All western schoolchildren have heard of Sacagawea, and even more know the story of Pocahontas either from class or the Disney movie. But who was the great – and comparatively unknown – Marie Dorion? No less than one of the most resilient, courageous, and frankly badass women in history. Dorion (1786 – 1850) was the daughter of a French Canadian father and a Native American mother. A seasoned survivalist, she would go on to become the only female member of John Jacob Astor’s legendary Astoria expedition, whose goal was to establish the first trading post at the mouth of the Columbia.
Along with her husband, Pierre Dorion, and a band of trappers, Marie traversed mountains, plains, and raging rivers – all with her small children in tow. Stranded after her spouse and the other members of her party were killed and scalped, Marie and her two young sons set out against all odds across a glacial winter landscape. It was a brutal journey that has more than earned its place in the epic-odyssey canon.
Today, the story of Marie Dorion and the Astoria expedition, or the story of Marie Dorion and John Jacob Astor, is the stuff of towering and underappreciated history. Read on to find out more.
Pierre Dorion was hired for Astor's expedition primarily because he spoke a variety of Sioux languages and dialects fluently. His mother was a Sioux, and his father, Pierre Sr., had worked as an interpreter for Lewis and Clark. In 1811, Pierre, Marie, and their two sons (aged two and four) joined John Jacob Astor's mission. At one of the earliest stops, historians claim that Pierre severely beat Marie when she asked to stay behind with the native Osage residents. It was so vicious that she had to run to the woods to get away from him. Nevertheless, Marie and her children would continue to accompany the all-male party into the wilderness, with Marie bearing sole responsibility for the welfare of the children.
When the Astor expedition left, they departed with an inadequate number of horses. Though most of the steeds were used as pack animals, Pierre Dorion rode one of them, while his wife walked alongside him with their youngest child strapped to her back. When the party reached the Snake River (a tributary of the Columbia), they abandoned their animals and constructed canoes to navigate the waters.
The remaining water-borne miles turned out to be lethally difficult to navigate: one person drowned, and the bulk of the expedition's food supplies were swept into the current, as well. As for Marie, she walked along the banks, apparently keeping perfect pace (along with her two sons) with the rest of the struggling expedition.
In addition to being responsible for her two existing children, Marie had an especially daunting trial to contend with during the expedition: she was eight months pregnant. As her time drew near, the members of her party finally came to their senses and gave her a horse to use, and in December of 1811, she gave birth to her third child.
After the birth, the group apparently considered killing and cooking Marie’s horse for dinner, as they were all starving. But under the circumstances, they ultimately (if perhaps grudgingly) voted not to.
Marie's infant child, born under such unlikely and harrowing circumstances, would barely live three months. Several weeks after the birth, the Astor expedition came across an encampment of Umatillas in the Grande Ronde Valley. The women were solicitous and nurturing, and made a valiant attempt to nurse the considerably debilitated mother and child back to health; but the baby didn't survive.