A Celebrity Comes Calling

By Renee Rusler, Park Ranger
January 2010

Imagine how you would feel if one day a famous celebrity suddenly appeared at your front door. This is what happened to Narcissa Whitman on April 14, 1838.

In front of her stood Madame Dorion, an old Iowa Indian woman who had become famous when her heroic tale was included in Washington Irving’s book, Astoria. The book had come out two years earlier. Washington Irving was a well known author, so by 1838 many people would have known of Madame Dorion, including Mrs. Whitman.

Narcissa mentioned the visit in a letter to her family:

“Saturday Mrs. Pambrun came with her three daughters, Maria, Ada, & Harriet, also two daughters & a son of an Iowa, the old woman spoken of in Washington Irving’s Astoria…She was here with the rest & spent the Sabbath & left today.”

Mrs. Pambrun and children were neighbors who lived at Fort Walla Walla, 25 miles to the west.

For those of you who are not familiar with Madame Dorion’s story, read on.

In 1810, just a few years after the return of Lewis and Clark, the Pacific Fur Company decided to investigate the area around the Columbia River. Marie Dorion and her husband Pierre were part of the expedition. The group established Astoria, named for John Jacob Astor, a major financier of the expedition. But not everyone who went out made it back.

In January of 1814 Marie and Pierre were stationed at a distant trapping outpost, near what is today Caldwell, Idaho. One evening a friendly Indian came to warn them that hostile Indians were headed their way. Marie gathered her two young sons, the oldest not quite 4, and set out to warn Pierre, who was trapping.

But she was too late. Pierre and most of his group were dead. Marie found two horses that had been overlooked by the raiding party. She placed her two sons on one and the sole survivor, who was severely wounded, on the other. They headed back to their post, traveling through the woods to avoid detection. The wounded man died on the way.

When Marie arrived back at the post she found that it too had been attacked. But here there were no survivors. Out of the whole trapping party, only she and her two sons were left alive.

The family needed to rejoin the main group at Astoria. They headed out with what supplies they could find at the ransacked post. When the horses could go no further, Marie killed them and smoked the meat. She then built a small hut, where she and her young sons lived for 53 days.

As soon as the weather seemed warm enough, the family started across the Blue Mountains. On the second day Marie was struck with snow blindness, which incapacitated her for three days. She regained her sight and the family continued on. After 11 more challenging days they reached the other side.

But, Astoria was still over 200 miles away. Even though they were exhausted, they needed to keep moving. When Marie saw smoke in the distance she hid her children and went to investigate. She was so worn out that she ended up crawling on her hands and knees, pausing to sleep along the way. Luckily the smoke came from the camp of friendly Walla Wallas who helped the family.

Madame Dorian Memorial park, located near Wallula Junction, Washington, is named in her honor.

There would be many other visitors to the Whitmans’ mission, but few would be as famous as Madame Dorian.

This is part 14 of "A Missionary Saga." More from Season 2

Next: An Extravagant Request



Drury, Clifford M. Chapter 11 (pdf 1.9 mb) of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon. 1994. Northwest Interpretive Association: Seattle, Washington.

Peltier, Jerome. Madame Dorion. 1980. Ye Galleon Press: Fairfield, Washington.

Last updated: January 16, 2018

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