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"A Man of Much Merit"

George Drouillard, the Corps of Discovery's ace hunter and interpreter, went down fighting in the country he loved

By James J. Holmberg

A version of this article appeared in We Proceeded On, the official publication of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, Inc. (Vol. 26, No. 3, August 2000)

With the exception of Lewis and Clark themselves, perhaps no other member of the Corps of Discovery was more important to the success of the Lewis and Clark Expedition than George Drouillard. Hired as a civilian interpreter and hunter in December 1803, Drouillard established his importance to the expedition even before his official hiring by traveling to Tennessee and escorting the group of army recruits that had missed the intended rendezous at Fort Massac to the Corps' winter quarters. On 22 December, Drouillard arrived at Camp Dubois with them. Three days later, on Christmas Day, Drouillard officially signed-on with the Corps of Discovery; undoubtedly one of the best Christmas presents Lewis and Clark ever received.1

At the conclusion of the expedition, Meriwether Lewis gave Drouillard the highest praise. Writing secretary of war Henry Dearborn on 15 January 1807, he remarked regarding Drouillard:

A man of much merit; he has been peculiarly usefull from his knowledge of the common language of gesticulation, and his uncommon skill as a hunter and woodsman; those several duties he performed in good faith, and with an ardor which deserves the highest commendation. It was his fate also to have encountered, on various occasions, with either Captain Clark or myself, all the most dangerous and trying scenes of the voyage, in which he uniformly acquited himself with honor.2

After the expedition Drouillard remained in the West. As it had done with many of the men of the Corps of Discovery, the West's beautiful, untamed wilderness had cast its spell over Drouillard, and he returned to it. For the next four years he participated in fur trading ventures on the upper Missouri and Yellowstone rivers. It was on one of these ventures in 1810 that this veteran of many of the "most dangerous and trying scenes" of the Lewis and Clark Expedition met his death.

The deaths of many trappers and traders went unrecorded. If not for William Clark's 1820s listing of members of the expedition in which he noted if they were alive or dead, and if dead whether they had been killed, it would not be known what happened to a number of the Corps' veterans. On many occasions it was simply reported that someone had been killed by Indians and no name was given. Perhaps this was the fate of Joseph Field, Pierre Cruzatte, John Thompson, and a few others who Clark listed as killed. This was not the case with George Drouillard; his death was reported in the Louisiana Gazette, recorded in the memoir of fellow trapper-trader Thomas James, and remembered over sixty years later by Pierre Menard, Jr., the son of one of the men who accompanied Drouillard on his last expedition into the mountains.

In the spring of 1810, Manuel Lisa made another attempt to establish a fur trading post at the Three Forks of the Missouri. Located in territory commonly traversed by the Blackfeet Indians, who were leery of, if not hostile to, the Americans since their violent first meeting with Lewis, Drouillard, and the Field brothers in July 1806, no permanent post had been able to be established yet in that beaver-rich country. Lisa's failure to establish his first post in the region in Blackfoot country, and instead building one on the Yellowstone River in Crow and Flathead country-Blackfoot enemies-further exacerbated the situation. To this was added a growing number of hostile encounters between the Blackfeet and American trappers, including John Colter's run-for-his-life escape in 1808.3

In late March 1810, after wintering at Lisa'a Fort at the mouth of the Bighorn River, Pierre Menard led a party of thirty-two trappers westward up the Yellowstone River, across present Bozeman Pass, and down the Gallatin River to the Three Forks. The party, which included Drouillard and Colter, reached the Three Forks on 3 April. Work on the fort began immediately. As soon as a defensible structure was erected, groups of trappers began going out. One group of eighteen ventured some forty miles up the Jefferson while another group of four men traveled down the Missouri. Ten men, including Menard, remained behind to work on the fort.4

It was not long before the Blackfeet made their hostile presence known. On 12 April they attacked the trappers on the Jefferson. The majority of men had scattered into small groups in order to hunt, while six men set about establishing the party's camp. It was this unfortunate group at the camp that the Blackfeet swept down upon. Five trappers were killed and the rest then made their way back to the fort. This incident was the last straw for Colter. Convinced his luck must surely be used-up, he vowed to leave the country and never return. He did just that, leaving within ten days and making his way back to Missouri where he married and settled on a farm.5

Not so Drouillard. He was determined to best the Blackfeet in their own country. Even if a peace could not be negotiated with them, he would continue to trap the plentiful beaver. As a few weeks passed and no Indians were seen, the men began to again venture out of the fort. In early May, Menard sent a party of twenty-one men, including Drouillard, up the Jefferson to try to trap. As was customary, they split into smaller groups during the day to more effectively run their traps, and in the evening they returned to their camp. Drouillard apparently was very successful and taunted the others that no Indians were going to scare him and keep him from taking all the beaver he could. Emboldened by his success two Delaware Indians with the party accompanied Drouillard one morning.6 That morning would be their last. Contrary to that often nameless and forgotten death that was the fate of so many fur trappers, the death of George Drouillard was reported in some detail by two sources.

