BIOGRAPHY

This Crusat is near Sighted and has the use of but one eye,
he is an attentive industerous man and one whome we both have placed
the greatest Confidence in dureing the whole rout.--

Captain William Clark
August 12, 1806

Pierre Cruzatte, a member of the permanent party of the Lewis and Clark expedition, was an expert riverman recruited for his navigational skills and his command of the French and Omaha languages.

He also played the fiddle, and his music had a direct impact on the success of the expedition: it served as a critical survival tool, both as a form of entertainment and recreation (in the truest sense of re-creation) for the members of the expedition; and as a way of establishing trust and good will with the Indian nations the expedition encountered along the trail. Besides what appears in the journals of the expedition, we know very little about Cruzatte. Here is a summation of the information contained in the journals:

Cruzatte, the son of a French father and Omaha Indian mother, was the expedition's main boatman as well as its most prominent musician. In the journals of the expedition, Cruzatte's last name appears spelled at least twelve different ways, and his first name appears both as Pierre and Peter. The men of the expedition sometimes referred to him as "the old Frenchman," so he may have been older than most of the party, though we cannot say for certain because we don't know when he was born, nor do we know with certainty when he died--Clark lists him as killed by 1825-28. The men also called him "St. Peter." Again, we do not know why; but it was tradition among the Voyageurs, the French Canadian boatman, to bestow a nickname describing the opposite of a characteristic of a person.

Some sources describe Cruzatte as being small and wiry (see Cruzatte's entry in THE MEN OF THE LEWIS AND CLARK EXPEDITION below), but no primary source supports this assertion. It may have been inferred from descriptions of ideal boatmen. For example, Thomas L. McKenney (in Grace Lee Nute's THE VOYAGER, p. 14), declares that "if [a Voyageur] 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."

Cruzatte joined the expedition as a boatman, ostensibly in St. Charles, Missouri: the journals give his enlistment date as May 16, 1804, the beginning of the expedition's stay in St. Charles. Since Cruzatte did not spend that first winter training at Camp Dubois, his experience must have warranted his inclusion in the journey without the requisite training. Enlisting as a private, he was the expedition's most experienced waterman. Whenever a difficult aquatic problem arose, all the men, including the captains, deffered to Cruzatte. " Cruzatte who had been an old Missouri navigator," writes Captain Lewis at the mouth of the Marias, "and who from his integrity knowledge and skill as a waterman had acquired the confidence of every individual of the party declared it as his opinion that the N. fork was the true genuine Missouri and could be no other." When the expedition had to find a way through the Columbia River Narrows, Lewis "dispatched Peter Crusat (our principal waterman) back to follow the river and examine the practibility of the Canoes passing."

Cruzatte also worked as an interpreter, most notably among Omaha prisoners of the Teton Sioux, who, in September of 1804, told Cruzatte of their battle with the Teton Sioux, the result of which were the 65 scalps "hung on small Poles, which the Women held in their hand, when they danced..." (Joseph Whitehouse, September 27, 1804). Cruzatte returned with word from the prisoners that the expedition was "to be Stoped" by the Teton Sioux, according to Clark's journal entry. Cruzatte's information, and the resulting vigilence of the corps, may have saved the expedition. Cruzatte apparently did not fare as well with the Sioux language: "We had no good interpreter," wrote Sergeant Ordway on September 9, 1804, "but the old frenchman could make them understand tollarable well."

As an experienced boatman, Cruzatte was also familiar with creating caches. When the Captains decided to bury some of their supplies at the mouth of the Marias, Lewis writes, "on enquiry I found that Cruzatte was well acquainted with this business and therefore left the management of it intirely to him...." Cruzatte also knew mushrooms. "Cruzatte brought me several large morells," writes Lewis on June 19, 1806, "which I roasted and eat without salt pepper or grease in this way I had for the first time the true taist of the morell which is truly an insippid taistless food…."

Cruzatte played the fiddle "extreemly well" according to Lewis on June 25, 1805. Cruzatte's music served not only as recreation for the members of the expedition but also as a critical diplomatic tool: he played--and the men danced and sang--for many of the Indian nations which the expedition met along the way. The journals of the expedition describe him playing numerous times, and he probably played many more times than the journalists recorded.

Despite Cruzatte's poor eyesight, he appears quite frequently as a hunter in the journals and was involved in two notable hunting incidents. The first occurred on October 20, 1804, when he became the first member of the expedition to shoot a grizzly bear. "[H]e wounded him," writes Captain Lewis, "but being alarmed at the formidable appearance of the bear he left his tomahalk and gun...." Shortly thereafter, Cruzatte "shot a buffaloe cow broke her thy, the cow pursued him he concealed himself in a small raviene," again according to Lewis. It was not a good day for Monsieur Cruzatte. The other incident occurred on August 11, 1806, Cruzatte mistook Captain Lewis for an elk and shot him. "[T]he ball had passed through the fleshey part of his left thy," according to Clark, "below the hip bone and cut the cheek of the right buttock for 3 inches in length and the debth of the ball," luckily missing bone and artery. Cruzatte intially denied responsibility, prompting Captain Lewis to think the expedition under an Indian attack. Forensic evidence, however, pointed at the old Frenchman. Cruzatte "is an attentive industerous man," writes Captain Clark on the day after the accident, "and one whome we both have placed the greatest Confidence in dureing the whole rout...," but he is "near Sighted and has the use of but one eye...."

Clark's are the last positive words about Cruzatte in the journals. He disappears from history after the expedition. The river that the expedition named after him, Crusat River, in what is now Washington State, we now call the Wind River.

Moulton's The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition contains the following entry (page 516, volume 2):

Private Pierre Cruzatte (dates unknown).
Often referred to as "Peter Cruzat" and other variations in the journals, he was half French and half Omaha. His official enlistment date was May 16, 1804, at St. Charles, Missouri, but he may have been recruited earlier. He was an experienced Missouri River boatman who had already participated in the Indian trade as far as Nebraska and was hired for his skill and experience. Unlike the other French boatmen, he and François Labiche were enlisted as members of the permanent party. He was one-eyed and nearsighted, and his fiddle playing often entertained the party. At times he also acted as interpreter. Lewis paid tribute during the expedition to his skill and experience as a riverman and to his integrity, but in the postexpedition list of members he receives no special recommendation; this is perhaps because the myopic Cruzatte had accidentally wounded Lewis while the two were hunting in August, 1806. Speculation places him with John McClellan's expedition to the Rockies in 1807. Clark lists him as "killed" by 1825-28.

Clarke's The Men of the Lewis and Clark Expedition contains the following information:

37. Private PIERRE CRUZATTE (CRUZAT; CRUSATTE; CROUZATT; CROISETTE).
Half French and half Omaha, he probably was a descendant from the Cruzatte family who were early settlers of St. Louis. Obviously his father had lived among the Omaha at an early date. He enlisted with Lewis and Clark on May 16, 1804. Pierre had formerly been a trader on the Missouri for the Chouteaus before enlisting. He could speak the Omaha language and was skilled in sign-talk, so was of valuable assistance to the captains at the Indian councils and encounters with the tribes on the lower Missouri. He was a small man, wiry, had but one eye and was nearsighted. He was called "St. Peter" by the men as a nickname. Like the other regular men, he was awarded extra pay and a land grant after the expedition's return. He was killed by 1825-1828.

See also the more extensive biographical notes at the PBS site.

 

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