You know of Sacajewea, but have you heard of Marie Dorion? She was the second woman to make the long trip from Missouri to the West Coast. She was in her early 20’s at the time her husband, Pierre Dorion, was hired as a guide and interpreter for the Wilson Hunt Party of 1811. Marie, along with her two children, Baptiste (approx. age 4) and Paul (approx. age 2), were brought along.
After they tried, unsuccessfully, to travel the Snake River in Dugout Canoes, the ill-fated Wilson Hunt party met with hard times. Around what is now Burley, Idaho, they had to abandon their canoes. With most of their trade goods cached, each man, carrying a 20lb. pack, began walking toward their goal of Fort Astoria which was located on the coast. The party divided into smaller groups, hoping it would be easier to find food.
From journals members of the party kept, we know how desperate their situation became. On November 18th, around Glen’s Ferry, Idaho, they were able to trade for salmon and dog meat. On November 27th, they found frozen blackberries and divided the meat of one beaver among their group. Remember that, all this time, Marie was carrying her two children and was also pregnant! Her baby was the first, with mixed blood, to be born in the Western land. In their sad state of starvation, however, the baby did not survive.
Marie carried her burdens, of body and soul, without complaint and earned the admiration and respect of all the men in the party! Amazingly, all but two men lived, arriving to the fort on February 15th, 1812. Marie may have thought her hard times were over, but it was not to be.
In the Summer of 1813, Pierre Dorion was assigned as a hunter for a trapping party headed to the Boise River. They built a cabin on the Snake, where trapping was good, near the mouth of the Boise River. In January they were attacked by Bannock Indians. Marie and her husband, along with Jacob Rezner and Giles LeClerc, were trapping from a camp about 5 days away from the main cabin. LeClerc, severely wounded, made his way back to camp to bear the bad news to Marie that her husband and Rezner had been killed.
Marie caught two horses and hoisted the wounded LeClerc over one saddle, along with what supplies she could hastily pack. With her two children on the other horse, she forged her way back to the main cabin.
LeClerc died that first night, but Marie and her children continued on, arriving late on the fourth day only to find ashes where the cabin had once stood. Determined to save her children, she forded the Snake River and followed their old trail back from Astoria. Nine days later the snow became too deep to continue. In a sheltered ravine, she built a primitive hut by using skins thrown over a framework of branches. She killed the two horses for food. This shelter was their home for 53 days.
By the end of March their food supply had become desperately low. Marie set out on foot, holding the hand of her oldest and carrying on her back her youngest child, along with what was left of their food. On the second day of travel, Marie became snow blind, and was unable to take a step further. She remained in this condition, for three days, before starting out on foot again.
Finally, she reached the Wallah Wallah River and then traveled for 15 more days to reach the Columbia River Plains. Weak from hunger, and barely able to walk, she saw smoke in the distance. Leaving her children lying under a Buffalo robe, she walked, and then crawled, to reach that distant camp. It turned out to be friendly Wallah Wallah Indians, who tracked back to rescue her two children.
On April 17th, canoes from Fort Astoria, approaching the mouth of the Wallah Wallah, were intercepted by this tribe. When they pulled to shore they were amazed to hear of Marie Dorion’s story of survival under such hardship!
Used with permission from The Women of The Fur Trade and with special thanks to Sandy Gabbert Hunt, who did a 5 day trip down The Snake River, in a bull boat, on the 200th anniversary of Marie Dorion’s trek!