Pierre Cruzatte, Pilot of the Boats

(dates unknown)
Private, U.S. Army

Our Principal Waterman

Here is Pierre Cruzatte at work, making his primary contribution to the Corps of Discovery: On October 31, 1805, Captain Clark takes two men—Pierre Cruzatte and Joseph Field—walking ahead down the Oregon side of the Columbia River. They walk for two and half miles, viewing the Great Chute (east of present Cascade Locks) and moving on toward the Cascades of the Columbia. Clark sends Cruzatte back to "examine the practibility of the Canoes passing, as the rapids appeared to continue down below as far as I could see." A few of the area's native residents watch the strangers with curiosity.

Dark, stocky Cruzatte returns to the Great Chute, studying closely how the Columbia passes through the half-mile of basalt rocks that begrudge the water only "150 paces" of space to tumble through. He sees that large and small rocks fill the narrow passage as well. Does he sit or hunker down at the edge to get a better view? He had lost an eye years ago, and his remaining one is nearsighted, but this man can quickly read a river's flow.

Cruzatte and Clark have seen Indians portage their own cargo around this Great Chute, then run the rapids in their light, high-prowed canoes. The water flow that Cruzatte now studies, Clark will describe as "passing with great velocity forming & boiling in a most horriable manner, with a fall of about 20 feet." Cruzatte comes up with his solution for getting the Corps' own large, heavy boats down through the Chute. Following his plan the next day, the men and woman portage their baggage around the Great Chute. Then some of the men place poles across the water atop projecting rocks. They "slip" the four dugouts over the poles down the falls. Although three require repairs after the brutal passage, the boats survive. "Our principal waterman," as Clark called Cruzatte on this and other occasions, has come through for the Corps again.

A Late Enlistee

When the expedition formally began on May 14, 1804, Cruzatte was not yet a member, and had not wintered at Camp Dubois. Clark enlisted him as a private at St. Charles, Missouri, two days later, but whether one or both captains had recruited him earlier is unknown. (The same is true for Pvt. François Labiche.) Cruzatte's special qualifications were that his father was French and his mother Omaha and he spoke both their languages along with English, he himself had been as far up the Missouri River as Nebraska around 1802, and he was a river pilot, a person skilled in "reading" rivers and selecting the best paths for boats to follow. Every one of these qualities greatly benefited the expedition.

A prime example occurred during the tense meeting with the Teton Sioux in September of the expedition's first year, when Cruzatte learned of a possible attack. Only two weeks before, this band of Sioux had attacked an Omaha village where they destroyed 40 lodges, killed 75 men, and took 48 "women and boys" as prisoners. Taking pity on the bedraggled captives, the captains gave Cruzatte some small tools from their trade goods, "to give those Squars in his name."1

After Cruzatte gave the gifts and visited with the women in their own language, he warned the captains that the prisoners claimed the Sioux planned to "Stop" the expedition, as Clark wrote. The captains then "Shew as little Sighns of a Knowledge of their intentions as possible[.] all prepared on board [the keelboat] for any thing which might hapen, we kept a Strong guard all night in the boat[.] no Sleep."

His language skills also were called upon when he and Drouillard were sent overland on July 23 to invite Oto and Pawnee chiefs to the river for a council. And on August 13, Cruzatte took three other men to an Omaha village on a similar errand. Both times, resident Indians were gone on their annual buffalo hunts.

Lewis had made Cruzatte's and Labiche's positions as watermen clear in detachment orders dated two weeks after their enlistment.2 They were probably assigned to the white pirogue, which carried Cpl. Richard Warfington and the six soldiers of the return party. One of them would always be at its bow—reading the water ahead—while the other manned the larboard bow oar. If river conditions required the attention of both these men at the bow, another soldier would take the bow oar.

On the night of June 21, while the Corps slept on a "small island" near present Wellington, Missouri, the freshet-swollen Missouri rose 3" At daybreak, Cruzatte "examined round this Small Isd. for the best water" and selected the north side for travel. This event made the captains' journals because it was newsworthy then. That they did not continue to record similar Cruzatte contributions implies that it soon became routine.

