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Manitoba History: Where the Historiography Falls Short: La Vérendrye through the Lens of Gender, Race and Slavery in Early French Canada, 1731-1749

by Karlee Sapoznik
History Department, York University

Number 62, Winter 2009

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Modern historians commonly depict Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, et de La Vérendrye as a noteworthy eighteenth-century explorer who figured prominently in the French penetration and “discovery” of a large part of what is now western Canada. [1] Today, La Vérendrye’s name marks Canadian and American monuments, memorials, streets, parks, schools, and decorates prestigious scholarships. [2] He is especially well known and commemorated in Manitoba for arriving at the confluence of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers on 24 September 1738. In 1938, the cities of Winnipeg and St. Boniface organized a bi-centennial celebration, including a pageant, a parade and the unveiling of a monument in La Vérendrye’s honour. The nine-day long event sought to, as stated in the souvenir programme, “pay tribute to the achievements of one of the world’s great men—The Pathfinder of the West,” who “discovered and opened to civilization” the western half of the North American continent “not by force of arms but by force of character, by fair dealing, by genius in leading men and in making and retaining friendships, by unusual tenacity of purpose and by unrivalled patience, forbearance and fortitude.” [3] In many ways, La Vérendrye’s accomplishments, especially his courage and determination to make the 2575 kilometre trip by canoe from Montreal to Lake Winnipeg, are remarkable.

The La Vérendrye brothers in sight of western mountains, 1743.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Imperial Oil Collection #8.

However, the historiographical literature which focuses on his travels and turbulent interactions with Aboriginal peoples is incomplete, for it is marked by a lack of analysis on gender as it intersects with race, and by a tradition of denial and mythology surrounding the French-Canadian slave trade. Unpacking La Vérendrye’s involvement in the slave trade, and the ways in which gender and Aboriginal relations characterized his life in the period from 1731 to 1749, the temporal focus of the present study, sheds light on the functioning of early to mid-eighteenthcentury French colonial society in Canada. Traditionally, the history of French-regime Canada has been a story about white men, with women, Aboriginal peoples, and blacks cast in a secondary role. [4] In a similar vein to recently published studies, this article will attempt to include more of the peoples of New France within its purview. [5] That being said, it will not delve into larger considerations of religion, nor will it focus on sexuality, violence or the homosocial world of the fur trade in New France. Whereas these subjects have already been explored in some depth, less scholarly attention has been directed to slavery, race and gender as they relate to La Vérendrye, a native of Trois-Rivières, who served in the French army before becoming a fur trader and explorer, had an Anishinaabe wife according to oral tradition, and came to own at least three slaves.

Canadian slavery has long been a neglected area of historical study. In his Histoire du Canada (1846), François Garneau promulgated the myth that slavery never existed in New France. He congratulated King Louis XIV and the French colonial clergy for having saved French Canada from this “grand and terrible plague.” [6] Following suit, others maintained that there had been no slavery in New France, despite the historical evidence of at least 4,000 slaves, two-thirds of whom were Aboriginal. The misconception that Africans first came to the colony as refugees from southern slavery persists in the minds of many Canadians and foreigners alike. [7] While inroads have been made, many still labour under the false assumption that French Canada, because of some combination of climate, limited population and/or Christian morality, opted not to engage in the slave trade. Other works have focused on New France political elites, depicting black slavery as a subsidiary issue within white Canadian life and largely taking Aboriginal slavery for granted as an inevitable consequence of colonization and Aboriginal warfare. This article attempts to illustrate that the idea of slavery has been repressed, couched, and subsumed under the labels of “discovery,” “exploration,” and “colonization.”

With this in mind, a key consideration when reading the letters of La Vérendrye and his contemporaries is the constructed nature of letter writing and reporting. Carolyn Podruchny has suggested that historical analyses must “read beyond the words” and around the overt intentions of the bourgeois class of men writing with the power to disseminate information. [8] It is important to look beyond the biases in these sources, which tend to form assumptions about social hierarchy, gender, and race. Another measure for reading beyond the words of bourgeois male writers is to unpack the meaning in rituals. The trading of slaves was not simply a quaint and sentimental custom. In effect, the ritual exchange of gifts, including slaves, produced and maintained community solidarity in New France. As Podruchny explains, “rituals can create, express, teach, and remind participants of the meanings and values of their community and of their identity.” [9] In order to capture the range of relationships that existed in New France in the 1730s and 1740s, I have casted my net as widely as possible in terms of secondary literature and have focused in particular on the works of Carolyn Podruchny and Allan Greer. My analysis attempts to read against the grain in the letters and reports of governmental officials and Church dignitaries in the primary documents on La Vérendrye collected by Lawrence Burpee and Antoine Champagne.

