Private Pierre Cruzatte was a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. He was of French and Omaha tribe Indian heritage. He enlisted with Lewis and Clark on May 16, 1804, at St. Charles, Missouri. Cruzatte had formerly been a trader on the Missouri River for the Chouteau fur interests. He could speak the Omaha language and was skilled in sign language, 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, and had one eye. Like the other enlisted men, he was awarded extra pay and a 320-acre (1.3 km2) land warrant after the expedition’s return.
In addition to possessing geographical knowledge, Cruzatte had spent several winters trading up the Missouri as far as the Platte River. An expert riverman, he was assigned to the crucial position of bowman in the keelboat for his ability to spot the slack water eddies that would assist in advancing the boats upstream.
Even with his skills, Cruzatte’s vision problems were cause for a near-fatal accident during the Corps’ return journey, in August 1806. While elk hunting, Cruzatte accidentally shot Lewis in the “left thye,” a harrowing event that caused the captain to believe Blackfeet Indians were in their midst. Later, after the Corps found no evidence of the Indians’ presence, Cruzatte admitted his fault. Lewis graciously let the matter be. Clark treated and dressed the wounds with medicines that they carried. Lewis was made comfortable in the bottom of the white perogue, but he discontinued writing until reaching St. Louis, suffering a very painful healing process.
Cruzatte often entertained the explorers with his exuberant fiddle-playing, keeping spirits high during non-work periods. In the winter of 1804-1805, while the Corps was camped at Fort Mandan, Cruzatte’s fiddle warmed their simple holiday celebrations.
In early June 1805, Cruzatte was one of six men chosen to accompany Lewis on an exploration of the north fork of the Missouri River. The crew was to examine the course of the river in an attempt to learn if it was the main branch of the Missouri. Lewis, on June 6, 1805, after ascending the river 60 miles (97 km), wrote in his journal: “I now became well convinced that this branch of the Missouri had its direction too much to the North for our rout to the Pacific,” confirming that it was not the true Missouri or the correct path to follow westward.
Because of his frontier language skills, Cruzatte often played key roles in communications with the various Indian tribes that the Corps encountered. In late July 1804, just north of the confluence of the Platte River with the Missouri, Cruzatte and George Drouillard were sent by the captains to scout out the villages of the Oto and the Missouri tribe, with whom Lewis and Clark sought to hold council. In September 1804, Cruzatte and François Labiche served as interpreters during talks with the Bois Brule Teton Sioux to gain access to the upper Missouri. This was especially critical when the Sioux captured one of the Corps’ pirogues, demanding that the Americans either trade with them exclusively or surrender the pirogue as tribute. Cruzatte’s translations, along with donations of useful gifts, were key in helping the Americans recover the pirogue and gain peaceful entry to the upper Missouri.