 of Astoria; Or, Anecdotes of an Enterprise

Beyond the Rocky Mountains,  described the Dorion woman’s role at the second camp.


             To the woman is consigned the labours of the household and the field; she arranges

             the lodge; brings wood for the fires; cooks; jerks venison and buffalo meat; dresses

             the skins of the animals killed in the chase; cultivates a little patch of maize,

             pumpkins and pulse which furnishes a great part of their provisions.


The friendly local Shoshone regularly visited the second outpost, but nomadic bands from other areas had become extremely dangerous.


All the men returned to post two to celebrate New Year’s Day. After the revelry, the men once again divided into smaller parties who traveled from the main outpost to trap beaver. Pierre Dorion was sent out with Andre La Chappelle, Giles Le Clerc, and Jacob Reznor to a third smaller post that had been built to house men while they were in the field.


Danger Afoot


On January 10, a friendly Shoshone came running into the main post with the news that a band of Dog Ribs, of the Snake or Bannock Indians, had been attacking the Pacific Fur Company’s posts. They had burned the first post built by Reed and his men and were making their way up the north bank of the river towards the third post, with intent to kill all trappers they found. Reed and his men decided to remain where there were, in hopes that the hostiles would remain on the other side of the river and leave them unmolested.


Marie asked permission from Reed to warn the vulnerable trappers, then she took her horse and her children and that afternoon set out to warn her husband of the impending danger. She took a little food and a buffalo robe. Although the third post was only 15-20 miles away, it took Marie three days to get there. The first night she lost her way; the second day was cold and stormy and she made little progress. The third day she saw heavy smoke that made her wary, and she went slowly towards the third post, arriving as it was smoldering. As she approached, there were no signs of life. She was too late, as the marauders had been there only hours before. Frantically she began searching, and a scalped and severely wounded Giles LeClerc crawled out of the brush towards her.


He told her that Pierre and the others were dead, and that he would also be dead soon. He urged her to return to the main outpost with haste and leave him to finish dying. He told her that the Dog Ribs had gone back the way they came, traveling along the north bank, thus missing her both ways. But danger remained imminent.


A scary rustling in the trees proved to be a stray Dog Rib horse, which she caught with great difficulty. She loaded her boys and a small bag of provisions on the first horse, and lifted the injured man onto the second. He again asked her to leave him but she would not. She easily hoisted him to the back of the horse and tied his feet together underneath to hold him on. She walked, leading the two horses down the south bank. Despite her efforts to keep him astride, Le Clerc fell from his horse, opening his wounds and making the pain nearly unbearable. Still she pressed on.


She hadn’t traveled more than a few hours when Indian tracks appeared in the snow, this time on the south side of the river and on higher ground, which brought new apprehension to her heart. She hid along the brush on the bank of the river until night fell. She dared not build a fire, so she held the boys in her arms and warmed them with her body through the night. At dawn, she found Le Clerc had died in the night. She tied her young boys to their saddle, left the body of the dead Giles Le Clerc where it lay, and mounted the horse he had ridden. Once she ascertained that the way was clear, they traveled all day at top speed.


They arrived at post two the next day, which, though it had been burned, was still standing. The mangled and scalped remains of one of the men lay across the threshold. Reed and his men had been murdered, scalped, and cut to pieces. They had endured every kind of indignity the savage mind could think up.  As she surveyed the bloody landscape in front of her, she knew she was utterly alone. She was alone with her two children, in midwinter, among hostile Indians, two hundred miles from friends.




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