“The number of fighting men exceeded two thousand, and these with their families made a considerable body as we continued to march through magnificent prairies where wild animals were in abundance.”
The Chevalier de la Vérendrye’s Journal records observations and experiences with various American Indian tribes during an expedition in 1742 and 1743. In a fourteen-month period, Vérendrye traveled from Fort la Reine (present-day Portage la Prairie, Manitoba) into what became Wyoming. After sighting the Rocky Mountains, he returned home. There were several purposes for the venture. Vérendrye was to establish new partnerships among indigenous peoples while expanding trade west. At the same time, he was to promote alliances between the natives and France. A third goal was to scout out a route to the mythical Western Sea, which was supposed to connect with the Pacific Ocean, thus providing an economical passage to Asian markets. The Chevalier de la Vérendrye, from a family of explorers, was at various times a licensed and unlicensed fur trader and soldier. He addressed his report in the form of a letter to the marquis de Beauharnois, governor general of New France.
The decade of the 1740s was a watershed period in the history of New France. The vast province stretched from northeastern North America beyond the Great Lakes in the west. Along with Louisiana, which encompassed the length of the Mississippi River, the French possessed a huge wedge of territory running all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
Yet the French maintained only a tenuous hold on their New World colonies. By 1740, the population of settlers in New France had reached about fifty thousand, with most inhabitants living in the fledgling cities of Montreal and Quebec. The British by contrast boasted more than ten times as many settlers in colonies along the Atlantic seaboard. The two longtime rivals frequently skirmished along the borders of their respective domains.
A key component in the competition between the French and the British for control of North America was the lucrative fur industry. The fur trade was particularly important to the economy of New France from the first decades of the seventeenth century. Because commerce in furs typically involved barter with American Indians who supplied the pelts, it was also vital to the welfare of the colony to maintain good relationships and strong alliances with indigenous peoples. These alliances were sorely tested during the bitter Fox Wars that raged between 1712 and the late 1730s. The wars pitted the Fox Indians against the French and their Indian allies in what is now Wisconsin and Michigan and disrupted trade routes with the Sioux.
Following the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht ending the War of Spanish Succession, the fur industry of New France suffered another major blow. Forced to relinquish territory in Newfoundland, along Hudson’s Bay, and parts of present-day New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Maine, the French lost significant fur-producing areas in the eastern part of the colony. To make up for the deficit, New France colonists began moving farther west to seek new fur-trading partners. At the same time, it was hoped a convenient northwest passage via waterways could be discovered, providing easy access to the Pacific, where a French-controlled port could be established.
The Vérendrye family helped lead the movement west. In the 1720s, patriarch Pierre de la Vérendrye began establishing trading outposts and built a chain of forts between Lake Superior and Lake Winnipeg. In 1731 and 1738, he led expeditions to Mandan country on the Missouri River. Several years later, two of his sons, Louis-Joseph and François, headed a second, more extensive exploratory effort into the west.
Louis-Joseph Gaultier de la Vérendrye was the grandson of a French soldier and immigrant to New France. He was youngest—after Jean-Baptiste (b. 1713), Pierre (b. 1714), and François (b. 1715)—of four sons of military veteran Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, sieur de la Vérendrye, and Marie-Anne Dandonneau du Sablé. Born in Quebec in 1717, Louis-Joseph became his father’s favorite because the two men had similar temperaments.
Louis-Joseph grew up on a farm on the St. Lawrence River between Trois-Rivières and Montreal. He received an elementary education while his father changed occupations, commanding trading posts along the northern shore of Lake Superior in the late 1720s. As a teen, he took courses in Quebec City in mathematics and mapmaking, subjects that would be useful in exploring and expanding trade in new territory.
In 1735, Louis-Joseph traveled more than 1,200 miles to join his father and brothers at Fort Saint Charles at Lake of the Woods (in present-day western Ontario). The following year—after Sioux killed his brother Jean-Baptise—Louis-Joseph was sent to reopen abandoned Fort Maurepas, on the Red River in present-day Manitoba. For his success in this enterprise, his father dubbed Louis-Joseph the Chevalier, an honorary title meaning “cavalier” or “knight”—a relic from the days of chivalry but fitting for the youngest son of a landowner and man of respect in the feudal-style seigniorial system.
For several years, in company with his father, his brothers, or other companions, the Chevalier explored and mapped western New France. He circled Lake Winnipeg, visited Mandan country (in modern North Dakota), canoed the Saskatchewan River, and reached the Missouri River. Following his major expedition in 1742 and 1743, the Chevalier commanded at several posts he had helped build. In 1748, he participated in a military campaign against the Mohawks. He was made an officer in 1749, the year his father died.
