Sieur de la Verendrye

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Sieur de la Verendrye

Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, Sieur de la Verendrye (1685-1749), was a French-Canadian soldier, explorer, and fur trader. He was the first to explore extensively the southern prairies in what is now the northern United States and southern Canada.

Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, later Sieur de La Verendrye, was born in Trois-Rivières, New France, on Nov. 17, 1685, the fourth son of the governor of that town. He entered the army as a cadet at the age of 12. Over the next 10 years he served in three campaigns against the English to the south.

In 1707 La Verendrye sailed to France and obtained a commission as lieutenant in the Regiment of Bretagne. During his 4 years in the French army he took part in three more campaigns, and he was badly wounded at the battle of Malplaquet. Without private means to support his career, La Verendrye was obliged to return to Canada in 1711.

He married Marie Anne Dandonneau in 1712 and in the next 5 years had four sons, all of whom later shared in his western adventures. To support his growing family, La Verendrye turned to the fur trade. The governor appointed him to the command of the trading posts on Lake Nipigon. During this service La Verendrye was caught up in the current fever of the quest for a great western sea. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he was convinced that the route to the sea must follow a northerly course through the lands of the Cree Assiniboine Indians rather than through the country of the Sioux. The most westerly known limit at this time was the Lake of the Woods.

In 1730 La Verendrye discussed his plans with the governor in Quebec. He received a sympathetic hearing but no financial support beyond a monopoly of the fur trade in new areas he might discover. The following year he formed a partnership with a group of Montreal merchants who, in return for a large share of any fur profits, would supply him with the necessary equipment. It was an unsatisfactory arrangement and eventually plunged him deeply into debt, but it was the only method of financing his search for the western sea.

Exploring Westward

La Verendrye set out with three of his sons in July 1731. Slowly advancing westward, he and his party built fur-trading posts on Rainy Lake, the Lake of the Woods, and the Red River at the edge of the prairies. In 1734 he returned to Quebec to report his progress to the governor and the following spring went back west with his youngest son. His eldest son was killed by the Sioux on an island in the Lake of the Woods.

The need to keep peace among the Indian tribes and the harassing details of the fur trade slowed La Verendrye's westward advance, but by 1738 he had built a new fort on the Assiniboine River. That same year he made a long, overland journey to visit the Mandan Indians along the upper reaches of the Missouri. He was disappointed in not acquiring any knowledge from them of the elusive western sea. The next 4 years saw little exploration except in the area north of the Assiniboine.

During 1742-1743 two of La Verendrye's sons made an extensive trip to the southwest, while he, in ill health, remained behind at Ft. La Reine. The exact route of their travels is in dispute, but it is unlikely that they went beyond the Black Hills in present-day South Dakota. La Verendrye next turned his attention to the northwest and discovered the Saskatchewan River but lacked the resources to follow it to the Rocky Mountains. He returned to Quebec in 1744 to face his creditors and relinquished his command in the west. The following year he was promoted to the rank of captain and in 1747 was reinstated in his western command and authorized to continue his explorations.

La Verendrye's exploits were officially recognized in 1749, when he was awarded the Cross of St. Louis. He died in Montreal on Dec. 5, 1749.

Further Reading

The only biography of La Verendrye in English is Nellis M. Crouse, La Verendrye: Fur Trader and Explorer (1956). There is also the excellent introduction of Lawrence J. Burpee to the Journals and Letters of Pierre Gaultier de Varennes de la Verendrye (1927). Additional information is in A. C. Laut, Pathfinders of the West (1904), and Lawrence J. Burpee, Pathfinders of the Great Plains (1914).

Additional Sources

Smith, G. Hubert, The explorations of the La Verendrye in the Northern Plains, 1738-43, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1980. □