The Most Courageous Woman to Ever Live in the PNW Has a Bridge Named After Her in Wallula
As you approach the junction of Highway 12 and Highway 730 there is a park and an abandoned bridge named in memory of Marie “Madame” Dorion.
Who was Marie Dorion and why is there a park named after her in Wallula Gap?
Marie Dorion was one of the strongest women to ever live. Her amazing story is filled with feats of near-death survival, mass murder, and heartache, but against all the odds, somehow she survived multiple harsh and horrific journeys through what is now Oregon and Washington. Her story is so heroic it is surprising Hollywood hasn’t put it on the big screen.
According to the National Women’s History Museum, Marie Dorion was a Native American woman born in 1786. When she was in her teens she met and married French Canadian fur trader, Pierre Dorion, who was known as the first white resident of South Dakota. Marie and Pierre spoke many variations of Native American languages. This afforded them offers to act as guides and interpreters and they accepted a job on the second long expedition to the Pacific coast. The first long expedition to the coast was the well-known Lewis and Clark expedition which included another famous Native American woman, Sacajawea. History shows Marie Dorion’s journey was long and wildly more challenging than Sacajawea’s, as Dorion traveled over 3500 miles and persevered through incredible odds, and suffered great losses along the way.
Marie Dorion is most notably remembered for helping lead a group of fur traders (all men) through the Oregon Trail. She was only in her mid-20s and during the long journey, the group was repeatedly attacked by gangs and Native American tribes which eventually would leave her alone in the frigid wilderness fighting for her life.
1811 The Loss of a Child
In 1811, Marie became pregnant with their third child, and in December, during the group’s trek to the Pacific coast, Marie and Pierre were left behind in North Powder, Oregon while she gave birth. Tragically, the baby died. After taking only a few days to mourn their loss, they began their journey again and eventually caught up with the group, making it to Astoria, Oregon in February of 1812.
“Bad Snakes” and Murder
After the expedition ended in Astoria, Oregon, the Dorions joined another fur trading group and made their way to Idaho where they built a trading post at the mouth of the Boise River. They also constructed remote trapping camps in the surrounding mountains. And, while Pierre and another fellow were in these remote camps, the Shoshone tribe, who Marie had a good relationship with, warned her that Pierre was likely in danger from a gang called, the “Bad Snakes”. It was cold with heavy snow, yet Marie grabbed her children and horses and made a three-day journey to the remote camps, where she found her husband gruesomely murdered. Distraught and cold, Marie left her dead husband and traveled back to the main camp. When she arrived she discovered that all the men involved with the fur trading group had been scalped and brutally murdered by the “Bad Snakes”.
A Cold and Lonely Journey
Now, she was alone in the wilderness with her two boys, surrounded by the remains of her fellow fur trading members. Marie rounded up what supplies they had and left the area, traveling for months through frigid temperatures and heavy snow in the Blue Mountains of Washington and Oregon. Running out of provisions, Marie had no choice but to slaughter her horse to feed herself and her sons. She even used parts of the horse hide as shelter from the cold. Miraculously, they survived through winter and they continued west for 250 miles - stopping at the Columbia River where the Walla Walla tribe welcomed them into their camp.
Marie Dorion’s Final Years
Marie married again in 1819 and moved to what is now known as Okanogan, WA. Not long after, her second husband was also killed by Native Americans. From there, she and her children moved to the Willamette Valley in Oregon. She remained there until her death in 1850.
There are many tributes to “Madame Dorion” along the Walla Walla River, including a memorial park and bridge near highway 12 and highway 730 junction in Wallula. Marie Dorion will always be known as, “the Madonna of the Old Oregon Trail”.
Why is the original Madame Dorion Bridge abandoned and separated?
I wasn’t able to find an answer to this question. The bridge was only in use from 1931 to 1949 when it was partially dismantled. It remains in the same condition today and is viewable from the park and the overpass on Highway 12. The image below was taken in 1961. It's amazing to see how much the area has changed.
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Gallery Credit: Paul Drake