The Explorations of Pierre Gaultier de Varennes et de La Vérendrye

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The Explorations of Pierre Gaultier de Varennes et de La Vérendrye


The period prior to the exploration of the Canadian West by Pierre Gaultier de Varennes et de La Vérendrye and his sons was full of turmoil between England and France. Often at war with one another, the competition to settle North America under their own flags became intense. England had many fur trading posts in Canada, and the French were eager for the profits of the fur trade as well. The French resolved to find a route from New France in eastern Canada to the fabled "Western Sea," thought to be an outlet to the Pacific Ocean, and to make their own mark by establishing a string of forts in the western Canadian wilderness. La Vérendrye's expeditions, though never reaching the Western Sea, were largely responsible for opening the central interior of Canada to French control.


Pierre de La Vérendrye was born in 1685 in Trois Rivières, on the banks of the St. Lawrence River. Entering the French army in 1697, La Vérendrye began his military career at the age of 12, and served in Canada and France. After a period of peace between the English and French, La Vérendrye returned to Canada to take up the fur trade, and accepted command of the Lake Nipigon trading center in 1726. While at the fort he met a tribesman, Ochagach, from the Kaministikwia River. From him, La Vérendrye heard of a great lake and a river that flowed from it through a "treeless country where roam great herds of cattle," leading to a "great salt sea." His interest sharpened, La Vérendrye decided to explore this country and to find a route to the Western Sea for France.

After receiving reports from La Vérendrye, Governor Marquis de Beauharnois of New France interviewed him in 1730. La Vérendrye was appointed commissioner of a project to find the Western Sea, and received financial support from local merchants who wanted a share in the fur trade. On June 8, 1731, the expedition team of La Vérendrye, his cousin Christophe Dufrost, sieur de La Jemeraye, La Vérendrye's sons, Jean-Baptiste, Pierre, and François, and a crew of 50 men embarked for the west by canoe. Vast amounts of supplies, such as tobacco, kettles, axes, saws, powder, and muskets were needed to trade with the tribes of the west. The route was not an easy one, with rugged, difficult terrain.

The expedition canoed 210 miles (336 km) west on the Ottawa River, onto the Mattawa River and then the French River, averaging 20 miles (32 km) a day. Portages (land crossings) were many and very difficult because of the heavy load, as well as the constant annoyance of biting flies and mosquitoes. Passing by the islands of northern Lake Huron they arrived at Fort Michilimackinac between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, and enjoyed a brief rest before moving on. After a month of storms and bad weather they reached the Grand Portage on August 26, 1731, 40 miles (64.4 km) southwest of Fort Kaministikwia, the present site of Thunder Bay, Ontario. A difficult series of portages stood between Lake Superior and Rainy Lake, where La Vérendrye wanted to establish his first fort. The men broke into open mutiny as some feared "evil spirits" and others did not want to continue so late in the season. La Vérendrye decided to winter at Kamistikwia with some of the men, while La Jemeraye pressed on to Rainy Lake with Jean-Baptiste and the remaining crew.


After canoeing 200 miles (320 km), Jean arrived at Rainy Lake. Fort St. Pierre, named after La Vérendrye, was built where the Rainy River leaves Rainy Lake towards the Lake of the Woods. La Vérendrye, with the rest of the crew and his two sons, resumed travel west on June 8, 1732, exactly one year after the expedition began, and arrived at the new fort one month later. A profitable fur trade had developed and the loyalties of the Cree, traditional enemies of the Sioux, were won with gifts of guns and shot. Going west, with an escort of 50 Cree and Monsoni canoes, the expedition reached The Lake of the Woods and followed along the present Canadian-American border. A peninsula that ran out into the lake was chosen for the sight of their second fort, named Fort St. Charles after Governor Beauharnois. The fort, located in present-day Minnesota, was a good location for trade, and La Vérendrye decided to winter at the fort to help establish the fur trade.

Early in April 1733 La Vérendrye sent a small party with La Jemeraye and Jean-Baptiste to explore the Maurepas (Winnipeg) River. La Jemeraye returned to the fort, where he later died, and Jean went on and established Fort Maurepas at the point where the Winnipeg River enters Lake Winnipeg. La Vérendrye remained at Fort St. Charles, where he continued trade with the Cree and Assiniboines. The two tribes asked La Vérendrye to allow his son, Jean-Baptiste, to join them in war against the Sioux. La Vérendrye agreed, failing to distance himself from the tribal conflicts of the Cree, Monsoni, Assiniboines and the Sioux.

After spending the winter of 1734-35 in Montreal, La Vérendrye returned to Fort St. Charles on Sept 6, 1735, and sent Pierre and François to Fort Maurepas on February 7, 1736, for supplies. Jean-Baptiste was sent to retrieve supplies from Fort Michilimackinac on June 5, 1736. Due to Sioux attacks in the area, La Vérendrye sent a party to retrace Jean's route to the fort. On June 22, 1736, La Vérendrye met with news of his son's death, plus 20 others with him. The Sioux had attacked, and the men were found carefully laid in a circle with their decapitated heads beside them, wrapped in beaver skins.

