Sunday, November 14, 2010

Marie Dorion - One Very Tough Woman

Where the Snake River joins the Columbia River there is a State Park named for Sacagawea. There has been much debate regarding Sacagawea's role on the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1805-1806. How helpful she was at key points of that expedition is hard to know, but all historians and anyone reading about the expedition agree that what she accomplished was impressive.  She traveled across the Continental divide and back via dug out canoes and horseback all the while enduring the hardships of that journey while caring for her new born infant. A few miles downstream of the confluence of the Snake and Columbia at the mouth of the Walla Walla River is another park in honor of another woman from the same era and of similar circumstances.  Madame Dorion Memorial Park at the mouth of the Walla Walla River commemorates Marie Dorion's winter of 1814 crossing of the Blue Mountains with her two young children as the sole survivors from an attack by Bannock Indians.  But that experience was only one of a series of hardships she endured.

Marie Dorion qualifies as the very first woman pioneer in the Pacific Northwest. Her path to being the first woman pioneer was not done intentionally and her trip west predated any pioneer trips by decades. While Sacagewea crossed the continental divide and reached the Pacific Ocean, Marie Dorion made the journey under much more difficult circumstances - Marie Dorion did it while pregnant and with two small small children and as part of a party that could be described as incompetent.

Marie was the daughter of an Iowa Indian and was married to Pierre Dorion, the son of a Yankton Sioux mother and French Candian father. Pierre was hired by Wilson Hunt to help guide the 1810 Astoria Expedition. This was the second expedition to cross the continent to the mouth of the Columbia. Unlike the government operated Corps of Discovery - Lewis and Clark Expedition, this expedition was a commercially funded expedition. The goal was to establish an overland route and network of fur trading posts from Missouri to the mouth of the Columbia.

Despite having two small children and being pregnant, Marie joined the expedition. Dorion biographer Jerome Peltier and historian Bill Gullick wrote that Pierre was given an advance that he attempted to pocket and celebrated by drinking. The story is that Marie insisted that he meet his obligation. Pierre reportedly struck Marie and she proceeded to knock him out with a club and left him only to rejoin him upon his meeting his obligation of being a guide and translator on the expedition.

The expedition headed up the Missouri River by boat and then headed overland through present day northern Wyoming. They ventured into lands and across mountains that were barely understood and ended up in southeastern Idaho on the Snake River. At this point the party made a huge mistake. They left the horses and headed down the Snake in dugout canoes. It did not take long to realize this approach could not work as there are many rapids and falls. After one man drowned they made their second mistake; they then proceeded by foot with part of the party on the south side and part on the north side of the river. Picture being 7 months pregnant and walking with two small children in late October in Idaho with a group of men making bad choices! Or if your a guy think of the wrath you would bring upon yourself having your wife walk miles with little food while pregnant.

The party was able to obtain horses through purchase and theft and eventually Marie was able to ride again. By all accounts the split up parties suffered near starvation. On December 30, 1811 she gave birth on the trail in the Grande Ronde Valley of northeastern Oregon. According to Washington Irving "In the course of the following morning the Dorion family made its reappearance. Pierre came trudging in advance, followed by his valued, though skeleton steed, on which was mounted (Marie) with her new-born infant in her arms, and her boy of two years wrapped in blankets and slung at her side. The mother looked as unconcerned as if nothing had happened to her." From this it appears that the main party was so desperate that they had proceeded without waiting for the mother to bear a child. The child died on January 7, 1812. The Grande Ronde Valley is not a warm place in the winter. Hence Marie bore the first child born on what later became the Oregon Trail and the same child was the first child to die on the Oregon Trail.  Somehow the party was able to get across the Blue Mountains and arrived at the poorly operating Astoria fur trading post in February 1812.  Other portions of the party arrived at different times with some having suffered terribly with numerous deaths.

Marie Dorion left Astoria with her husband on a fur trapping expedition to southern Idaho in 1813. The trappers headed out onto various streams and rivers to trap and Marie stayed at the main encampment with her children. Upon hearing rumors that local tribes were planning on attacking the trappers she headed out with her children to warn her husband. Too late, she found he and is associates had been killed with one exception. She returned to the base camp with the wounded man. Arriving at the base camp she found all those there had also been killed while she was gone. The wounded man then died.

Marie with her two children then headed west over the Blue Mountains where they were trapped by deep snow. They spent two months living on frozen horse meat, frozen berries, inner bark of trees and occasional rodents before they walked out to the Walla Walla River in the spring where Walla Walla tribal people took them in.

Marie remained in the Pacific Northwest living at Fort Okanogan and later Fort Walla Walla where she married twice more and had three more children. She and her husband then moved to Oregon's Willamette Valley in 1840 as one of the early pioneer family's of French Prairie.

I imagine Marie Dorion provided valuable information regarding the route that she had taken that later became known as the Oregon Trail. She was part of an American push into the Pacific Northwest. Her impact on the landscape of Washington State may be a bit uncertain, but she was a member of the party that essentially found the route of the Oregon Trail. Other party members returned east further to the south establishing a better way across what is now Wyoming. Without that early path finding, Washington State and Oregon may very well have become a southern extension of British Columbia.

But more than anything I can not be anything but impressed with just how tough she must have been as she trudged across the Snake River Plain with her two young sons while heavily pregnant or weathered two cold months in the Blue Mountains with them. I'll be giving the small park at the mouth of the Walla Walla River a nod every time I pass by.

Information for this post was derived from Bill Gullick's Roadside History of Oregon, Jerome Peltier's Madame Dorion, and Washington Irving's Astoria.


Anne Jefferson said...

Whoa! That is the most impressive thing I've read in a long, long time. Thank you so much for sharing.

Dan McShane said...

Thanks Anne. I was impressed with her as well and was surprised that she is not better known in Washington. It was interesting that Bill Gullick ranks her above Sacagwea in his Roadside History of Oregon, but made no mention of the small park or Dorion in his Roadside History of Washington.

BodieP said...

I learned about Marie Dorion when the City of Milton Freewater hired me to create an information sign for the nearby Marie Dorion Park (not to be confused with the park on the Columbia). I was so impressed with her that I have been using her story as a research project for the writing classes I teach. My students are likewise impressed. She was an amazing woman.

Lenora Good said...

I am working on a story about Marie, in fact, just completed a road trip where I was able to, as much as I could figure out from old maps and current roads, her trip from the mouth of the Big (Grand) River to Umatilla. I'll head on down to Astoria later. Had to forego Union Pass, WY as it was too wet and considered dangerous. Drat! But she was an amazing woman and probably did much to keep Hunt's men alive on the long trek.

Thanks for you blog on her.

Kanilee said...

Marie Dorion was my 4th great grandmother, and I'm always glad when I find something to read about her. Thank you. :)

Anonymous said...

Marie Dorian was my 4th Great~Grandmother. Would like to chat with Kanilee.

Lenora Good said...

I would like to chat with both Kanilee and Anonymous about Marie Dorion. I'm working on another project about her. By the way, my book is now available, Madame Dorion: Her Journey to the Oregon Country. It is as accurate as I could make it, but would love any further comments.