THE STORYKEEPERS PROJECT #7: “THE MÉTIS TONTO”

PAUL DROUILLARD for THE STORYKEEPERS PROJECT

For many decades, popular culture did little to tell us the true story of history in North America, and in fact often presented erroneous, misleading, and stereotypical characterizations of historical figures. We often know an image, like the red-capped voyageur and his Indian maiden, but little else. In reality their lives were spent at the crux of history when new cultures were emerging and during what seems to us, times of constant struggle. Such is the case with Paul Drouillard’s ancestor, George Drouillard, whose skill and daring puts him in the pantheon of great explorers.—ed

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This is a story about my ancestor George Drouillard, the half Shawnee, half French Canadian scout who was a real-life ‘Tonto’ figure as popularized in “The Lone Ranger.” George was born in a Shawnee Indian village named Chillicothe near Xenia, Ohio. His Shawnee mother by some accounts soon died from small pox and his French father in 1776 took him to be baptized to Detroit where he had a homestead.

George’s father served as a British Indian Agent and young George accompanied his father on visits to tribes throughout Michigan, Ohio, Virginia, Kentucky and Indiana. When George entered his adulthood he rode with George Rogers Clark, and then with Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their ‘Corps of Discovery’ expedition across the West.

In their journals Lewis and Clark wrote how George endeared himself to them, and as a member of their party proved to be their most trusted friend and partner. At the conclusion of the expedition Meriwether Lewis gave Drouillard the highest praise:

“A man of much merit; he has been peculiarly useful from his knowledge of the common language of sign, and his uncommon skill as a hunter and woodsman; those several he performed in good faith, and with an ardor which deserves the highest commendation. It was his fate also to have encountered, on various occasions, with either Captain Clark or myself, all the most dangerous and trying scenes of the voyage, in which he uniformly acquitted himself with honor.”

That is mighty high praise coming from Lewis. George Drouillard in fact was mentioned in their journals more than 640 times, 355 of which exhort his skills as a hunter. He camped in the same tent as Lewis and Clark, and his final compensation was higher than anyone else except the captains.

The Johnny Depp characterization of Indian scout Tonto in the movie “The Lone Ranger” is definitely more in step with the Lewis description of a valuable scout and friend then some earlier portrayals of the Indian ‘Tonto’ from the 1950’s and subsequent years. In a recent article by Rebecca Murray on about.com, Johnny Depp is quoted as saying:

“Well, I can remember very well as a little kid, you know, of seeing the series on TV – the black and white series with Clayton Moore and the great Jay Silverheels. And as a very young child, I was always perturbed by the idea of Tonto being a sidekick. That just didn’t register properly in my head. I felt, no disrespect to anybody at all, certainly not Jay Silverheels, but I just thought it was potentially an opportunity to right the wrong, you know? I think it’s great that Tonto makes the Lone Ranger. I think it’s a very poetic way that he creates the Lone Ranger, and I think it’s right, finally.”

Johnny Depp to his credit does get it right with his characterization of Tonto. The old Hollywood image of an American Indian scout who just tagged along and took orders while doing white man’s chores was inaccurate. This is especially true in the story of George Drouillard, who in real life was a Métis, French/Shawnee scout…and a real ‘Tonto’ whose role in the Corps of Discovery was unparalleled and indispensable.

For more information on George Drouillard, see this article from the Encyclopedia of French Cultural Heritage in North America on the Lewis and Clark Expedition or this article from Detroit Public TV. — ed. 

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