Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, the Sieur de la Vérendrye, was born in Trois Rivières, Canada, on November 16, 1685. He served briefly in the army, married in Quebec in 1712, and fathered four sons and a daughter. The rest of his life was devoted to the western fur trade and exploration. In 1727 he was appointed commandant of the Posts of the North, which then consisted of three forts on the west side of Lake Superior. From that beginning, he established a string of small forts that extended deep into the Plains north and west of Lake Superior in what is now southern Ontario and Manitoba. These forts established the claim of New France to this western country and challenged the English fur traders based at Hudson Bay. He and his sons went on to be the first Europeans to explore what is now southern Manitoba and western North and South Dakota.

La Vérendrye and his sons established Fort St. Pierre in 1727, Fort St. Charles in 1732, Fort Maurepas in 1734, Fort Dauphin about 1741, and finally, Fort La Reine on October 3, 1738. Fort La Reine was on the Assiniboine River directly south of Lake Manitoba. On October 18, 1738, La Vérendrye, two of his sons, and a party of about fifty men moved southwest from Fort La Reine. Accompanied by Assiniboine Indians who joined them on the march, they reached the Mandan villages near the junction of the Heart and Missouri Rivers on December 3. After a brief trading session, he left two men there to learn the Mandan language and, seriously ill, departed on the 13th.

In 1742 his two younger sons, François and Louis-Joseph, returned to the Mandan villages, and on July 23 they struck out to the southwest, eventually approaching some high, wooded mountains. Most historians believe these mountains were the Black Hills of South Dakota, although they may have been the Big Horn Mountains of northern Wyoming. Because of the generalized nature of their narrative it is impossible to be certain either of their destination or the identity of most of the Indian tribes they met during their travels. Whatever their route, it is certain that they returned to the Mandans by way of the mouth of the Bad River, near what is now Pierre, South Dakota, for the discovery there in 1913 of a lead plate left by their party provides the only indisputable point of reference for their eleven-month expedition from the Mandan villages.

The brothers had hoped to discover the "Western Sea," and their long search was a disappointment both for their father and his superiors. La Vérendrye was recalled and replaced as commandant in 1744. Much of his exploration had been done at his own expense, and he was deeply in debt. When his successor left the post two years later, La Vérendrye resumed his former position, but his explorations were over. Before his death on December 6, 1749, La Vérendrye was awarded the coveted Cross of St. Louis. He had opened the Canadian West for the French but they ignored his explorations, and it was left to the British to occupy the Prairie Provinces of Canada. His trials, expenditures, and sacrifices for New France had been in vain.

W. Raymond Wood University of Missouri-Columbia

Burpee, Lawrence J. Journals and Letters of Pierre Gaultier de Varennes de la Vérendrye and His Sons. Publications of the Champlain Society, vol. 16. Toronto: Ballantyne Press, 1927.

Smith, G. Hubert. Explorations of the La Vérendryes in the Northern Plains. 1738–1743, edited by W. Raymond Wood. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1980.

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