When some of the party returned to St. Louis that summer, the Louisiana Gazette obtained an interview with party leader Pierre Menard. Published in its 26 July 1810 edition, the paper reported Menard's account of their difficulties with the Blackfeet, including Drouillard's death, as follows:

A few days ago, Mr. Menard, with some of the gentlemen attached to the Missouri Fur Company arrived here from their Fort at the head waters of the Missouri, by whom we learn that they had experienced considerable opposition from the Blackfoot Indians; this adverse feeling arose from the jealousy prevalent among all savage (and some civilized) nations of those who trade with their enemies. The Crows and Blackfeet are almost continually at war, the Company detached a party to trade with the latter [former], this gave offence to the Blackfeet, who had not the same opportunity of procuring Arms, &c. the Hudson Bay Factory being several days journey from their hunting grounds and with whom they cannot trade with equal advantage.

A hunting party which had been detached from the Fort to the forks of the Jefferson river, were attacked in the neighborhood of their encampment on the 12th of April, by a strong party of Blackfeet, whom they kept at bay for some time, but we are sorry to say unavailingly, as the Indians were too numerous; the party consisted of 14 or 15, of whom 5 were killed, say Hull, Cheeks, Ayres, Rucker and Freehearty: Messrs. Vallé, Immel and companions escaped, and carried the unpleasant tidings to the Fort, but with the loss of Tents, Arms, Traps, etc.

Early in May, George Druilard accompanied by some Delawares, who were in the employ of the company, went out to hunt, contrary to the wishes of the rest of the party, who were confident the Indians were in motion round them, and that from a hostile disposition they had already shewn, it would be attended with danger, their presages were too true, he had not proceeded more than two miles from the camp before he was attacked by a party in ambush, by whom himself and two of his men were literally cut to pieces. It appears from circumstances that Druilard made a most obstinate resistance as he made a kind of breastwork of his horse, whom he made to turn in order to receive the enemy's fire, his bulwark, of course, soon failed and he became the next victim of their fury. It is lamentable that although this happened within a short distance of relief, the firing was not heard so as to afford it, in consequence of a high wind which prevailed at the time.7

Sixty-one years later the memory of Drouillard's death remained with Menard's son Pierre, Jr. On 13 December 1871, he responded to a query by historian-collector Lyman Draper concerning certain people associated with the early West. One of those people was Drouillard. His recollection of Drouillard coincides and conflicts with his father's account. He recalled that Drouillard was indeed cut up into small pieces by the Blackfeet but that the four Shawnee (two Delaware in contemporary accounts) killed with him were not. The reason for this, Menard supposed, was that Drouillard encouraged the others (apparently to fight or trap) and he was chopped-up as an example of what the other Americans could expect to happen to them and for revenge.8

Another account of this expedition to the Three Forks is that of Thomas James. His account of this and other western adventures, entitled Three Years Among the Indians and Mexicans, was published in 1846. His recollection of the events of April and May of 1810 differ in some respects to Pierre Menard's Louisiana Gazette account, but offers a great deal more detail. Dictated thirty-six years after the events James may have misremembered or embellished some of the facts, but is consistent with Menard's report, and most likely is basically reliable. M. O. Skarsten, in his biography of Drouillard, heavily bases his account of Drouillard's death on James. In recalling those dangerous times years later, James remembered that:

The Indians, we thought, kept the game away from the vicinity of the Fort. Thus we passed the time till the month of May, when a party of twenty-one, of whom I was one, determined to go up the Jefferson River to trap. By keeping together we hoped to repel any attack of the savages. We soon found the trapping in such numbers not very profitable, and changed our plan by separating in companies of four, of whom, two men would trap while two watched the camp. In this manner we were engaged until the fear of the Indians began to wear off and we became more venturous. One of our company, a Shawnee half-breed named Druyer, the principal hunter of Lewis & Clark's party, went up the river one day and set his traps about a mile from the camp. In the morning he returned alone and brought back six beavers. I warned him of his danger. "I am too much of an Indian to be caught by Indians," said he. On the next day he repeated the adventure and returned with the product of his traps, saying, "this is the way to catch beaver." On the third morning he started again up the river to examine his traps, when we advised him to wait for the whole party, which was about moving further up the stream, and at the same time two other Shawnees left us against our advice, to kill deer.9

