Interpreter and Hunter
"Drewyer," Civilian Employee
He was hired as a translator of Indian languages, but George Drouillard also became useful as a French-language translator once the captains learned at Fort Mandan that they would need to trade with the Shoshones for horses. For that purpose, Drouillard could translate the captains' English to Charbonneau, who spoke but little English, and could speak in Hidatsa to his wife Sacagawea, who could talk with her people in Shoshone.
But Drouillard—almost always a nearly phonetic "Drewyer" in the journals—was one of the captains' three most valuable hands. He was also the highest paid member after the captains, he shared the Charbonneaus' tent with the family and the captains, and Gary Moulton observed that he was the only man Clark seemed to call by first name in the journals.1
When Meriwether Lewis asked Secretary of War Henry Dearborn to reward George Drouillard beyond the agreed $25 per month for the expedition, he summarized George's service to the expedition: "It was his fate...to have encountered, on various occasions, with either Captain Clark or myself, all of the most dangerous and trying scenes of the voyage, in which he uniformly acquited himself with honor."2 He wrote similar encomiums about only two others: Joseph and Reubin Field. For Drouillard, however, Lewis added, "he has been peculiarly usefull from his knowledge of the common language of gesticulation, and his uncommon skill as a hunter and woodsman."
Whenever Lewis separated from the main party, to hunt or explore, for example, he chose Drouillard to go with him. On several occasions he relied on Drouillard's talent as a wilderness pathfinder for important information. Very early in the journey, for instance, he had occasion to observe Drouillard's ability to "read" evidence of Indian traffic. And during Lewis's exploration of the upper Marias River in July of 1806, he sent Drouillard ahead, alone, to follow the upper reaches of the source stream on which they finally camped.
Only once did he have reason to criticize Drouillard. In Shoshone Cove on August 11, 1805, while he, Drouillard, Shields and McNeal were spread apart in an effort to locate the Indian road they had missed, Lewis spied a lone man on horseback whom he believed was the first of the Shoshone Indians he had been seeking for so long. Giving McNeal his gun and pouch and ordering him to stop and wait, he signaled toward the wary Indian at a distance, then proceeded ahead slowly, hoping to get close enough to talk to him without frightening him. Apparently inattentive to the evolving situation, Shields and Drouillard continued to advance, "neither of them haveing segacity enough to recollect the impropriety of advancing when they saw me thus in parley." Lewis signalled both men to stop, but only Drouillard saw, while Shields, to Lewis's chagrin, continued forward. The Indian quickly turned and rode away. Understandably, Lewis "could not forbare abraiding them a little for their want of attention and imprudence on this occasion."3
Lewis had faith in Drouillard's ability to deal with Indians on an official basis, delegating him in the spring of 1806 to visit and smoke with the Nez Perce chief Twisted Hair, and find out the details of a disagreement that had arisen over the care of the Corps' horses over the winter of 1805-06. Around the same time Lewis sent him with the Nez Perce chiefs Hohots Ilppilp and Cut Nose to retrieve two tomahawks the Corps had lost the previous autumn, one that Lewis had unintentionally left behind, the other being the deceased Charles Floyd's pipe tomahawk that an Indian had stolen from Clark, which Clark wished to return to Floyd's friends at home. The latter turned into a sort of international incident. The thief had sold it to a dying man, whose family wanted to bury it with him.
Birth and Early Years
On September 27, 1775, Pierre Drouillard and his wife Asoundechris Flat Head had their infant son, also named Pierre, baptized at Church of the Assumption5 in Sandwich (now Windsor) Ontario, across the Detroit River from Detroit, Michigan. The little boy, whom they called George,6 was about twenty-one months old. His mother was a Shawnee Indian, his father French Canadian.
The Shawnee people had lived in the Tennessee River Valley, about 3,000 strong, until white settlers pushed them out, some Shawnees moving to Alabama and Georgia and others to Pennsylvania. The northern Shawnees fought on the French side against Britain in the French and Indian War. After Britain won that war in 1763, many Shawnees moved to Quebec. Others settled in Illinois, west of white settlement, but left there to cross the Mississippi and settle around Cape Girardeau, Missouri.7
When George was young, he and his mother moved with Shawnee relatives to the Cape Girardeau area, where he grew up. His father, in 1776, married Angelique Descamps in Detroit, and George later was close to his step-siblings in the Detroit area.8 Growing up around Cape Girardeau, George learned to speak Shawnee, French, English, and Plains Indian Sign, and to hunt and live off the land.
On November 11, 1803, Meriwether Lewis met 27-year-old Drouillard at Fort Massac, Illinois, where he may have been working as an army translator, and hired him on the spot. Drouillard's first assignment was to go to South West Point, Tennessee, and escort soldiers who had volunteered for the Corps of Discovery—to wherever the Corps would decide to set up camp around St. Louis. He located their Camp Dubois and brought in the eight potential recruits on December 22.
1. Moulton, Journals, 3:309n3.
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), 1:368.
3. There was only one other incident that might be construed as a black mark on his reputation. Early in the expedition, on 3 August 1804, Clark noted cryptically that that night, with "all in Spirrits, we had Some rough Convasation G. Dr. about boys." We know of no other member of the expedition than George Drouillard with the initials G. Dr.
4. His anxiety was not entirely wasted, however. McNeal, whom Lewis had sent downriver to check on the condition of the white perogue and the cache at the lower portage camp, returned with a harrowing tale of having fought off an attacking grizzly by breaking his musket over the brute's skull. The combined incidents were enough to prompt Lewis to invoke his old "chapter of accidents" metaphor, and to thank "the hand of providence" for protecting them all from death-by-grizzly—so far. To top off the day, an unusually horrendous swarm of mosquitoes kept him confined to his bier most of the time, had tortured poor Seaman until he howled at their onslaughts, and no one could breathe without inhaling the vexatious pests.
5. 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), 191. Originally a Jesuit mission for the Huron Indians, that building was replaced by another and then the present church, built in 1842-1845.
6. In European tradition, it was usual to provide a given, baptismal name, in this case Pierre (for St. Peter), as well as a "call-name," in the infant Drouillard's case, George.
7. Barbara Fifer, Meeting Natives with Lewis and Clark (Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2004), 11.
8. 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), 18.
Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge-Cost Share Program.