During the early 1750s, the Chevalier and his brother François were partners in a fur-trading enterprise in present-day Wisconsin. In 1753, while serving at the garrison in Montreal, he married Marie-Amable Testard de Montigny, who died in childbirth in 1756. At the outbreak of the French and Indian War in 1754, Vérendrye was given a commission to head western outposts and commanded by long distance. In 1758, he married Louise-Antoinette de Mézières de Lépervanche. After the British captured Montreal in 1760, halting the war and effectively ending French power in North America, the Chevalier sailed for France on business. His ship, the Auguste wrecked off Cape Breton in late 1761. The Chevalier and most passengers and crew were lost.
The person to whom the Chevalier de la Vérendrye’s journal was addressed was French noble and longtime naval officer Charles de la Boische, marquis de Beauharnois, who served as governor of New France between 1726 and 1746.
During his tenure in office, Beauharnois was largely concerned with potential British incursions into French territory following the restrictions imposed by the Treaty of Utrecht, which forbade him from applying military force. Beauharnois’s apprehension was reinforced in the mid-1720s by the construction and staffing of a British fort at Oswego (in present-day New York) on Lake Ontario, which was calculated to disrupt trade moving to and from Montreal via the Great Lakes to French posts at Niagara, Detroit, and farther west.
The French-British competition led to the sanctioned renewal of the dubious practice—first instituted one hundred years earlier—of trading liquor (rum from the British, brandy from the French) for furs with Indians, who had no tradition of using alcohol, nor resistance to its deleterious effects. Addiction to intoxicating beverages not only led to outbursts of violence directed at kin or elsewhere, but also became a major factor in the declining health of Indians, a cause of lower birth rates and higher death rates. The alcohol-induced depopulation among tribes who were regular trading partners forced the French and the British to seek fresh alliances farther west.
During the 1730s Beauharnois aggressively pursued the campaign against the Fox Indians disrupting French trade and had recalcitrant members of the tribe killed or enslaved. He strongly supported the efforts of Pierre de la Vérendrye in establishing working relationships with the Ojibwes, Assiniboines, and Crees—alliances that resulted in the 1736 murder of his son Jean-Baptise by the tribes’ enemy, the Sioux.
In the early 1740s, the Sioux were still a problem in the western parts of New France, and their hostility threatened the regular supply of beaver pelts upon which the colonial economy relied. To rectify the situation, Beauharnois commissioned Chevalier de la Vérendrye to undertake a journey to the west to create new alliances that, it was hoped, would restore the flow of furs. To aid in the establishment of profitable trading relationships, Beauharnois arranged for more than 140,000 livres’ worth of gifts that Vérendrye could use as incentive to create friendships among the Indians.
The Chevalier’s Journey
The first leg of the trip west began from Fort la Reine, one of the trading posts the Vérendrye family had built in the 1730s on the Assiniboine River north and west of Lake Superior (now Portage la Prairie, Manitoba). A three-week trek by land and water brought the Chevalier and his party, including his older brother François, to the country of the Mandans (whom Pierre de la Vérendrye had named during his expedition five years earlier), situated along the Heart River, a tributary of the Missouri River in present-day central North Dakota. A settled, Siouan-language tribe of some fifteen thousand members in nine villages, the Mandans had served as friendly intermediaries in the fur trade between the Indians and the French since 1738, and the Chevalier had visited them before.
After a two-month sojourn with the Mandans, during which he endeavored to learn enough native language to be able to communicate, the Chevalier recruited tribal guides—”Two very cheerfully offered”—to lead them to the country of the Cheyennes (“Gens des Chevaux”). As renowned travelers, the Cheyennes were presumed to be the best resource for information about viable routes to the West Coast. However, the migratory horsemen were not in evidence at their usual stopping places. Worse, the explorers did not encounter another westward-flowing river of sufficient volume that would support the theory of a northwest passage via water. Vérendrye’s observation of “earths of different colours” indicates the travelers probably reached the badlands of present-day western North Dakota, where a major Missouri River tributary, the Little Missouri, runs north and south.
Still searching for the Cheyennes west of the Little Missouri, Vérendrye next encountered members of the Absaroka, or Crow, tribe (“Beaux Hommes”). The fragile nature of intertribal relationships throughout the area was evident through the action of the Mandan guide, who asked to be excused from the parley. Through the liberal application of gifts—”considered great novelties” among natives who had not previously interacted with Europeans—Vérendrye hired new guides and continued traveling in a southwesterly direction, probably traversing parts of the present states of South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming while passing from tribe to tribe.
When Vérendrye did finally connect with the Cheyennes, they were in no shape to help since their enemies, the Shoshones (“Gens du Serpent”), had recently raided their villages and decimated the tribe. The explorers bargained to be led to the next-best option, the western Sioux (“Gens de l’Arc”), skilled bowmen who were enemies with the Shoshones.
