The Insane Untold Story Of The Most Badass Woman In American History

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.

Photo: Metaweb / CC-BY

  • She Was The Only Woman On The Expedition And Had Two Young Sons To Care For

    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.

  • Her Husband Rode A Horse Through The Rugged Territory, But Marie Walked It Like A Pro

    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.

  • She Was Pregnant Throughout Her Ordeal - And Gave Birth Under Harrowing Circumstances

    She Was Pregnant Throughout Her Ordeal - And Gave Birth Under Harrowing Circumstances
    Photo: Edward S. Curtis/Northwestern University Library / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    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. 

  • Her Infant Child Died, But She Kept Going

    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.

  • Marie Dorion Set Off Into The Wilderness Again In 1813 - And Things Didn't Go Well

    In July of 1813, a year and a half after their first expedition ended, Marie and her family set out for present-day Idaho on a beaver trapping mission. This time, Marie and her children remained at the base camp for a time while Pierre staffed a smaller trapping camp a few days' ride away, and all went well. But after a Shoshone Indian (who had become friendly with Marie) warned her that a band of Bannocks were going forth and systematically burning trappers' camps, Marie saddled up her horse like a Gothic heroine and rode out – children in tow – to warn her husband of the impending danger. 

  • She Left Her Camp On A Mission, And When She Returned, Everyone Was Dead

    She Left Her Camp On A Mission, And When She Returned, Everyone Was Dead
    Photo: Matson, Nehemiah / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    When Marie reached her destination three days later, she discovered that her husband's party had been ambushed and slaughtered. One of the men, Giles LeClerc, was still alive and wounded. So Marie strapped him to a horse and guided the animal back to the base camp, through three days of arctic winter tempests.

    Despite Marie's best efforts, LeClerc perished en route. But what happened next was even more horrible. Upon arriving back at the base camp, Marie found that the inhabitants there had also been murdered, mutilated, and scalped.