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George Drouillard was the third-highest paid member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, right behind Meriwether and Bill themselves.

The half-Shawnee hunter, trapper and "sign talker" also suffered perhaps the goriest death.

On an unknown May day in 1810, nearly four years after the Corps of Discovery disbanded in St. Louis, Drouillard was set upon by Blackfeet Indians while trapping beaver on the Jefferson River near present-day Three Forks.

It's fitting then that some attention comes his way today, 200 years after his death, and Lloyd Priest and Paul Fielder are up to the task.

Priest is a 68-year-old re-enactor from Florence and a member of the successful Travelers' Rest Chapter Brigade, which urges its members to pick men from the Lewis and Clark party to research and portray. Priest chose Drouillard, or "Drewyer" as the captains tended to spell it and as it's properly pronounced.

Fielder, from Thompson Falls, is a re-enactor himself, as well as a retired wildlife biologist and "a trapper who has a big fondness for history."

They'll share the podium Thursday night at the Lolo Community Center when the Travelers' Rest Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Foundation holds its final monthly program of the season. The show starts at 7 p.m. and the public is invited. A $3 contribution is asked of non-chapter guests.

Fielder will also be in Three Forks on May 15, at the state's Drouillard Fishing Access Site to help dedicate a historic marker that details the man's contributions to the expedition and to Montana.

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"He's probably the most underrated person in our history," Fielder said.

The expedition brought along traps, and Fielder said by setting them on occasion Drouillard became Montana's first trapper. According to Priest, of the 575 or so big-game animals the expedition brought back to camp, Drouillard or the hunting parties he commanded accounted for fully one-third of them.

Hunting was sparse when the expedition was camped at Travelers' Rest in September 1805, but of the seven deer the men shot over a couple of days, Drouillard got three of them, Priest said.

Lewis, in an 1807 letter to Secretary of War Henry Dearborn, called Drouillard "a man of much merit."

"He has been of peculiarly useful from his knowledge of the common language of gesticulation, and his uncommon skill as a hunter and a woodsman. ... It was his fate also to have encountered, on various occasions, with either Captain Clarke or myself, all of the most dangerous and trying scenes of the voyage," the captain wrote.

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Priest, dressed in buckskin britches and a linen shirt of the sort he figures Drouillard wore when the expedition reached St. Louis, will talk about Drouillard's experiences during the expedition, from 1804-1806. Fielder will address the man's life before and after that, including his ultimate demise.

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Drouillard was about 35 years old and trapping in the dangerous Three Forks area with a larger party headed by Manuel Lisa. It was good business. He shunned the group trapping approach and went out by himself to set six traps a day in the two days leading up to his death. Each excursion resulted in six full traps.

"At that time, a beaver pelt was worth about $5," Fielder said. "The salary for the people that were with Lewis and Clark was $5 a month. He went out two days and brought back 12 beaver, so that was like a year's wages."

But Drouillard's luck and his time ran out on the third day. A large party of trappers found the bodies of the two Delaware Indians who had accompanied Drouillard out of the fort to hunt deer. Some 150 yards farther, Drouillard and his horse lay dead.

"From the battle scene it seemed that he fought in a circle on his horse, and being well-armed he inflicted some damage on the enemy," Fielder said. "But the Indians overwhelmed him and they cut off his head and they cut out his entrails and his hands. They just cut him up and chopped him up and mutilated him."

The rest of the party gave chase but never caught the attackers, who are believed to have been Bloods. The trappers returned and buried Drouillard in an unmarked grave alongside the Jefferson. The site, and the exact date of his death, have never been discovered.

Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at kbriggeman@missoulian.com.

 

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