By Dee Vadnais
In honor of Women’s History Month, we’ll be posting one story each day of March written by local citizen journalists about a revolutionary woman from history or today who has inspired them as women.
Marie Dorion was born around 1786, a member of the Iowa Tribe. She is known for her participation in the Astor Expedition, begun in 1811, six years after the return of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The Astor Expedition set out to reach the same geographic endpoint as Lewis and Clark, but with trade as the motivation and goal.
Lewis and Clark also had one female in their group, the renowned Sacagawea. Marie Dorion’s story was similar, but the 3,500 mile trail was longer and more harrowing. Like Sacagawea, Marie accompanied her husband who was a Sioux/French guide, and whose father served as an interpreter for Lewis and Clark.
The Astor Expedition began its journey from St. Louis, where it is thought Sacagawea and Marie probably knew each other. In the new book “Astoria” by Peter Stark, they meet again upriver while resupplying at Arikara villages (Sacagawea died there, a year later, of typhus).
Marie Dorion was twenty-five at the start of the Astor Expedition. Marie and her husband began the journey with two children, around two and five years old. Marie is seen through journal entries walking many hundreds of miles, often with the two year old on her back. She is also pregnant.
The expedition was overtaken by harsh winter conditions in the mountains where they endured a very bad winter in which some members of the expedition are lost, starve and even go mad. Marie’s uncomplaining presence was notable: walking until given a horse to ride in the eighth month of pregnancy. Two days after giving birth near Powder River she and her family rejoined the expedition. The infant did not survive.
The expedition reached Astoria in 1812. She and her husband lived there for another winter, then left on a trapping foray in the mountains of Idaho. Her husband and all the trappers were killed in conflict with tribes enraged by the trappers’ treatment. Marie escaped with her two sons and endured another two months of winter. They survived on what they could find until reaching the Walla Walla Tribe in spring.
In 1840 (twenty-seven years later), after living in trading forts and marrying twice more, Marie homesteaded in the French Prairie area of the Willamette Valley. This was Calapooya tribal territory where many French fur traders had retired with their families and established farms before the Oregon Trail opened the area to many hundreds of homesteaders.
Through written records and oral histories, a small window is opened for us into the lives of people like Sacagawea, Marie Dorion and a few others; but I wonder about all the women whose lives are not so well chronicled. Mention is given, for instance, to the many French trappers and their Indian wives (who knows how many different origins might be represented?) who had already settled the area of French Prairie, thus the name. Marie moved there with her husband, five children and their families, a tribe joining a tribe it would seem. What about those women already homesteading there? How were their lives any different than Marie’s? Had they not already started a farming community, and were they not the true “pioneers”? They were exploring and defining a brand new lifestyle, combining cultures, raising new crops.
I believe that the reason Marie Dorion is credited with being the first female homesteader in the Oregon Territory is that she arrived early in the era of exploration by US citizens, stayed in the west, and homesteaded early in the history of settlement. She also lived her life as a practicing Catholic. Marie was buried in a small Catholic church in the Willamette Valley, in the community of St. Louis on September 5th, 1850. Information exists about her place of burial and came to light when church records were translated from French.
I’d like to think Marie, while obviously an extraordinary person, is representational of a nation of women whose lives were lived for thousands of years in this area. How many coped with hardships, gave birth in trying conditions, survived and thrived in the world that existed before a cultural wave overtook and decimated much of what they knew?
While following the story of Marie’s later life, I began reading about her time as a homesteader in the area of French Prairie, Oregon. I learned about a trilogy by Jane Kirkpatrick: “Tender Ties”, based on the life of Marion Dorion. Coincidentally, I have a pioneering great-great-grandmother who is also the subject of a trilogy of historical novels by Jane Kirkpatrick, “A Clearing in the Wild”, the story of Emma Giesy.
Ironically, these two women homesteaded in the exact same area. Emma Giesy was a member of the original scouting party for the Aurora Colony, founded in French Prairie around 1850, the year Marie died. Emma would have arrived after that date, but the two women must have encountered many of the same people in their community; their paths nearly crossed! I feel a closeness to this time in our history, and with women who dealt with wilderness and hardship, and who successfully adapted and survived.
Dee Vadnais is a landscape painter who lives in Deer Island, Oregon and paints throughout the NW, primarily. Her life long love and fascination with NW history and lore, forests, coasts, rivers and mountains helped give rise to this article.