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 (half a square mile) 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 (1½ square miles).
But Drouillard, now thirty-two years old, could not settle down to a farmer's life. 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 the colony of Cuba, 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 they reached the Platte River, they met another former Corps member, John Colter, traveling downstream alone; he joined Lisa's party and turned back up the Missouri.
Meanwhile, employee Antoine Bissonnette deserted, and Drouillard was sent after him with orders to capture the deserter, or shoot him if necessary.3 Unfortunately, the fugitive tried to run for it, and Drouillard reacted as he was ordered. Lisa sent the seriously wounded Bissonnette back to St. Louis in a canoe, but he died en route, and Drouillard was later compelled 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 With Lewis and Clark's permission to leave their expedition early, Colter had trapped on the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone in the summer of 1806.
Lisa named his Bighorn post, constructed in November 1807, Fort Raymond after his son, although various first-person accounts referred to it instead as Fort Manuel or Fort Lisa.6 (Adding to the confusion, Lisa himself later built another trading center on the Missouri River in north-central South Dakota, and named it "Fort Manuel." It was there that Sacagawea most 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 inviting them in to trade furs. Drouillard made two such journeys, the first of 300 miles and the second of 200. The first took him south on the Bighorn River into Wyoming, and when he returned to Fort Raymond he described some amazing thermal phenomena. Colter also reported them when he appeared a few days later, and they became known as "Colter's Hell." The two men may have discovered part of what 65 years later was to become 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. Coincidentally, one if the 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 his 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 implied that he had 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 then 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 was the third attempt to return them to their home after their visit with President Jefferson). Lisa's men left St. Louis in May or June, with partner Menard in command of the brigade.10
At the Three Forks Again
In March of 1810, having spent the winter with the Mandans, Menard led the party of trappers on toward the Three Forks of the Missouri. They had not gone far when two of the trappers, who had gone ahead with a Shoshone chief, his two wives and his son, to hunt for meat, were attacked by a group of Gros Ventre warriors. One of the women and the boy were killed; the chief and the other wife escaped on horseback. The trappers were unharmed.
The continuing trip was hellacious. Some of the men suffered snow blindness, and all struggled over Bozeman Pass in snow that was head-high to the horses. A day's travel west 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. 12 Menard's men buried the remains of at least two bodies.
Beavers were numerous in the verdant valley where the Three Forks met, and the men trapped while throwing up their fortified trading post between the Jefferson and Madison rivers.13 But the Blackfeet were determined to rout these newcomers, and attacked some of the party on April 12, killing two and capturing three.
That was enough for Colter, who left for St. Louis.14 But Drouillard continued trapping, alone and with small groups, often at considerable distances from the fort. According to James, he bragged he was "too much of an Indian to be caught by Indians."15 But his luck ran out in May, when he went out with his traps, accompanied by two Delaware Indian employees who were to hunt deer. All were killed by Blackfeet. Drouillard's body was decapitated and disemboweled, then hacked apart. Menard quickly left the country, reaching St. Louis in July and reported 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), 271-79.
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, p. 256, 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.
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), estimated that there "must have been closer to eighty."
Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge-Cost Share Program.