Drouillard -- Mountain Man to His Death

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At the Lewis and Clark Expedition's end, George Drouillard received his payment of $833.33-1/3, twenty-five dollars per month for his services, plus $197.71 for "subsistence," and two quarter-sections of land. He shortly bought the land warrants of John Collins and Joseph Whitehouse, and so had the right to claim a section and a half of public land, or 960 acres.

But Drouillard, now thirty-two years old, did not settle down to farming. In 1807, a fur trading company organized by Manuel Lisa, Pierre Menard, and William Morrison sent men to build a trading post on the upper Missouri River. Lisa, a Spaniard born in New Orleans, led the expedition. Drouillard joined, "in the capacity of proxy" for Menard and Morrison, who stayed in Kaskaskia.1

Drouillard's fellow Corps members among the Lisa, Menard and Morrison Fur Company party's forty-two men were Jean-Baptiste Lepage, John Potts, Peter Weiser, and Richard Windsor.2 When the men reached the Platte River, they met another former Corps member, John Colter, traveling downstream alone; as he had in the year before, Colter joined these fur men and turned back up the Missouri.

Not long after they had set out, and before they meeting Colter, employee Antoine Bissonnette deserted. As on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Drouillard was sent back to capture the "deserter." The furious Lisa—who frequently exhibited a violent temper towards employees—ordered Drouillard to "shoot, if necessary."3 Unfortunately it was, and Drouillard severely wounded Bissonnette. Lisa sent the deserter back to St. Louis in a canoe, but he died en route. Drouillard was to face the consequences.

In the Yellowstone Country

Originally planning to build at the Three Forks of the Missouri River, Lisa instead selected the mouth of the Bighorn River on the Yellowstone. M.O. Skartsen credits Colter with changing Lisa's mind about where to build his fur trading post, by describing the Yellowstone River's rich beaver population.4 Colter had trapped on the Clarks Fork Yellowstone in 1806.

Lisa named his Bighorn post, constructed in November 1807, Fort Raymond after his son. Confusingly, various first-person accounts refer to it as Fort Manuel, Fort Lisa, Lisa's Fort, and Manuel's Fort.6 (Adding to the confusion, Lisa himself later built and named "Fort Manuel" on the Missouri River in north-central South Dakota; it was there that Sacagawea likely died.)

Lisa's men took turns in 1807 making dangerous solo trips around the countryside to notify area Indians of the new post and invite them in to trade furs. Drouillard made two, the first of 300 miles and the second of 200. The former took him south on the Bighorn River into Wyoming, and when he returned to Fort Raymond he described the amazing thermal phenomena labeled "Colter's Hell" when Colter also came in and reported them a few days later; today they are east of Yellowstone National Park.7

Tried for Murder

Drouillard returned to St. Louis in August 1808, where he found himself and Lisa indicted for the murder of Antoine Bissonnette. On the 23rd, Drouillard was tried; the jury deliberated for only fifteen minutes before acquitting him. Intriguingly, one jury member was George Shannon, still depending upon a crutch to walk with his new peg-leg.8 After Drouillard's acquittal, Lisa's indictment was dismissed. Drouillard then wrote, or dictated), a letter to half-sister Marie Louise in Detroit: "... The recollection of this unhappy affair throws me very often in the most profound reflections, and certainly I think it has caused a great deal of grief to my family for which I am very sorry and very much mortified. That I have not lost the affection of my old friends proves that they did not believe me capable of an action so terrible through malice and bad intent. . . . "9 He indirectly claimed that he allowed Lisa's fury at Bissonnette to influence him overmuch.

By the following spring of 1809, Lisa had organized the St. Louis Missouri Fur Company, with plans to build a trading post at the Three Forks of the Missouri. He contracted with the U.S. government to escort Mandan chief Sheheke and his family home to their village at the mouth of the Knife River on the Missouri. (This third attempt to return them after their visit to Jefferson succeeded). Lisa's men left St. Louis in May or June: partner Menard, and thirty-two to eighty men,10 including George Drouillard. When they discovered John Colter at the Mandan villages, he joined them.

The record of this 1809-1810 season comes largely from Thomas James, a Lisa employee who wrote of it in Three Years Among the Indians and Mexicans, published in 1916. James resented that the "French hands were much better treated on all occasions that the Americans." Although he called Drouillard "a brave man," he gave little specific information about his activities.11

At the Three Forks Again

In March of 1810, Menard led the men on toward the Three Forks of the Missouri. They had not gone far when two trappers went ahead with a Shoshone chief, his two wives and his son, to hunt for meat. Gros Ventres attacked, killing one woman and the boy; the chief and the other wife escaped on horseback; the trappers were unharmed.

The continuing trip was hellacious, with some men agonized by snow blindness, and all struggling over Bozeman Pass in snow that, according to James, reached the horses' heads. A day's travel east of the Three Forks, they came upon skulls and bones from a "battle [that] had occurred in the late summer, or in the fall, of 1808," which participant Colter now described as they walked the site. (Ibid., 289) Menard's men buried two bodies they found.

Beavers were prolific in the verdant valley where the Three Forks met, and the men trapped while throwing up their unnamed fort between the Jefferson and Madison rivers.(Ibid., 297) But the Blackfeet were determined to rout these newcomers, and attacked some of the fort's trappers on April 12, killing two and capturing three. It was enough for Colter, who left for St. Louis.(Ibid., 12)

Drouillard continued trapping alone and with small groups, away from the fort. According to James, he said he was "too much of an Indian to be caught by Indians."13 But his luck ran out in May 1810, when he went out with his traps and accompanied by two Delaware Indian employees hunting deer. All were killed by Blackfeet, Drouillard's body decapitated and disemboweled, then hacked apart. According to the Blackfeet, he killed two of their number. Menard left the country, reaching St. Louis in July and reporting Drouillard's death. Lisa administered the estate that Drouillard had established with his earnings from the Lewis and Clark Expedition only four years previously.

1. M.O. Skarsten, George Drouillard: Hunter and Interpreter for Lewis and Clark, and Fur Trader, 1807-1810; 2nd ed. (1964; Spokane: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 2003), 252.

2. 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), 39.

3. Skarsten, 252-53.

4. Skarsten says that Colter was with Clark on the Yellowstone in 1806, which is not so; Colter was in Ordway's canoe party, which separated from Clark at the Missouri's headwaters, before Clark reached the Yellowstone. Skarsten, 256.

5. Skarsten, 260.

6. Skarsten, 257; Howard R. Lamar, ed., The Reader's Encyclopedia of the American West (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1977), 391.

7. Skarsten, 264.

8. Morris, 49.

9. Skarsten, 272-79.

10. Morris, 234n5, notes that while James claimed thirty-two men, Richard E. Oglesby in Manuel Lisa and the Opening of the Missouri Fur Trade (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1963), states that there "must have been closer to eighty."

11. Skarsten, 283.

12. Morris, 95.

13. Skarsten, 306.

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