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A monument to trader and translator Pierre Dorion stands near his gravesite at Second and Locust in Yankton.
A monument to trader and translator Pierre Dorion stands near his gravesite at Second and Locust in Yankton.

“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.


01:57 pm - Sat, April 30 2016
susan said:
I am searching for family information. Holy Rainbow and Pierre Dorion were my great great great great grandparents, not sure how to say that. Paul Dorion was their child, Paul had a daughter, Josephine Dorion who married John Baptist Colombe. I would like to find out who Josephine's mother was, I'm suspecting that she might be Zea White Cloud, a Yankton Sioux. Anyway Josephine is my great grand mother.
Thank you for any help I might receive.

10:40 pm - Sat, October 15 2016
Kimberly said:
I am the fifth great granddaughter of Holy Rainbow and Pierre Dorion. I would like any information on Holy Rainbow and her Parents. (Holy Rainbows father- Standing Bear.) I come through Holy Rainbow and Pierre's son Pierre Dorion jr and Marie Aoise Laguvoise. Thank you for any help.

11:04 am - Sun, April 23 2017
Tonya Davidson said:
I am also searching for this same information. I too am descendant of Josephine and John Baptiste Colombe. It appears to me that Josephine's mother was Zeah White Cloud and father Paul Dorian.
Don't know if you've seen this: or this
Josephine and John had John who married Lizzie Reeves (who was also native). They had 6 children, one was Louise Mary who was sent to boarding school and she married a german. She had my Grandmother Beatrice who also married a german.
Holy Rainbow and Pierre Dorian are also my fifth Great Grandparents.
04:36 pm - Fri, April 20 2018
Mary Lou Shinnick said:
Beatrice was married to Martin Schultz who were my aunt and uncle. Louise Mary was my grandmother who was married to Joseph Herman Koch. Holy Rainbow and Pierre Dorion are my fourth Great Grandparents. I think that makes us second cousins. Who was your mother or father?
06:49 pm - Sun, August 5 2018
Tonya Davidson said:
Mary Lou,

How exciting! My mother was Sharon Lea Schulz Dickerson and my father was Bill Dickerson
I have a son, Brandt Martin Davidson.
09:40 am - Thu, June 6 2019
Wehnona Stabler said:
I am a member of the omaha tribe in Nebraska, I am also a descendent of Pierre Dorian and would like to connect with some of my relatives on the French side.
10:07 pm - Tue, July 9 2019
Emma Colson said:
I am also a descendant of Pierre Dorion and Holy Rainbow and I would love any information others have gathered. I hit a wall when trying to research past Holy Rainbow.

I have been trying to expand my family tree on my paternal grandfather's side who is Sioux from around the Rosebud Reservaiton in South Dakota. We are also from the Colombe side. His great grandmother was Josephine Colombe Brandon and his great great grandparents John Baptist Colombe and Josephine Dorion Colombe.
04:31 am - Mon, April 6 2020
Lisa Semone Brandon-Mosely said:
My paternal grandfather is Elmer Mervin Brandon, son of Josephine Colombe Brandon. My fathers. Name is also Elmer Mervin Brandon. I grew up in Albuquerque NM, and I am Sioux. I would like to know more of my family history.
12:31 am - Wed, July 28 2021
I am also a Dorion and my common ancestor is Pierre Dorion born in 1695 in Quebec City. His father, Pierre Dorion came to North America around 1688 from Salies de BĂ©arn, France (in the Pyrenees towards the Atlantic). My guess is that he was a Huguenot and fled France due to persecution, but ended up marrying in the Catholic cathedral in Quebec City. Fascinating story and so early Canadian.
I am currently compiling the geneology (almost done) and preparing a family history book with some interesting side-trees including this one .
03:00 am - Fri, November 12 2021
Nancy Rapchak said:
I am a relative of Pierre Sr. and brothers. They are my great uncles. My ggrandmother was Zoe Dorion.
10:42 am - Mon, March 6 2023
To John M. Dorion: my maiden name is Dorion, born in Montreal. Feel free to contact me so we can compare notes on geneology. We are wondering what happened to the family member who went to the Chicago area from Quebec.
11:26 am - Sun, August 13 2023
mildred goulet said:
My ggggg grandmother was Holy Rainbow, married to Pierre Dorion on my mother's side of the family. My family is from Northern Saskatchewan. There are Dorions residing there.
'i would like to find out more about this family line!

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