La Vérendrye & The French Fur Trade
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Left: In 1742 La Vérendrye’s two son’s reached the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in their search for the western sea. During their explorations the La Vérendrye’s traversed the current BTNHR region several times and camped on the northern slopes of Turtle Mountain.
Right: La Vérendrye Travels and Forts. In 1738, Pierre La Vérendrye and his two sons visited the Mandans on the Missouri River. Departing from Fort La Reine, they travelled by way of Turtle Mountain and the Souris River Valley. During his trip to the Mandans in 1738, La Verendrye followed an established Native trail, which passed over the Pembina Hills and on to the Turtle Mountain. From his journal description, it appears that his party camped overnight at Calf Mountain. In 1742, his sons, Pierre and Francois, travelled the same route on another visit to the Mandans. (Batchscher,1979: 63)
Pierrie Gaultier de Varnnes, Sieur de la Vérendrye, (1685-1749) of Trios Riviéres,Quebec was one of the earliest and most famous explorers of western Canada. Referred to simply as La Vérendrye, he and his companions were the first Europeans to explore and chart what is now northwestern Ontario, southern Manitoba and central Saskatchewan, exploring the region and setting up supply and trading posts during the 1730’s and 1740’s. This included activity and travel in the present BTHR region.
As a young man La Vérendrye fought with the New France colonial army against the British in Massachusetts (1704) and Newfoundland (1705). From 1707-11 he travelled to France and fought for the army of Louis IV in the war of Spanish Succession where he was wounded nine times and spent 15 months as a prisoner of war. On his release, this earned him a promotion to full lieutenant in the French army, but due to national financial crisis at the war’s end his commission and pension were rescinded. He returned to New France in 1712 with little more than battle scars to show for his bravery and suffering. In 1712 he married and settled on the island of Dupas, near rios Riviéres, There his four sons were born, Jean-Baptiste, Pierre, Francois and Louis-Joseph.
Exchanging his uniform for buckskin La Vérendrye joined the fur trade. By 1827 he was assistant commandant at ‘Les Postes du Nord’ located at the west end of Lake Superior at the mouth of the Kaminstikwia River near present day Thunder Bay. Two years later he was appointed first commandant of the “Posts of the West” and arranged a business deal with Montreal fur traders to finance an exploring expedition into “Terre inconnu” the unknown territory west of Lake Superior. He was formally sanctioned by the French crown to find “ye western sea not far beyonde Lake Superior”, and was granted fur trade monopoly rights, but no funding. He returned to Quebec, assembled a crew and prepared for a what would be an epic multi-year journey. In addition to finding the west coast of North America, he was to supply the hatmakers Guild of New Rochelle in France with 40,000 beaver pelts annually and convince the aboriginal population to trade with La Verendrye and the French in Montreal rather that the British on Hudson Bay.
In early June 1731 in Montreal he and 50 men, – including three sons, Jean-Baptiste, Pierre and Francois and his nephew La Jemerayhe, – loaded up six 12 metre birch bark canoes with four tonnes of provisions each. This included muskets, gunpowder, balls, black Brazilian tobacco, barrels of cognac, steel blades, salt mutton and beads. The travelled up the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers to the northern shores of the Great Lakes to Kaministikwia. La Jemeraye and half the men went ahead and built Fort St. Pierre at the mouth of the Rainy River. In 1732, La Verendrye and the rest of the group left for the new fort and soon after continued westward to Lake of the woods, erecting a Fort St. Charles on the southwest side of the lake.
In 1733 he wanted to push on again to establish a fort on lake “Ouinipon” (Lake Winnipeg), but was unable to pay his men, all the profits from the furs he traded going to his Montreal backers. Supplies of everything were low, especially food, yet the Montreal merchants refused to send him any more. In 1734, he sent one of is sons west to build Fort Maurepas at Lake Winnipeg and returned to Montreal where he successfully secured additional funding, returning to Fort St. Charles in September 1735. In June 1736 La Verendrye learned that his nephew La Jemeraye had died. Still badly in need of food, La Verendrye sent his son Jean and a group, including Jesuit missionary Father Aulneau in three canoes to Kaministikwia for provisions. While camped on an island on Lake of the Woods the French were attacked by a raiding party of one hundred Sioux warriors. All were massacred.
These events, and the deaths of two family members delayed further explorations. La Vérendrye had to use his negotiating skills to prevent the Chippewas and Crees from making war on the Sioux for their act of treachery against the French, and thereby disrupting further trade and exploration in the region. By the summer of 1738, however, he prepared to set out from Fort St. Charles for the country of the Mandans, an Indian tribe that he was told were white like the French and that they lived on a river that flowed into the sea. Thinking the mysterioujs Mandans might be Spaniards who would be able to show him the way to the ocean. With that a lucrative trade route could be established between the Orient and France, via New France, profiting everyone.
