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“Much At Loss for an Interpreter…”
Jul 29, 2014
Little was known about present-day South Dakota when President Thomas Jefferson recruited Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the recently acquired Louisiana Purchase in 1804. Luckily for the Corps of Discovery, shortly after they shoved off they met Pierre Dorion floating down the Missouri River with a load of furs and buffalo tallow.
Dorion was born in Quebec City in 1740. By about 1774 he was trading in the area around present-day Yankton. He was married to Holy Rainbow, daughter of a Yankton Sioux chief, and had become well versed in the Lakota language. Dorion had spent over 20 years in the area Lewis and Clark were sent to explore, so the Corps hired him and bought 300 pounds of his buffalo grease, which they used to “repel insects.”
Dorion’s knowledge of the area and the Lakota language soon proved invaluable. When the party reached the mouth of the James River, Dorion was dispatched to gather members of the Yankton Sioux for a meeting at Calumet Bluffs, a few miles upriver. He successfully translated Lewis’ speech and helped the explorers document details about Native culture.
Lewis and Clark then tried to convince several chiefs from area tribes to go with Dorion to St. Louis and on to Washington, D.C., to meet President Jefferson. The Corps continued north while Dorion traveled south. The interpreter’s absence left a void that was especially felt when Lewis and Clark reached the mouth of the Bad River on September 24. There they met the Teton Sioux, and for the next four days teetered between friendly relations and near open warfare.
The two sides could only communicate through rudimentary sign language and the limited knowledge of Pierre Cruzatte, a member of the expedition who understood the Omaha language, but very little Lakota. On their first day there, the two sides exchanged gifts, as was customary, but then things went awry. One of the head tribal men drank half a glass of whiskey and nearly started a fight with Clark. When Clark and a few other men reached shore in a pirogue, several Indians grabbed its mooring cable and refused to let them return to their keelboat.
Lewis ordered in armed American reinforcements, while Indians lined the shore with bows and arrows. But tensions eased, and the next day the two sides enjoyed a great feast. The roller coaster continued until Lewis and Clark left. It’s difficult to say if Dorion could have helped relations, but Clark clearly thought so. “We feel much at loss for the want of an interpreter,” he recorded in his journal on September 25. “The one we have can Speek but little.” Given the intense preparations Lewis and Clark made before departing St. Louis, not securing an effective interpreter seems to have been an oversight that could have had deadly repercussions.
Dorion continued trading in the region and in 1806 was commissioned by the U.S. War Department as a subagent along the Missouri and its western tributaries. He did help Clark again in 1807 by facilitating a meeting with several Indian chiefs. Dorion died in 1810 and was buried along the Missouri River. His grave remained undisturbed until the 1890s when Yankton brick makers digging for clay along the Missouri River uncovered it. Its location became lost through time and was again discovered by local historians about 15 years ago. Yankton leaders erected a monument in 2002 near Dorion’s gravesite at the intersection of Second and Locust.