During the difficult winter of 1736-37 at Fort St. Charles, La Vérendrye learned about a tribe further in the west called the Mandans. They were reported to be white and described as living in forts and tilling the ground. La Vérendrye inquired about the great river the Mandan lived on (Missouri River) and wondered if it was the river of the west they were seeking. He was told it ran south and discharged into the Pacific, where there were towns of white men. By this time La Vérendrye knew that the river of the west described by Ochagach was only the Winnipeg River, and the great sea was probably Lake Winnipeg. La Vérendrye decided to make a voyage to the home of the Mandans. Going back to Montreal before he left for the west, La Vérendrye reached the forks of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers on September 24, 1738, where the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba, now stands. Despite low waters the crew continued up the Assiniboine a few days later, while La Vérendrye walked across the plains. With river levels getting even lower, La Vérendrye stopped on October 3, 1738, and erected Fort la Reine, now Portage la Prairie, Manitoba.

On October 18, 1738, La Vérendrye, with Assiniboine guides, left for the Mandans. They traveled towards the Pembina River, around the Turtle Mountains, and passed Bismarck, North Dakota. They met a Mandan chief on November 25, 1738, whose party took La Vérendrye to the first fort of the Mandan's on November 30, 1738, near a small river about 15 miles (24 km) northeast of the Missouri River. Further down river there were five more villages. The Mandans impressed La Vérendrye, as they lived in large comfortable homes arranged in neat little streets inside a well-built fort. However, La Vérendrye was disappointed that they were not white as had been reported. La Vérendrye remained on the treeless plain for much of the winter, and learned of other tribes even further to the west of the Mandans. Returning to Fort Reine on February 10, 1739, La Vérendrye was very ill and needed time to recuperate.

While at Fort Reine, La Vérendrye sent his youngest son, Louis Joseph, who joined the journey after the death of his eldest brother, to investigate the shores of the major prairie lakes and to select sites for forts. Louis traveled along Lake Manitoba to Lake Dauphin and marked out the site for Fort Dauphin. Going northwest to the mouth of the Saskatchewan River, he staked out a second site close to present-day Grand Rapids, and then proceeded northwest once again. Where the Carrot and Pasquia Rivers join the parent Saskatchewan River, Louis marked a spot for Fort Paskoyac, today known as The Pas, Manitoba, and then returned to Fort Reine for the winter of 1739-40.

The trip to the prairies was not profitable since there were not many furs to be traded, and the expedition proceeded under a cloud of debt. After going to Montreal to clear up some legal issues involving his debtors, La Vérendrye returned to Fort Reine on October 13, 1741. During this time, his son, Pierre, returned to the Mandan and Horse tribes in the west and was able to determine that the Missouri River was not the river of the west, as it flowed south and into the Gulf of Mexico, not the Western Sea. Pierre returned to Fort Reine with horses he received from the western tribes and was responsible for bringing the first horses to the Canadian Prairies.

Wintering at Fort Reine in 1741-42, La Vérendrye sent Louis and François for a third expedition to the Mandans, while he sent Pierre to establish Fort Dauphin. La Vérendrye's two sons returned to the Mandans on May 19, 1742, and explored the Cheyenne and Missouri Rivers and their tributaries. Escorted by the Bow Indians, whom they met during their explorations, the expedition reached the Rocky Mountains on January 12, 1743, but news of a rival tribe in the area forced the party to return to the Bow villages on February 9, 1743. A leaden plate, with an inscription, was buried by La Vérendrye's sons at Pierre, North Dakota, on their way back to Fort Reine, which was later unearthed by high school students in 1913. The expedition returned to Fort Reine on July 2, 1743.

Although the French government was unhappy with La Vérendrye's efforts to find the Western Sea, he and his expedition accomplished much. They had, between 1731 and 1747, covered almost 1,000 miles (1,600 km) and established a string of important trading posts. The forts he established set the foundation for the settling of the rugged Canadian West. The city of Winnipeg (Fort Rouge) is a thriving community that still serves as the gateway to the west, and is the capital city of Manitoba. Today, the Turtle Mountain Provincial Park, located on the Canadian-American border, acts as a reminder of the explorations of La Vérendrye and his men. In 1744 Pierre de La Vérendrye retired as Commandant of the Western Posts, but still planned to return west when he died in Montreal on December 5, 1749.


Further Reading

Bolander, Richard E., ed. World Explorers and Discoverers. New York: Macmillan, 1992.

Crouse, Nellis M. La Vérendrye: Fur Trader and Explorer. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1956.

Kavanagh, Martin. La Vérendrye: His Life and Times. England: Fletcher & Son, 1967.

Long, Morden H. Knights Errant of the Wilderness: Tales of the Explorers of the Great North-West. Toronto: Macmillan, 1919.

Syme, Ronald. Fur Trader of the North: The Story of Pierre de la Vérendrye. New York: Morrow, 1973.

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The Explorations of Pierre Gaultier de Varennes et de La Vérendrye

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