Marie Dorion (1786-1850)
Native American Marie Dorion is remembered for her bravery and endurance in leading white men to the Oregon Territory, when she probably was in her early twenties. Her journey followed that of famed Sacajawea by six years, but Dorion’s 3,500-mile trek was both longer and much more difficult. Her epic story shows the strength and perseverance needed to survive alone and against all odds.
Also known as Marie Iowa, Marie Aine, Laguivoise, and other names, she probably was born in 1786 and definitely belonged to the Iowa tribe. While still a teenager, she married Pierre Dorion, whose father was French Canadian; his mother was a member of the branch of the Sioux Nation that lived near modern Yankton, South Dakota. Pierre and Marie settled in this area just after the nineteenth century began, and some consider him “the first white resident of South Dakota.”
Like other men of his heritage, he made a living in the fur business that centered in St. Louis. Fur trading involved almost constant travel, and Marie often accompanied him on buying and selling trips through what later became the states of North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and even Arkansas. Both were familiar with several Indian languages, as well as French.
Men of French heritage had far better relations with Native American women than other Europeans, and they often assimilated into their wives’ tribes. Like all North American natives, these were matrilineal societies in which heritage was traced through the mother, not the father. Marie, however, seems not to have used a native name; probably baptized into Catholicism early in her life, she also gave Christian names to her sons, Jean Baptiste and Paul.
Jean Baptiste was five and Paul was a toddler of two when their parents accepted employment as guides and interpreters for the second overland journey of American men to the Pacific Coast. The federally sponsored Lewis & Clark Expedition had ended in 1805, and now, in March of 1811, employees of New York fur magnate John Jacob Astor were seeking a land route to their new Pacific Coast fur-trading post of Astoria, Oregon. If it were possible to cross the Rocky Mountains and go by land, trade between the Atlantic and Pacific would be greatly increased: prior to the twentieth-century Panama Canal, the trip required sailing all the way around South America.
During the nation’s three centuries of westward expansion, some white men had discovered the advantages of having at least one native woman along when they ventured into new territory. In addition to the knowledge of natural foods and other resources that a woman usually possessed, female presence also indicated peaceful intentions. A woman was a natural ambassador, and her appearance and speech could help prevent aggression.
Marie probably did not yet know that she was pregnant when the young family set out on the long, unmapped journey from Missouri to Oregon. Being the only female doubtless was emotionally difficult, as Native American women spent most of their time in the company of other women. More than loneliness, however, the expedition encountered food shortages and early snow so severe that several men died of starvation and/or exposure.
On December 30, 1811, Marie Dorion gave birth to her third child near North Powder, Oregon, but the baby died eight days later. After three days of mourning and recovering, the Dorion family caught up with the expedition. They made it to Fort Astoria on February 15, 1812, after a tortuous eleven-month trek.
Marie and Pierre then joined a nine-member party that intended to secure a monopoly of the fur trade from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean for Astor’s company. Again, Marie Dorion was the only female in the group. After building their main trading post near the mouth of Idaho’s Boise River, they created several outlying hunting-and-trapping camps during the winter of 1813-1814.
They established a friendly relationship with most of the Shoshone who lived in the area, but a gang called the “Bad Snakes” persistently harassed the newcomers. After several encounters with the “Bad Snakes,” a Shoshone warned Marie that there might be trouble at the remote camp where her husband and two other men had gone.
In the cold of January 1814, she took a horse and her children and set off for her husband's camp. After three days of fighting through mountainous snow, she reached the campsite – only to find that her husband was dead. Giles LeClerc, who was badly wounded, told her that the three of them had been attacked that morning while working their traps. Pierre and Jacob Reznor did not survive.
Marie put Giles onto her horse with the two boys and began the frigid three-day journey to the main campsite – but had to stop when Giles’ condition worsened. Although she desperately tried to save him, he died. More horror greeted her back at the main camp: all the men there had been murdered, scalped, and dismembered. She was alone in the wildness with her little sons.
Gathering some food supplies, she loaded the boys onto the horse and headed west, away from enemy territory. For three months, Dorion and her children crossed deep snow in the Blue Mountains of what now is eastern Oregon and Washington. When they were near starvation, she killed and butchered her horse. The smoked meat kept the little family alive, while she used the horse’s hide and cedar boughs as shelter. When it appeared that spring had come, she and her sons again moved west – only to be caught by another blizzard. Finally, they arrived at the Columbia River and found refuge amongst the Walla Walla tribe. She and the little children had walked some 250 miles.
Astor officials did not particularly reward her for the survival skills that this pregnant woman demonstrated under conditions that killed nine men. Dorion moved north to Fort Okanogan in modern Washington, and by 1819, was married to Louis Joseph Venier. They had a daughter named Marguerite before he, too, was killed by Native Americans. Jean Baptiste Toupin then entered her life, and because Marie lived by a different moral code, she bore two children, Francois and Marianne, prior to their belated 1841 marriage. The mother of five children by three men, she had learned independence early in life.
She and her children were the first settlers of French Prairie in Oregon’s fertile Willamette Valley, where white neighbors called her “an impressive and admirable woman.” Marie Dorion died there on September 5, 1850, just as the great migration on the Oregon Trail was beginning. Her son Paul escorted famous writer Francis Parkman on that trail, while Jean Baptiste went on to a career with the British Canadian fur-trading Hudson Bay Company. Several sites along the Walla Walla River commemorate Marie Dorian as the “Madonna of the old Oregon Trail.”
Taken from Young and Brave: Girls Changing History
- Peltier, Jerome. Madame Dorion. Fairfield, Wash. : Ye Galleon Press, 1980.
- Schmerber, Ruth. Only the Earth : the Story of Marie Dorion. 1990.
- Snodgrass, Mary Ellen, in Doris Weatherford, ed. A History of Women in the United States: A State-by-State Reference. Scholastic/Grolier, 2003.
- Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. “Marie Dorion” in Doris Weatherford’s A History of Women in the United States, vol 1., 354.