In due course the party headed up the river. They had not gone very far when they encountered the two Indian hunters, and then a bit further on Drouillard. James described the scene of battle:

We started forward in company, and soon found the dead bodies of the last mentioned hunters, pierced with lances, arrows and bullets and lying near each other. Further on, about one hundred and fifty yards, Druyer and his horse lay dead, the former mangled in a horrible manner; his head was cut off, his entrails torn out and his body hacked to pieces. We saw from the marks on the ground that he must have fought in a circle on horseback, and probably killed some of his enemies, being a brave man, and well armed with a rifle, pistol, knife and tomahawk. We pursued the trail of the Indians till night, without overtaking them, and then returned, having buried our dead, with saddened hearts to Fort.10

Thus ended the life of one of the most important members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. What further role George Drouillard would have played in the opening of the West will never be known. It is possible that he would have assumed a place beside those trappers and traders who are recorded in the annals of history as the most famous of the mountain men. Instead, it was his fate to be lie in an unknown grave along the Jefferson River, in the country in which he had cast his fate; one of the early casualites in the opening of the American West.



FOOTNOTES

  1. Gary E. Moulton, ed., The Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, 13 volumes (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983-2000), Vol. 2, pp. 85, 139-42.

  2. Donald Jackson, ed., Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Related Documents, 1783-1854, second edition, 2 volumes (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), Vol. 1, p. 368. In a letter to historian-collector Lyman Draper in 1867, Patrick Gass described Drouillard as being a half Indian, about five feet ten inches in height, who was an excellent hunter. He also reported that they left Drouillard in St. Louis in 1806 when they headed east, but in an earlier letter to Draper he stated that he left him at Kaskaskia and knew nothing of him since then. Gass to Draper, 1 December 1866 and 11 January 1867, George Rogers Clark Papers, Draper Manuscripts, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin (microfilm edition at The Filson Club Historical Society, Louisville, Ky.), 34J61-62.

  3. M.O. Skarsten, George Drouillard: Hunter and Interpreter for Lewis and Clark and Fur Trader, 1807-1810 (Glendale, Ca.: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1964), pp. 301-04. Colter's own account of his famous run was recounted by him to English traveler and naturalist John Bradbury in 1810. Bradbury's retelling of the story in his book Travels in the Interior of America in the Years 1809, 1810, and 1811 preserved the details of it for posterity. See Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed., Early Western Travels, 1748-1846 (Cleveland: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1904), Vol. 5, pp. 44-47.

  4. Skarsten, pp. 285-87, 297-98.

  5. Skarsten, pp. 298-301; Thomas James, Three Years Among the Indians and Mexicans, introduction by A. P. Nasatir (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1962), pp. 40-42; Moulton, Vol. 2, p. 515.

  6. Skarsten, pp. 305-08.

  7. Louisiana Gazette, 26 July 1810.

  8. Pierre Menard to Lyman Draper, 13 December 1871, Draper Manuscripts, 4J175. Menard also makes the interesting, but apparently erroneous statement, that Drouillard was one-fourth Delaware (and thus apparently three-fourths French Canadian). The greater amount of evidence indicates that he was half Shawnee and half French Canadian. Menard also states that Drouillard was well-educated, further adding to the evidence that he was literate.

  9. James, pp. 45-46. General Thomas James's memoir was first published in 1846. It was a popular title and edited and reprinted by different editors and publishers over the years. Menard and James differ as to the tribal affiliation of the two hunters who were killed near Drouillard; Menard identifying them as Delawares and James as Shawnees. They also differ as to whether or not they were mutilated. The immediacy of Menard's account must be balanced with the fact that James apparently actually witnessed the scene, even if it was recalled many years later.

  10. James, p. 46. How far up the Jefferson Drouillard was killed and buried can only be speculated about. James stated that hunting parties had ventured twenty to thirty miles from the fort before the one intending to trap again set off up the Jefferson in early May. Assuming that some of these eariler hunting parties had gone up the Jefferson, it can be guessed that the May trapping party would have gone further up the river than twenty miles, and perhaps further than thirty. The April party that had been attacked had reportedly gone up the Jefferson some forty miles. James unfortunately does not say how far up the river the May party ventured. A twenty to fifty mile estimate would place the site of Drouillard's death and grave anywhere between approximately present Jefferson Island and the confluence of the Jefferson and Beaverhead rivers.

For further reading on George Drouillard see M.O. Skarsten, George Drouillard: Hunter and Interpreter for Lewis and Clark and Fur Trader, 1807-1810; and a historical novel by James Alexander Thom, entitled Sign-Talker: The Adventure of George Drouillard on the Lewis and Clark Expedition (2000)


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