Though Vérendrye lavishly praised the hospitality of the Sioux, he did not mention the name of the chief who so graciously received him. To the French explorer, the natives were merely a means to an end—a source of information about his ultimate goal of finding a way to the Western Sea. To appease his new acquaintance, the unnamed Sioux chief repeated unfounded rumors (or invented facts) about Vérendrye’s countrymen supposedly already settled in the area: “The French who are on the coast are numerous.” This was patently false information. While the English, the Spanish, even the Russians had put in appearances along the Pacific Northwest between the early sixteenth century and the time of Vérendrye’s expedition, the French did not arrive there until late in the eighteenth century.
The fanciful facts became apparent when the Sioux chief repeated phrases from the supposed French language, which Vérendrye realized were actually Spanish words. To confuse the issue further, the chief related a true incident of which Vérendrye had heard: the massacre of a Spanish military expedition under Lieutenant Colonel Pedro de Villasur sent from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to explore the Missouri River and rout French traders in the area. Vérendrye should certainly have been familiar with the event. In August 1720, French traders, in league with Pawnee and Otoe partners, had ambushed the Spanish at the Platte River, killed all but a few who escaped, and looted the bodies.
As Vérendrye continued his journey in a generally westerly direction into early 1743, the Indian tribes—attracted to the charming Chevalier, lured by the gifts the French distributed, and banding together for mutual protection from their common enemies, the Shoshones—decided to accompany him, swelling the exploratory party into the thousands. Though the natives attempted to encourage the French to join them in fighting their enemies, Vérendrye demurred: Beauharnois had given him the authority to create alliances, not to engage in war. Though annoyed at missing an opportunity to settle old scores, the assembled tribes in council agreed to forego attacking the Shoshones and smoked peace pipes with the French.
Soon afterward, reaching what is presumed to be the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, Vérendrye wistfully considered climbing to the top of a peak to glimpse the Western Sea (the Pacific Ocean, still hundreds of miles distant, would have been invisible). However, with reports of marauding Shoshones in the area, the French and Indians retreated toward the east, and safety.
The Return and the Aftermath of the Expedition
Accompanied by the mass of Indians who had traveled west with him, the Chevalier began retracing his route. Separated from his French companions who lagged behind the main party, he galloped back and found his friends just as a band of Shoshones emerged from nearby woods, armed and ready to attack. The Frenchmen fired a few gunshots and the attackers retreated. In the following days, the French wandered eastward, finally catching up with their allies who, in fleeing from the Shoshones and searching for the missing Frenchmen, had scattered.
Finally reassembled, the French and Sioux continued east through snowstorms in early 1743. Reaching the Missouri River, where they encountered a band of Arikaras, the French took leave of the Sioux with promises to meet again, provided the tribe settled in the area so they could be easily found. The Chevalier and his companions stayed for several weeks with the Arikaras, learning that they were ironworkers who also traded in oxhides and slaves. Vérendrye heard of a French settler who had been living in the vicinity for several years and sent him a message via the Indians; he hoped to interrogate the man for information about the movements of any Spanish in the region, but the settler never responded or appeared.
To mark his passage, the Chevalier buried an inscribed lead tablet on a hill outside the Arikaras encampment (in present-day South Dakota). Then, borrowing several young warriors as guides, Vérendrye and his party headed north toward Mandan country. Traveling up the Missouri, they met members of the Prairie Sioux (“Gens de la Flèche Collée”) before reaching the Mandan village in the middle of May 1743. Hearing that a band of Assiniboines had just left for Fort la Reine, the Chevalier set out in pursuit, intending to travel with the Indians. He soon caught up, and they all headed north together. It was a fortuitous meeting. Soon after uniting, they came across a party of Sioux waiting in ambush; the Sioux, not expecting such a large group of travelers, retreated after a skirmish in which several Assiniboines were wounded.
Finally, after an absence of fourteen months, the Chevalier, his brother François, and the rest of the French explorers arrived again at Fort la Reine, where an anxious Pierre de la Vérendrye, having heard nothing of his sons since April 1742, greeted them with great joy.
Despite the time, effort, and expense of the expedition, the venture gained little of value for New France. Though they were the first Europeans to penetrate deep into the North American interior, they did not discover a water route leading to the mythical Western Sea. Nor was the area the Chevalier traversed—abundant in animal life, with great herds of commercially profitable buffalo—especially plentiful in beaver. As a result of the twin failures, the French abandoned the search for a northwest passage and focused their fur-trading efforts farther north, in the area around Lake Winnipeg. The Chevalier was unable to return to the vicinity of his travels or to keep the promises he had made to his allies.
