I’m fascinated with women in history who unwittingly pioneer the way for generations of women to follow. They are an elite class of “first ladies” and always the first woman to trod, traipse and trudge her way through some unknown territory. It seems this form of greatness is mostly unwelcome and always thrust upon them. Such is our first lady of the Oregon Trail, Madame Marie Dorion. A young Iowa Indian and a very reluctant recruit, Marie never planned on becoming an Oregon legend—and the only woman—on the Astoria Overland Expedition of 1811-1812. But her hubby signed her up, and her fierce will to survive, followed by her feminine grace gave Marie a unique place in Oregon history as the Madonna of the Oregon Trail. She was the first woman and mother to travel the route that would become the Oregon Trail. She gave birth to the first known child with Caucasian blood to be born in the Oregon country.
It was no use running away, because Marie had tried in the spring of 1811. Then through the fall and winter of 1811-1812 Marie was pregnant, walking untold miles, and towing her 2 and 4 year old boys in the wild, cantankerous, expedition over the Continental Divide.
Marie first made history on December 30, 1811 when she gave birth to a little boy near North Powder, Oregon; the first white child born in the Oregon Territory. He lived only 8 days. Then Marie and Pierre rushed to catch up with the party, and made history again by completing the Overland Expedition in Astoria, February 15, 1812.
But it was only the beginning of Marie’s legendary status as a survivor. When Marie accompanied the trappers on an expedition to the Snake River in 1813, she witnessed a slaughter of the entire camp, including her husband, in January of 1814. She escaped with two horses and her two sons, Baptiste and Paul. She forded the Snake River and for two months kept her children alive in the Blue Mountains. By March she ventured out to find safety in a group of friendly Walla Walla Indians.
Her tale became legend throughout the territory. Her survival cemented a place in history because she lived to tell a piece of history. She settled on a farm in the French Prairie near Salem with Mr. Jean Baptiste Toupin, where she raised three more children and was reputed to be “kindly, patient, and devout.” Marie died in 1850 and her voice still speaks today: whatever your crisis is, dear female sojourner, you will find what it takes to survive. And who you are really does make a difference.
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