"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:
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:
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:
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.
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)