In all my reading about Lewis and Clark, I never paid attention to the French-Canadian role on the expedition. Guess what we’re going to do today?
Starting with President Thomas Jefferson, who read Alexander Mackenzie’s 1801 book about his 1792 overland expedition across Canada. Jefferson immediately made plans to reach the Pacific and trained his personal secretary Meriwether Lewis to lead a Corps of Discovery.
Lewis chose William Clark who recruited volunteer soldiers in Kentucky and Indiana — mostly Scots and English. They still needed experienced boatmen to paddle, row, tow or pole up the Missouri River to their winter post.
They found the ideal men in St. Charles, Missouri.
What nationality were these “hirelings,” as Clark wrote in his notes?
Discovering Lewis & Clark is a complete and authoritative site, with a section that tells more about these Missouri River Boatmen. By 1800, a substantial French-Canadian community lived along the Missouri River, men who had worked as voyageurs as well as having other skills — blacksmiths, coopers, trappers, hunters, ferrymen, farmers. For L&C, “boatman” was the desirable listing on their resumes.
However, they were a group apart, due to the barrier of language and culture. Because they were civilians assigned to the Corps, a lower standard of record-keeping applied to them. And, being assigned to the red pirogue isolated them.
On July 4, 1804, Clark made a roster in his field notes, listing engagés assigned to the red pirogue, also called the French pirogue. (Spelling wasn’t his strong suit so you have say them aloud to get the names.)
After Clark’s list, in brackets I’ve listed [their actual names]
The names of the French Inglishees or Hirelens
[Engagés] or [Hirelings]
Battist de Shone [Baptiste Deschamps]
private in US Army at Fort Kaskaskia; recruited to be skipper of the red pirogue and foreman of French contract boatmen.
Joseph Le bartee [Joseph Liberte]
private in US Army Fort Kaskaskia; deserted and did not accompany expedition when it departed Camp Dubois May 1804
Lasoness [Baptiste La Jeunesse]
US Army private, no record of his service or discharge
Paul Preemau [Paul Primeau]
hired at Fort Kaskaskia
Chalo [Charles Hébert]
married, enlisted by Lewis before Corps left Camp Dubois
E. Cann [Alexander Carson?]
lived among French-Canadian for many years
Roie [Peter/Pierre Roi]
Charlo Cougee [?Caugee, unknown]
Clark names three men assigned to special boat positions, La bartee (mentioned above) to the large keelboat, and as bowmen:
Pvt. Pieter Crousatt [Pierre Cruzatte]
skilled river pilot who spoke English, French and Omaha, enlisted shortly before the expedition left, known as a fiddler.
Pvt. François Labiche
recruited at Fort Kaskaskia, experienced boatman and Indian trader, he already spoke English, French and several Indian languages. He also accompanied Lewis to Washington to interpret for the Native American chiefs who went to meet Jefferson. (Clark wrote “William La Biece Mallat.”)
Both privates served in the 1st squad, under Sgt. Nathaniel Pryor.
Further on the list, Clark named:
George Drewer [George Drouillard] “hunter and 4 horses,” interpreter
Mr. Dueron [Dorion] “interpreter for the Sues”
and other men — and animals — to complete the entire roster of the trip:
3 Sergts & 23 men for the Boat
1 Corporal & 4 Priavates in a Pirogue to be Sent Back from Plate [Platte] River
Capt. Lewis my self & York
in all 46 men, July 4th
4 horses & a Dog
When they reached the Mandan villages the Corps added:
Pvt. Jean-Baptiste Lepage
fur trader recruited at Fort Mandan in 1805, hired to replace a mutinous Pvt. John Newman. At age 43, the oldest member of the expedition. He had already explored the Black Hills and Little Missouri River areas.
Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau — infant
Others boatmen who contributed to the expedition include:
Pierre Dorion, Sr.
Rokey (Rhoc, Rocuqe)
This group of boatmen were discharged at Fort Mandan in April 1805 when the expedition headed west, though several stayed, and some met the returning Corps of Discovery.
Without the skills of these French-Canadians — Drouillard as a hunter, Cruzatte’s fiddle to lighten their mood, Labiche’s ability to read the rivers and determine the best course, and all of the men who paddled or portaged the gear in the red pirogue — the Corps of Discovery might not have fared as well.
Final Thoughts: Read more about the fur trade
- Organize a mini-book club — contact me for a reduced rate on multiple copies of “Waters Like the Sky” or “Treacherous Waters.”
- Invite me to present at your group — I’m happy to tailor a program to your needs, youth to adult.
- Recommend me to your local school: I’m glad to visit (in costume) to share lore and realia and fun. Middle school-ers study state history; older students are interested in the research and writing process.
- Inform me — about a rendezvous in your area or a resource/book I should know about.
- Buy a either “Waters Like the Sky” or “Treacherous Waters” as a gift. I’ll inscribe it just as you instruct.
Discovering Lewis & Clark This site includes day-by-day entries for 4 years (1803-06) and a wealth of information about native nations, geography, geology, plant and animal life, medicine, military life, and more!!
Wikipedia: Corps of Discovery
What else I’m currently reading:
“The Essential Lewis and Clark,” Landon Y Jones, editor. Harper Collins, New York 2002.
“The Vast and Open Plain: The Writings of the Lewis and Clark Expedition in North Dakota, 1804-1806,” Clay S. Jenkinson, editor. State Historical Society of North Dakota, Bismarck, 2003.