Today and tomorrow, we are delighted to welcome our first guest blogger! Daniel Slosberg is a musician and reenactor who plays the part of Pierre Cruzatte, the much-valued boatman and fiddler of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. Dan’s journey is fascinating in terms of history, music, and personal growth. Please welcome Dan!
Pierre Cruzatte was the one-eyed, half-French, half-Omaha main boatman of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. Cruzatte had more experience on the river than anyone else in the Corps. So, whenever a difficult navigational problem arose, the captains always consulted with him. He also hunted, served as an interpreter, and played his fiddle. But most people remember him for one thing: the accident in which he mistook Captain Lewis for an elk and shot him in the butt.
Back in November of 1997, when Ken Burns’ Lewis & Clark documentary aired for the first time, I knew nothing about Pierre Cruzatte; I didn’t even know that a Pierre Cruzatte existed. And I knew next-to-nothing about the Lewis & Clark Expedition. I didn’t watch the Burns documentary because, at the time, I had practically no interest in history.
However, Robbie Trombetta, the music teacher at the school where I worked, watched the show. She knew that I played the fiddle, so when we ran into each other at work the day after the program, she asked me if I knew that Lewis & Clark had a fiddle player. “Who are Lewis & Clark?” I asked. “Don’t they have a college named after them?” (I was thinking of William & Mary.)
So I began poking around a bit on the web to see what I could learn about this French fiddler. Couldn’t find much — this was 1997 after all, well before the explosion of L & C sites leading up to the bicentennial. So I e-mailed two people I found on the web, folks who I thought might know something about this mystery musician. Both got back to me within just a few hours. One of these folks, Jay Rasmussen, who at the time ran the Lewis & Clark on the Information Superhighway web site, told me that the expedition included two fiddlers and that the main one’s name was Pierre Cruzatte.
My other correspondent, Keith Edgerton of Montana State University, wrote that, “…as far as finding out more about [Cruzatte] and the music he might have played, start with Stephen Ambrose’s UNDAUNTED COURAGE.” “Read a book?” I thought. “Not likely.” With four young kids and a more-than-full-time job, not to mention a healthy lack of interest in all things historical, I couldn’t imagine using my spare time to read a treatise about the Lewis & Clark Expedition.
Somehow — I can’t remember exactly why — I took a peek at the thing, and within a page or two, Stephen Ambrose had me hooked. I would read during every spare moment I could find. And, as I read, an idea began to blossom. I used to work with a group called the Aman Folk Ensemble. We would go to schools and give assemblies about International folk music and dance. Why not a similar kind of program — but about the music, dance and song of the Lewis and Clark Expedition?
The more I thought about it and the more I learned about Cruzatte, the more he seemed like the perfect character to portray in such a program. He was almost too good to be true — a one-eyed fiddler with a French father and Omaha mother who did all sorts of important things on the trip but was best known for that accident. Also, the ideal height for a voyageur — a French or Metis boatman — was five feet, four inches tall:
They are short, thick set, and active, and never tire…. There is no room for the legs of such people, in these canoes. But if he shall stop growing at about five feet four inches, and be gifted with a good voice, and lungs that never tire, he is considered as having been born under a most favourable star. (Thomas L. McKenney, quoted in Grace Lee Nute, THE VOYAGEUR, p. 14)
I’m 5′ 4″; until discovering Pierre Cruzatte, I had never felt like the ideal height for anything.
So I started reading whatever I could find about the expedition, combing through the Moulton edition of the journals, through back issues of “We Proceeded On,” through Jackson’s LETTERS OF THE LEWIS AND CLARK EXPEDITION, etc., for anything that mentioned music, song, dance or Pierre Cruzatte.
I began calling people who knew a lot about the expedition. Ludd Trozpek, who was I believe treasurer of the Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation (LCTHF) at the time, turned out to live in Claremont, my home town, less than an hour from where I live now. This may not seem like a big deal; but, since the majority of Lewis and Clark aficionados live close to the trail, finding one so nearby seemed pretty miraculous.
(Of course, I learned later that a whole bunch of Lewis & Clark fans lived nearby, namely members of the California Chapter of the LCTHF. They have always been incredibly supportive of my Cruzatte endeavors, even to the extent of underwriting the brain-tanned buckskin trousers that I wear as Pierre.)
So I visited Ludd. If I recall correctly, he was preparing to head out to an LCTHF annual meeting. He told me that I ought to go to one, but I couldn’t see why I’d want to. He showed me his magnificent vault of Lewis & Clark books. (He also politely pointed out, after he’d seen a number of photos of me as the eye-patch adorned Cruzatte, that I needed to decide which eye was blind.) I also visited George Rion, who lived a few hours south of me in San Diego. He showed me his Lewis & Clark trunk, giving me some great ideas for the Cruzatte program. I spoke with Joe Musselman, who had written about the music and sounds of the expedition, and filled me in on much about the songs of the French boatmen, the voyageur songs, two of which Cruzatte sings in the show.
As the research progressed, I gradually collected items that I might use in a Cruzatte program: I found a source for jew’s harps that look like the kind that the expedition might have carried — the Black Fires at MouthMusic.com; I found a source for replicas of the “sounden horns”; I discovered Aquila USA, a place to get gut strings, the kind Cruzatte would have used on his fiddle. I found a fellow in Nevada who made rough, baroque style bows (i.e. bending outward from the hair rather than inward), perfect to double as Cruzatte’s rifle. Finally, on a research trip for old violin cases, I stumbled over the mother lode: a local violin shop had a violin so roughly made that they felt they couldn’t sell it — while the varnish on the tops of most violins leaves them with a color like maple syrup, the top of this fiddle had turned almost black, as if someone had left it hanging over a fire for many years. They sold me the fiddle for the almost negligible cost of setting it up. I now had the perfect instrument for Cruzatte.
Somewhere along the trail, I began to feel like I had to go to an LCTHF annual meeting. So in July of 2000 I, along with my son Ben (who was four at the time) and my mom flew to Bismarck where we got kick-started into the world of Lewis, Clark and Cruzatte, (and where I fell in love with North Dakota, but that’s a story for another day).
As anyone who has been to an LCTHF annual meeting knows, it’s the place to be if you’re into Lewis and Clark. The moment we got to the hotel, we started meeting folks I had up to then only read about. I was thrilled to meet Porter Williams, sculptor and York portrayer, in the hotel lobby while we checked in. During the meeting, I chatted with the delightfully quirky food author Leandra Holland about whether or not the expedition members ate candles. During a break, I found Carolyn Gilman, author of WHERE TWO WORLDS MEET: THE GREAT LAKES FUR TRADE. When I told her about the Cruzatte project, she recommended that I read Tanis Thorne’s THE MANY HANDS OF MY RELATIONS: THE FRENCH AND INDIANS ON THE LOWER MISSOURI, the only book about the coming together of the French and Indians at the time of Cruzatte. I later contacted Dr. Thorne, who recommended that I read Peter Bowen’s Gabriel Du
Pré mystery novels, a series I’d never heard of. Bowen has Du Pré — himself a product of French and Indian ancestors — speak with the kind of patois that I wanted for Cruzatte.
Coming tomorrow: Cruzatte takes the stage!