Jean-Baptiste Lepage

(1761–1809)
Private, U.S. Army

"River La Page"

Map by William Clark, (detail)

Hand drawn map showing the Columbia River and the La Page river

Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, WA MSS 303.

As the party descended the Columbia River in 1805, they passed a small river, 40 yards wide on the south (present Oregon) side. On his map, Clark labeled it River La Page (located in the upper right corner of the figure). The river is the present John Day River.1

Late but Lucky Start

Jean Baptiste Lepage moved from obscurity into the annals of American history because of bad behavior—not his, but that of Private John Newman. Newman was a member of the Corps of Discovery until he was found guilty by a court martial of "repeated expressions of a highly criminal and mutinous nature," punished by 75 lashes, and expelled from the party in October 1804. On 2 November 1804, when the Expedition was at the location of their soon-to-be built Fort Mandan near the Mandan villages, Lepage was hired to replace Newman as a member of the permanent party.2

Lepage was a French-Canadian trapper, born on 20 August 1761 in Kaskaskia, in present Illinois. Prior to the Expedition, he had lived among the Mandan and had explored the Black Hills of present South Dakota and the Little Missouri River. Lepage was thus most likely one of the first European-Americans to travel in that part of the country, and the Captains were glad to have gained a member with such experience. He may have provided some information that Captain William Clark used in preparing a map during the Fort Mandan winter. At the age of 43, Lepage was the oldest member of the Expedition.3

Consequential Error

While the Expedition was enduring one of its greatest challenges, crossing the Bitterroot Mountains in 1805, Lepage somehow lost control of his packhorse, and it wandered away. Captain Meriwether Lewis sent Lepage to find the horse, but he returned without it. Lewis noted the seriousness of this error by writing that the horse carried his own winter clothing as well as valuable trade goods. Lewis sent two experienced woodsmen to find the horse, but their success or failure was unrecorded. This incident may have stuck in Lewis' mind, for after the Expedition Lewis wrote to Henry Dearborn on 15 January 1807, describing Lepage as of "no particular merit."4

Frequent hunter and gatherer

While the Corps of Discovery was hunkered down for the winter at Fort Clatsop, Lepage was a frequent hunting companion of George Drouillard. They sought elk, their most reliable if not favorite source of meat, deer, and waterfowl. On their journey eastward in 1806, Lepage was among those who traded with the Nez Perce for roots. He was also sent, along with John Shields, to recover two lost horses.5

Indebted Trader

Beaver Trap

Steel trap hanging from a tent pole

Photo © 2017 by Kris Townsend. Used by permission.

Shortly after the Expedition ended in the fall of 1806, Lepage sold his land warrant to John Ordway and presumably spent the winter in St. Louis with his wife and five children. He signed a promissory note to Auguste Chouteau on 25 April 1807, possibly to pay for supplies so that he could join the trapping expedition of Manuel Lisa. Lisa's group, which included other veterans of the Expedition (George Drouillard, John Potts, Peter Weiser, and Richard Windsor), traveled up the Missouri and established Fort Raymond, where the Bighorn River flows into the Yellowstone. Lepage was apparently at Fort Raymond when former Expedition member John Colter arrived at the Fort after his harrowing flight from the Blackfeet.6

At Fort Raymond, John Colter and Reuben Lewis (brother of Meriwether Lewis) signed a legal document addressed to the heirs of Lepage's estate. Lepage apparently died in the area by the end of 1809. At the time of his death, Lepage was in debt to Manuel Lisa, the latter serving as an executor of Lepage's estate.7

Neither Lepage nor his heirs received his expedition pay from Meriwether Lewis, who corresponded with Secretary of War Henry Dearborn for permission to give some of it to the expelled John Newman. Before his own death, Lewis listed the debt to Lepage as still outstanding. Apparently, Lepage's widow did not know of it, because she sold some of her husband's clothing to pay his debts.8

  • 1. Gary Moulton, The Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, 13 vols. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983-2004) 1: map 77; 5:310 map 20, 317-318, 319n7.
  • 2. Donald Jackson, ed.,Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Related Documents, 1783-1854; 2nd ed.; 2 vols. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1978) 1: 365-366, 368; 2:378; Moulton 2:519; 3:226, 227n3.
  • 3. Moulton 1: maps 32a, 32b, 32c; 3:227n3; 4: 9, 27, 29n10, 36; Larry E. Morris, The Fate of the Corps: What Became of the Lewis and Clark Explorers After the Expedition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004) 77-78, 195.
  • 4. Jackson 1:368; Moulton 3:227n3; 5:218.
  • 5. Moulton 6:215, 217n2, 232; 7:297, 308, 322; 8:34.
  • 6. Jackson 2:382n23; Morris 39, 48, 77-78, 195, 231n10, 231n11.
  • 7. Morris 77-78, 195, 220n3, 231n11.
  • 8. Jackson 1:366; 2:384, 385n1, 462, 723; Moulton 2:519; Morris 78.