Welcome to Offbeat Oregon History, a public-history resource for the state we love. Here's what you'll find here:
Enjoy! And if you have any comments on stories, suggestions for column topics or other feedback — or if you're coming by the OSU campus and have time for a cup of coffee with a fellow history dork — drop me a note at fj-@-offbeatoregon-dot-com any time!
Offbeat Oregon is a division of Pulp-Lit Productions, a boutique publishing house that specializes in classics from the pulp-magazine era — roughly 1910 to 1941. For more information or to check out our catalog, please see pulp-lit.com.
Audio version: Download MP3 or use controls below:
Others pointed out that the purpose of the party was not simply to arrive at the destination, but to blaze a trail ... a trail that could be followed both ways, not just in a downstream direction.
The argument was becoming heated, so party leader Hunt put it to a vote. The result was an overwhelming mandate to take to the water.
The party camped there by the river for a few days while the voyageurs felled cottonwood trees and shaped them into canoes. Then, leaving their horses in the care of some nearby Native Americans, they took to the water.
They should have asked the locals first. Or, perhaps they did; but the voyageurs, born to the open water, the speeding canoe and the flashing paddle, had high confidence in their ability to handle any kind of river. Even if the Native Americans had warned them about what was in store, they likely would have assumed they could handle it.
THE FIRST SEVERAL days the party made thrilling progress: 60 miles one day, 40 miles the next (some rapids had to be portaged around), another 50 … but the river was getting rougher and rougher.
By the time the river revealed its true colors, they were in what we know today as Hells Canyon, hundreds of miles downstream from where they had left the horses, and the river had a new name: La Rivière Enragée — Mad River. Today we know it as the Snake. It was not navigable. Not even for voyageurs.
The party split into two groups before striking out cross-country, hoping thereby to be better able to feed themselves as late autumn ripened into early winter. Even so, all of them soon were on the brink of starvation. They depended greatly on the Shoshone tribes in the area, but the high plateau terrain there is not fruitful, and the population was scant and had little to share. Nonetheless, all would have died of starvation and exposure if not for Shoshone charity.
Throughout this time, Marie Dorion was preternaturally stoic, never complaining, always keeping up, while becoming more and more visibly pregnant. Finally, she went into labor; Hunt and the party forged ahead, leaving her and Pierre and the two boys behind. A day or two later they rejoined the party, and Marie had her new baby in her arms.
The baby died eight days later. It seems likely that there simply wasn’t sufficient nourishment for Marie to nurse him.
Finally, on Jan. 7, the Shoshone guides whom Hunt had bribed and shamed into braving the winter weather to help them brought the first group into the Grand Ronde Valley, the little banana-belt pocket of lush grasslands and plentiful game tucked into the otherwise inhospitable Blue Mountains of Eastern Oregon.
There they stayed with the charitable Native Americans, gorging on deer and elk meat and starchy roots, as the other members of the overland party straggled in.
Then they set out for the short journey to the banks of the Columbia, down which they would find their destination.
IT WAS JANUARY 18, 1812, when the traders at Fort Astoria looked up and saw two canoes coming down the river toward them. The overland party had made it at last – or, rather, most of them had; of the original complement of 60 (61 if one includes Marie’s baby), just 45 survived.
And a case could be made — based on circumstantial evidence, but lots of it — that that number would have been much smaller had Marie and her two boys not been with the party. The decision to abandon the horses and follow an unknown river should have been a fatal one. The main reason it was not was the charity of Shoshone and other Native American tribes. Would those tribes have been as responsive, as willing to share their own limited resources, without the faces of the children and Marie among the group of bedraggled, dirty, scraggly-bearded scary men? Or would they have left them all alone to starve?
AS FOR MARIE, she may have thought her troubles were over when her husband and the boys arrived at the fort. She may also have thought that nothing could ever induce her to go back into that barren Snake River wilderness that had slain her baby and come so close to taking the rest of her family as well. But if she did think that, she was wrong.
We’ll talk about Marie’s return to Shoshone and Bannock Indian country, and her second winter in the Snake River wilderness, in next week’s column.