As the summer of 1804 wore on, the Missouri River's depth fell, and Cruzatte then looked for channels with enough water for the men to pole or cordelle the boats through.

During the winter of 1804-1805 at Fort Mandan, Cruzatte's surprising ability as a hunter also became apparent. It was surprising because people with only one functioning eye have greatly impaired depth perception and must learn to compensate for what their brains "claim" about distance. Cruzatte served as one of the expedition's principal hunters when his river skills were not in demand.

Disagreement at the Marias

Cruzatte's quick reaction helped save the day in northeastern Montana, May 14, 1805, on a stretch of Missouri River now under Fort Peck Lake. Cruzatte was bowman in the white pirogue, while Toussaint Charbonneau manned the tiller. Besides a crew of eight, plus Sacagawea and baby Jean Baptiste, this boat carried the captains' scientific instruments and papers. With a good wind that day, the sail had been raised, but suddenly the wind swung about and nearly capsized the boat. Only the sail prevented the boat's completely overturning, and as soon as the crewmen took in the sail the boat righted itself, although it was filled nearly to the gunnels with water. Meanwhile, Charbonneau had panicked and abandoned the rudder, and was "crying to his god for mercy." From the front, Cruzatte yelled that if Charbonneau did not "do his duty," Cruzatte would "shoot him instantly." Cruzatte ordered the men to grab kettles and bail while he carefully guided the boat to shore. Lewis wrote that only "the fortitude resolution and good conduct of Cruzat" saved the boat.

Early in June, though, Cruzatte's knowledge led him to disagree totally with the captains' reading of the river. Hidatsa informants at Fort Mandan had told the captains to expect a large waterfall on the river, one that would take a whole day to portage around. Before reaching that landmark, however, the Corps came to what was obviously a major fork in the Missouri—a fork the Hidatsas had not mentioned. The north, or right, fork was just as muddy brown as the Missouri they had been traveling, while the south fork ran clear. To the captains, water leaving the expected Rocky Mountains would logically be clear, unlike water flowing between the silty banks of the plains.

Lewis wrote, on June 9, that Cruzatte, "who had been an old Missouri navigator and who from his integrity knowledge and skill as a waterman had acquired the confidence of every individual of the party declared it as his opinion that the N. fork was the true genuine Missouri and could be no other." The other men "said very cheerfully that they were ready to follow us any where . . . but that they still thought that the other [Marias] was the [Missouri] river." Concerns about both morale and successfully crossing the mountains before winter gave the captains pause, because "if we were in an error . . . [we must] be able to detect it and rectify it as soon as possible."

Thus came the strategy that sent Lewis up the muddy fork and Clark up the clear one, each with a small group of men, to locate the landmark waterfall. The captains also decided to leave, at this point, the red pirogue, "all the heavy baggage which we could possibly do without and some provision, salt, tools powder and Lead &c. . . . on enquiry I found that Cruzatte was well acquainted [with] this business and therefore left the management of it intirely to him."

The captains agreed to turn back after only a day and a half of reconnaissance, failed to find the falls (even though Lewis, on the Marias, stayed out past the deadline). Then Lewis took a few men up the clear south fork himself, and, a few miles beyond where Clark had turned back in accordance with their plan, Lewis found the falls that confirmed this fork was the Missouri River.

After their arduous crossing of the Rocky Mountains' Bitterroot Range early that autumn, Cruzatte went back to work as a waterman, to help get the Corps safely down the Clearwater, Snake, and Columbia Rivers to the Pacific Ocean. He no doubt repeated the chore homeward-bound as far as the Falls of the Columbia in the following spring, when the river was enlarged by snowmelt, but by then Cruzatte's guidance was commonplace and the captains no longer mentioned it.

1. On September 26, 1804. Moulton, ed., Journals, 3:119.

2. Ibid., 2:258.

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge Cost Share Program