Vérendrye’s Journal, though an important early chronicle documenting the contact between Europeans and Indians, raises more questions than it answers. The text contains few details or mentions of landmarks, so it is difficult to retrace the explorers’ footsteps. It is impossible to determine exactly how far west the Chevalier traveled—did he reach the Rocky Mountains or only get as far as the Black Hills? Because the nomadic Indian tribes are referred to colloquially and scarcely described, their leaders never named, they cannot be identified with any certainty.
The most valuable and detailed information about indigenous peoples contained in the Journal concerns the Mandans, the longtime trading partners of the French. Descendants of the tribe—much reduced in size from their mid-eighteenth-century population due to wars and epidemics—still dwell in their traditional homelands along the Missouri River in North Dakota. The Mandans continued to serve as trading partners to the French for another decade after Vérendrye’s visit, but by the 1760s, had switched their allegiances to the British coming southward from their newly obtained possession of New Canada and the Spanish coming north from their acquisition of Louisiana.
The Mandans also figured prominently in the 1804 Lewis and Clark expedition to the West Coast, which had the same motivations as the Vérendrye journey more than sixty years earlier. The American explorers, gathering along the Missouri in preparation of their trek, met Sacagawea, a Shoshone captive of the Mandans who was married to French fur trapper Toussaint Charbonneau. Sacagawea would become an invaluable guide and translator for the successful expedition of the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase.
One of the most interesting pieces of information contained in Vérendrye’s Journal concerns his burial of a memento of his journey: “I deposited on an eminence near the fort [of the Arikara] a tablet of lead with the arms and inscription of the King [Louis XV], and a pyramid of stones for the General [Beauharnois].”
In 1913, schoolchildren from the city of Fort Pierre, South Dakota, discovered the lead plate where Vérendrye had placed it, near the junction of the Bad and Missouri rivers. The memorial had obviously been intended to commemorate his father’s earlier trip because inscribed in Latin is the legend: “In the twenty-sixth year of the reign of Louis XV, the most illustrious Lord, the Lord Marquis of Beauharnois, 1741, Pierre Gaultier De La Verendrye placed this.” In clarification of the actual date of placement, further information was hand-carved on the back of the lead tablet: “Placed by the Chevalier Verendrye, Louis La Londette, and A. Miotte. 30 March 1743.” The tablet is now preserved at the South Dakota State Historical Society as the first documentation of European presence in the area.
The history of New France throughout its 150-year existence is inextricably linked to the fur trade, especially the trade in beaver pelts, an enterprise in which the Vérendrye family was long involved. The pursuit of fur was not only a major factor in the colony’s economy, but was also largely responsible for a series of costly wars between French and British colonies that ultimately resulted in France’s loss of its vast American possessions. Likewise, the beaver trade profoundly and adversely affected the lives and cultures of many of the indigenous peoples of North America.
Trade between Indians and Europeans began casually in the sixteenth century, when fishermen from the Old World bartered with the inhabitants of the New World. Indians eagerly exchanged worn beaver robes for European goods they could not otherwise obtain, such as needles, beads, iron pots, and other metal items. The fishermen made huge profits from beaver skins, thanks to the popularity of the furs in making clothing, particularly beaver-felt hats that were status symbols in European society between the mid-sixteenth and mid-eighteenth century (when silk replaced beaver as the fabric of choice). The fashion statement caused the European beaver to be hunted almost to extinction, and hatmakers desperately needed a new source of raw material for their businesses. The New World offered a fresh, seemingly endless supply of beaver.
The trade potential spurred European merchants, primarily in France, to invest in expeditions to North America. These early voyages produced settlements—the precursors of Montreal and Quebec—along the St. Lawrence River in the early seventeenth century. Initially, the intent was for colonists to farm along the river. However, because of the northern latitude, the growing season was short, so many colonists turned to the more lucrative enterprise of trading in furs. Adventurous individuals took the initiative, traveling into the wilderness to build trading relationships with various Indian tribes; some Indians were experts at trapping beaver, while others served as intermediaries between the pelt producers and the French.
The French government attempted to regulate the fur trade, granting licenses to voyageurs, the employees of wealthy merchants. In opposition to the practice, illegal traders called coureurs de bois (wood-runners) began operating and became successful by living among and often marrying into Indian tribes. The competition for profits between legal and illegal traders and between the French and the British (who established the Hudson’s Bay Company in the mid-sixteenth century) intensified. The introduction of alcohol and firearms as trade items exacerbated longstanding feuds between tribes, which led to violent clashes and shifting alliances with European powers during more than a century of conflict. The competition for furs culminated in the French and Indian War, Britain’s triumph in North America, and the resulting erosion over the next two centuries—through military conflicts, forced removals and migrations, outright murder, disease, starvation, theft, subterfuge, or broken treaties—of Indian predominance in the New World.
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