Last week we wrote about Manuel Lisa, the high-living, fur-trading, frontier legend whom Meriwether Lewis famously cussed out in a letter to William Clark. Lewis wasn’t the only member of the Corps of Discovery who would curse Lisa’s name. Another was George Drouillard, the celebrated hunter and scout of the Expedition, who went to work for Lisa and found himself on trial for murder.
During the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1803-1806, George Drouillard had proved himself to be one of the most essential members of the party. The son of a French-Canadian father and a Shawnee mother, Drouillard spoke Shawnee, French, English, and was an expert at sign language. He was also an excellent hunter and a skilled tracker. A civilian employee rather an a military man, Drouillard won the respect of every man on the expedition. Lewis and Clark’s journals reveal that they both had the highest opinion of “Drewyer.” In a letter asking for additional pay for Drouillard after the expedition, Lewis singled him out as “a man of much merit” and wrote: “It was his fate…to have encountered, on various occasions, with either Captain Clark or myself, all of the most dangerous and trying scenes of the voyage, in which he uniformly acquited himself with honor.”
Like many veterans of the Corps of Discovery, Drouillard headed back into the western wilderness almost immediately after returning home in September 1806. By the spring of 1807, Drouillard was headed up the Missouri River again, this time in the employ of fur trader Manuel Lisa. As a leader, Lisa was no Lewis and Clark. He eschewed their stern but fair discipline in favor of an uncompromising attitude and harsh treatment of his men. Lisa’s hotheaded temperament soon got Drouillard into hot water.
In May of 1807, Lisa’s fur trapping expedition had reached the Osage River in central Missouri when Lisa discovered that a man named Antoine Bissonnet had stolen some blankets and other items and run away. Anxious to assert discipline over his group, Lisa sent Drouillard to find the deserter, ordering him to bring Bissonnet back “dead or alive.”
At Drouillard’s murder trial in September 1808, another member of Lisa’s party recounted what happened next:
Some time after that I heard the report of a gun. About half an hour later Mr. George Drouillard came back and said that he shot ‘Bazine’ [Bissonnet] but he did not die. Mr. Drouillard said he was sorry for it, and he came back to camp to bring some more men with him to take the wounded man to the camp.
Bissonnet had been shot in the back. Furious at the man for deserting, Lisa berated Bissonnet as he lay there bleeding. Lisa finally agreed to let some of the men take Bissonnet back to St. Charles for medical treatment, but the wounded man died on the way. Even in an age when harsh corporal punishment was common, the execution of a deserter without benefit of trial came as a shock. When they returned to St. Louis from the fur expedition, the following year, both Drouillard and Lisa were charged with Bissonnet’s murder.
Drouillard was miserable about what he had done. He confided to his sister:
Thoughtlessness on my part and lack of reflection in this unhappy moment is the only cause of it, and moreover encouraged and urged on by my partner, Manuel Lisa, who we ought to consider in this affair as guilty as myself for without him the thing would never have taken place. The recollection of this unhappy affair throws me very often in the most profound reflections, and certainly I think it has caused a great deal of grief to my family for which I am very sorry and much mortified. That I have not lost the affection of my old friends proves that they did not believe me capable of an action so terrible through malice and bad intent.
The jury evidently agreed. Drouillard’s lawyers argued convincingly that he was “just following orders,” and cited his superior conduct on the Lewis and Clark expedition. Most of the blame was cast on Manuel Lisa. The jury acquitted Drouillard after fifteen minutes. Ironically, the case against Lisa was dropped, and he was never tried.
Drouillard had spent most of the money he had made on the Lewis and Clark expedition and his fur trapping venture on legal fees. He wrote to his family that he would make another trip up the Missouri with Manuel Lisa’s fur company, to try to make up for his losses. He never returned. Drouillard was killed by the Blackfeet Indians at the Three Forks of the Missouri. His comrades found his body, horribly mutilated. They buried him hastily, in an unmarked grave.