Native American woman played big role in Oregon's story
Sacagawea got much more press, but Marie Dorion's story is more dramatic and, arguably, more influential.
EDITOR'S NOTE: A revised, updated and expanded version of this story was published in 2017 and is recommended in preference to this older one. To read it, click here.
This historical marker commemorates the winter Marie Dorion spent in
the Idaho wilderness en route to Oregon. (Photo by Rebecca Maxwell of
2009; courtesy www.HMdb.org. For a larger version of this
on the HMdb.org website, click here.)
By Finn J.D. John — Oct. 29, 2009
Ask most people who the most important Native American woman involved with the colonization of the West was, and you'll likely get an instant reply: "Sacagawea."
Sacagawea was vital to the Lewis and Clark expedition, it's true. And she had a picturesque name, and a fetching portrait on that ill-starred brass $1 coin that came out several years ago.
But another Native American woman, with the more mundane name of Marie Dorion, had a much greater impact on Oregon, and a livelier story to boot.
Dorion was married to a man named Pierre, whose extraordinary skills as a scout were matched up with an extreme and violent temper. He's reputed to have once nearly scalped his own father in a bar fight.
When Pierre was hired in St. Louis to guide the Astor party to Oregon in 1811, he was given a $200 advance.
Pierre's devious scheme
Homeward he went to tell his wife all about it, and about his plan to make even more money: He'd pocket the $200 and then slip off quietly in the night and go to work for someone else, doubling his money. Before he got home, though, there was $200 in his pocket, so he stopped off at some watering hole to celebrate first.
This statue of Marie Dorion and one of her children is close by the
historical marker commemorating Dorion's winter spent in the Idaho
. (Photo by Rebecca Maxwell of
www.HMdb.org. For a larger version of this
on the HMdb.org
website, click here.)
When he got home, happily and boozily excited about this scheme, he met a buzz-harshing welcome from his wife: Absolutely not, she told him. We will do nothing of the sort.
Marie told her husband that if he had engaged the family's word to work for the Astorians, they would do it. Stealing $200 was not an option.
The last time Pierre ever beat his wife
Pierre's anger, amplified by the liquor, rose and he attacked and struck his wife. Peltier's book doesn't give details of this blow, whether it was a slap or a punch or what.
In any case, Marie responded by grabbing a club and knocking Pierre unconscious.
While he lay there, she gathered all her necessaries, collected the couple's two young sons, seized what was left of the $200 for safekeeping and walked out.
When Pierre woke up, all by himself in a cold and empty house, he found his options sharply reduced. So apparently he decided to go ahead and honor his promise after all and went to meet up with the party on schedule.
Meanwhile, Marie, with the couple's two toddlers — 4-year-old Baptiste and 2-year-old Paul — lurked in the bushes watching. Once she determined that Pierre was going to honor his promise, she reappeared and calmly resumed her wifely role, as if nothing had happened.
One thing would never be the same, though: As Gulick puts it, "There is no record that Pierre Dorion ever attempted to beat his wife again."
Marie Dorion's experiences on the trek to Oregon and after will have to wait for a future column.
By the way, a writer from eastern Oregon named Jane Kirkpatrick has written three novels about Marie Dorion's life — it's called the "Tender Ties Historical Series." I haven't read them, but I hear good things about them.
(Sources: Gulick, Bill. Roadside History of Oregon. Missoula, MT: Mountain Press, 1991; Peltier, Jerome. Madame Dorion. Fairfield, WA: Ye Galleon Press, 1980)