Native American on the Astor Expedition
Image: Marie Dorion – Escape 1814 by John Clymer
Marie Dorion (1786–1850), a Native American of the Iowa tribe, was the only female member of the Astor Expedition (1811-1812) from Missouri to Oregon Country. Her journey followed that of Sacagawea 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 in the unforgiving wilderness of the Pacific Northwest.
Childhood and Early Years
A member of the Iowa tribe, Marie was probably born in 1786. It appears that Marie did not to have a Native American name. She was most likely baptized in the Roman Catholic Church early in her life; she also gave Christian names to her sons, Jean Baptiste and Paul.
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.”
Men of French heritage had far better relations with Native American women than other Europeans, and they often assimilated into their wives’ tribes. Pierre Dorion made a living in the fur trading business that centered in St. Louis, Missouri. Fur trading involved almost constant travel, and Marie often accompanied him on buying and selling trips through what would become the states of North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and Arkansas.
The Astor Expedition
New York fur magnate John Jacob Astor had determined to expand his fur trading empire beyond the Great Lakes. Astor’s plans were to create a company that would control the entire existing fur trade, and to extend it all the way to the Pacific. However, his presence there was not welcomed by the British who had claims in that area and Canadian enterprises, including the North West Company and the Hudson Bay Company.
Astor understood that his proposal for the expedition was as much political, as it was commercial, but he was not willing to “concede so lucrative a trade to their British and Canadian counterparts without a spirited contest.” In 1810 Astor and his working partners established the Pacific Fur Company. Soon thereafter his sea company founded a fur trading post they named Fort Astoria on the Columbia River in Oregon Country – the first U.S. settlement on the Pacific Coast.
In 1810, ambitious young St. Louis merchant Wilson Price Hunt, age 29, was hired to lead an expedition seeking an overland route from Missouri to Oregon Country. Along the way, Hunt’s mission was to identify locations where fur trading posts could be established that could also serve as way stations to expedite communications between Astor’s Eastern headquarters and the Western trading posts.
Hunt’s orders were to get the best scouts and translators for the journey by paying more than the Canadian companies. As interpreters, Hunt hired half Yankton-Sioux, Pierre Dorion and his wife Iowan Marie Dorion, and paid them a nice advance. Between the two they knew several Indian dialects plus English, French and Spanish.
Marie, the only woman on the expedition, probably did not yet know that she was pregnant. Son Jean Baptiste was five and Paul was a toddler of two when the young family set out on the long, unmapped journey from Missouri to Fort Astoria. During the nation’s three centuries of westward expansion, men had discovered the advantages of having a native woman along when they ventured into new territory.