Activist wants Ore. female pioneer’s story honored

Jillian Daley, Statesman Journal
4/19/10

SALEM, Ore. (AP) – Keizer community leader Barbara Clement wants to honor a local heroine who died 160 years ago.

Madame Marie Dorion was the first woman to settle in Oregon Territory, the first to give birth on the Oregon Trail, an advocate for orphans and a hero to fur traders.

Clement plans to have a sign installed within a covered kiosk at Keizer Station Park telling Dorion’s story. The illustrated sign, now in the design phase, will be in place by May.

Dorion, or Walks Far Woman, arrived in the Willamette Valley in 1841, farming land by the Salem-Keizer border and in the Gervais area.

Clement was moved to educate the public about Dorian after reading Jane Kirkpatrick’s historical-novel trilogy on the French, Canadian, Native American hero.

“Nobody here knows anything about her,” Clement said. “They’ve never heard of her, but all around the rest of the Northwest, there are statues (and) a dormitory’s named after her.”

The area Dorion settled in was on the southern end of the now-dry Lake Labish, just east of Chemawa Indian School, Clement said.

Clement chose to place the sign in the park, figuring drivers would zip by too fast on Chemawa Road to read it.

Born in 1786, Dorion married her first husband as a teenager, according to the National Women’s History Museum. In March 1811 at St. Louis, Miss., her French-Canadian husband – his wife and two children in tow – took the first steps on an overland expedition fur magnate John Jacob Astor had funded.

William Price Hunt led the 11-month journey to establish a fur trading post along the Pacific coast.

In December, Dorion gave birth in North Powder; the infant died nine days later, said local history maven Catherine Ely. Two other travelers died.

“Some of those men wouldn’t have made it without her medical expertise, knowing Native (American) ways of dealing with health problems,” said Jennifer Gobin-Bailes, one of Dorion’s descendants. “She also was able to help find food in the wild. ... the same sort of things Sacajawea did.”

In 1812 in what’s now Astoria, the group established Fort Astor.

“Marie Dorion and the Trail of the Pioneers” by Harry Ringhand indicates that almost two years later, the Dorions joined the John Reed expedition, establishing two fur trading posts along the Snake River.

In January 1814, Reed sent his men near one post to trap beaver, while he, another man and Dorion stayed behind. A friendly Native American told Dorion another group was going to attack the other trappers.

Dorion, with her two children, rode out to warn them. When she arrived, her husband and all but one of the trappers had been murdered. She pulled the survivor onto her horse to take him to safety, but he died of his wounds.

“How many women would be strong enough to lift a man up and put him on her horse?” Gobin-Bailes said.

Dorion returned to Reed’s Post to find Reed and the other fur trapper slain.

So she moved on, crossing the Blue Mountains in the spring. Food was difficult to find, so she sheltered her children in a protective layer of snow and set off for help. She found it at a Walla Walla Native American camp. The Walla Wallas sent someone to fetch her children. By the time they found a safe harbor, mother and children had walked 250 miles.

Dorion remarried, living in the Walla Walla Valley in Washington. Relocating to the Willamette Valley in 1841, she “gained the respect of her neighbors who referred to her as ‘Madame Dorion,’” Ringhand writes.

In 1850, the mother of five was buried beneath the altar of the St. Louis Church in the Gervais area rather than the cemetery: an honor worthy of saints and noblemen. Clement said Dorion’s aid with baptisms and weddings, as well as her practice of adopting and finding homes for orphans, influenced where she was buried.

“She was a heroine,” Clement said.

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