Pierre Gaultier de Varennes et de La Vérendrye

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Pierre Gaultier de Varennes et de La Vérendrye


French Explorer and Soldier

Pierre Gaultier de Varennes et de La Vérendrye was a very prolific, but largely unheralded, French explorer in the New World in the first half of the eighteenth century. He traveled widely through central Canada, visiting many of the places later seen by the Lewis and Clark expedition that was to take place 50 years later.

La Vérendrye was born in New France (now Canada) in 1685. Almost nothing is known of his early childhood except that it did not last long; at age 12 he joined the French army, fighting in raids against the British in the New World as well as fighting for France in the War of the Spanish Succession. Although taken prisoner in 1709, he was freed and returned to New France, where he married and started a family.

In 1726, La Vérendrye started work as a fur trader, starting a small outpost on Lake Nipigon, about 31 miles (50 km) north of Lake Superior. It was at these trading posts, looking at maps provided by Native Americans who came to trade, that La Vérendrye first heard of a huge river rumored to lead to a western sea.

Hearing this, La Vérendrye immediately thought it might be possible to follow this river to the Pacific Ocean, opening up an easy route to the Orient for French trade. Such a trade route would give the French a decided trade advantage against their British and Spanish rivals and could make him a wealthy man. With this in mind, he and his sons built a series of trading posts between 1731 and 1738 that reached from Fort Saint-Pierre in Ontario to what is now the city of Winnipeg in the province of Manitoba. Their goal was to help establish a French presence in the area and to learn more of the geography of western Canada. At these trading posts, he learned more about western waterways, including the promised great rivers.

In the fall of 1738, La Vérendrye and his sons pushed into what is now Montana and North Dakota, reaching the Mandan Indian villages that were to be so important to Lewis and Clark over 60 years later. From there, in 1743, two of his sons continued on through Nebraska, Montana, and perhaps Wyoming, possibly seeing the Rocky Mountains, although it is certain they did not cross them. In 1743, on their return trip, they placed a lead tablet near Pierre, South Dakota, claiming these lands for France. They then returned to New France, having explored further west than any white man to that time.

During his journeys, La Vérendrye lost one son, a nephew, and a Catholic priest at the hands of hostile Native Americans. In spite of his accomplishments, the French government criticized him for failing to find the western sea and for the losses his expeditions suffered. This is doubly ironic because, not only did he finance the expeditions himself, but he also sent at least 30,000 pelts annually for trade—pelts that would otherwise have gone to the British. Nonetheless, La Vérendrye made plans for yet another journey to the west, in spite of his age and failing health. Although he received permission from the government, he died before he was able to leave Montreal again.

During his travels, La Vérendrye made an impressive number of accomplishments. In addition to exploring many of the waterways in the North American interior (including parts of the Missouri River system), he helped establish trade relationships with a number of the Native American tribes, diverting trade from the British to the benefit of the French government. In addition, he established a string of trading posts that facilitated future trade, and his explorations helped to validate France's territorial claims to large parts of the North American interior. In spite of his accomplishments, he is among the least-heralded explorers of this period.


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Pierre Gaultier de Varennes et de La Vérendrye

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