Taking sons Francois and Louis with him, on September 24, 1738 he arrived at the forks of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers where, according to his journal, “I found 10 cabins of Cree, including two war chiefs, awaiting me with a large quantity of meat.” He erected Fort Rouge at that site and then travelled up the Assiniboine as far as present day Portage la Prairie where he constructed Fort La Reine. When construction was completed, he chose twenty men and set out for the Mandan country. He soon met a band of Assiniboine invited them to their village. Greeted joyfully by the Assiniboine, they informed him the entire village of 600 would accompany him on his journey to the Mandans.
Near the end of November 1738 La Vérendrye finally met the Mandan, and to his surprise they looked much like the Assiniboine; they were certainly not white men as the Cree had told him, however their village was like an elaborate, strongly-built fort, unlike any other native settlement he had ever seen. When the Assiniboine left the village after a few days La Verendrye’s Cree interpreter left with them, leaving the French with a language barrier. In December 1738 La Vérendrye set out over the prairie for Fort La Reine, leaving two of his men with the Mandans to learn the language. The next autumn the two men returned from the Mandan village with reports of a visit from the Horse Indians who knew of a great salt lake. Convinced these Horse Indians were the means of reaching the ocean, in 1740 he sent his son Pierre to the Mandans to locate the Horse Indians, but he failed to do so, In 1742 Francois and Louis set out with two men and their searched along the valley of the Little Missouri River
After weeks of searching, and with the help of Crows and Little Foxes theyh encountered The La Verendrye brothers finally encountered a Horse Indian village. However, but it was still recovering from a deadly attack by the Snake Indians and with their allies the Bow Indians were preparing to march against the Snakes and tghat their route would take them to thje mountains near the sea. The brothers accompanied the large war party and on January 1, 1743 they came in sight of the mountains. When the Bows found that the Snakes had abandoned their winter camp, Louis and Francois were forced to turn back with them. After a few days they separated from the Bows and with great difficulty wandered eastward eventually encountering a tribe they referred to as People of the Little Cherry, remaining with them for two weeks. Before he left these Indians, Louis buried on a hill near the Missouri River a palm-sized lead tablet bearing an inscription claiming the country for France. On May 18, 1743 the explorers were back at Mandan villages, from where they returned to Fort La Reine arriving on July 2nd where they were welcomed by their anxious father.
To his great disappointment no Western Sea was found but La Vérendrye made the Hudson Bay Company feel the pinch of competition, establishing posts across the western plains and capturing a sizable piece of the fur trade previously undertaken with the English on The Bay. But worse, enemies of La Verendrye, jealous of his monopoly on trade, and in 1744 convinced the Governor of New France to transfer the monopoly to De Noyelles. Five years later, the monopoly was restored to him but as La Verendrye was preparing for a new expedition, he became ill and died on December 5, 1749. His sons soon discovered that the favour extended to their father did not extend to them, and despite their protestations they were unable to secure any financing and soon fell into obscurity. The New Governor of New France appointed La Jonquiére in charge of the western posts “a man ignorant of the West and of Indian customs.” The task of discovering an overland route to the Pacific Ocean would be left for the British to undertake.
The French fur trade continued with out the involvement of La Vérendrye. By 1753 French fur-traders had penetrated deep into what would become western Canada, with posts stretching from The Pas to the forks of the Saskatchewan River and tapping into the major aboriginal canoe routes to the English posts on the shores of Hudson Bay. The Hudson Bay Company responded at the time by sending out numerous inland parties to persuade the natives to travel to the Bay to trade. But in 1759 New France fell to the British and immediately all the French trading posts in the west were abandoned. The British once again had a monopoly on the western fur trade. It was not until 1774 when the new English-owned fur merchants in Montreal began to re-established the interior fur trade posts, employing the former French courier du bois as employees in new companies such as the North West Company, the XY Company, and others, that the HBC decided to begin building a network of interior posts, the first being HBC Cumberland House on the Saskatchewan River.
In July, 1938, a Manitou teenager, Murray Rowe, (son of the local Pool Elevator agent), a boy who was much interested in such things, picked up a flat piece of stone on the ridge just north of the town’s old shale pit. It was roughly 8 by 10 inches and on it were cut the letters “La Verendr” and below this the figures “174”. The edge of the stone was broken off, but apparently “ye” had been attached to the word and another numeral to those on this stone fragment. We know that La Verendrye came through this area on his historic trip to the Mandan country late in 1738. But there is a possibility that this stone was a marker left by his party on some other occasion.
Left: An imagined winter scene at a trading post during the French fur-trade era. Note the French-style military uniforms and the woman holding a child in the background. It is unlikely that either one would have been found in any of La Vérendrye’s posts. (Archives of Manitoba)