Since the days of Jacques Cartier (1491-1557), explorer after explorer strove to find the route to the Far East, for it was believed that this would greatly shorten trans-Atlantic voyages as well as circumvent Mediterranean trade monopolies, allowing the French to reap tremendous economic benefits. Nebulous at first, the concept of the western sea became more precise by the beginning of the eighteenthcentury when the French acquired a clearer picture of the geography of North America. [10] Born in Trois-Rivières on 17 November 1685, La Vérendrye fought with the French in armed struggles between France and England in New England and Newfoundland in 1704 and 1705. In the fall of 1707 he sailed for France to serve in the war of Spanish Succession. Severely wounded by sword and bullet during the battle of Malplaquet, he was left for dead and became a prisoner of war for fifteen months. He returned to New France in 1711 where he was appointed to the rank of lieutenant. In 1712, La Vérendrye married his fiancée Marie-Anne Dandonneau du Sablé and turned to the fur trade, joining a venture with his brother Jacques-René in 1726. La Vérendrye subsequently accepted the second in command position of the Poste du Nord in the Lake Superior region, later becoming Commandant. At this time he began to firmly believe that exploration of Lake Winnipeg and the “great Western river” would ultimately lead to the “discovery” of the Pacific Ocean. In 1727, the slave of an elderly chief named Vieux Crapaud described the land of the Mandan who allegedly knew where the western sea was located. [11] A year later, Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, sieur de La Vérendrye applied to governor Charles de Beauharnois to set out for the West. In 1731, he was authorized by the French Royal Court to travel from Montréal towards Lake Ouinipigon in order to establish trading posts in Western Canada. At the same time, he was to create trade alliances with First Nations, organize the fur trade so that it might compete with the lucrative English system in the Hudson Bay region, and “discover” a route to the Western Sea. In order to finance his expeditions, the Crown gave him a monopoly of the fur trade west of Lake Superior. La Vérendrye’s four sons, Jean-Baptiste, Pierre, Francois and Louis-Joseph, along with his nephew, La Jemmeraye, participated in his explorations north of the fortieth parallel and west of the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River until his death in 1749. [12]

La Vérendrye guards the east entrance to the Manitoba Legislature in Winnipeg.
Source: Gordon Goldsborough

The main source on La Vérendrye until the midnineteenth century was Louis-Léonard Courville’s Mémoires sur le Canada, depuis 1749 jusqu’à 1760. La Vérendrye is therein depicted as a man who was motivated by selfish interests and who, lacking education and natural aptitudes, was unsuited for the career of an explorer. The basis for a reassessment was laid by French archivist Pierre Margry who discovered a large quantity of documents concerning La Vérendrye. In 1852, Margry published a short revisionist article, “Les Varennes de La Vérendrye,” in Le Moniteur Universel. This article, and more particularly the documents which Margry later published, saw La Vérendrye blossom into one of the major figures of the French regime. [13] In the 1960s, a number of authors wrote biographies on La Vérendrye. He is traditionally represented by his two major biographers, Antoine Champagne and N. M. Crouse, as an explorer first and foremost who was misunderstood by the French government at Versailles. Crouse and Champagne reject the thesis that La Vérendrye was mainly preoccupied with the fur trade and discard the doubts in the minds of French officials that he did not care to explore western Canada. Jean-Frédéric Phélyppeaux, Comte de Maurepas, the Minister of Marine in France, continually questioned La Vérendrye’s commitment to “exploration” and accused him of placing profit above his duties to the French crown. [14] The governor of New France, Charles, Marquis de Beauharnois, however, was a constant ally of La Vérendrye in his battles with the French Royal Court.

Beauharnois’ support of La Vérendrye was perhaps influenced by the profits he earned through the fur and slave trades which Maurepas had advised the colonial officials in New France to trim. According to Brett Rushforth, Beauharnois owned at least eight Fox slaves. [15] In October 1735, Maurepas, angry at the lack of La Vérendrye’s progress, went so far as to state that the Western Sea would have been “discovered” long ago had not La Vérendrye’s men been more interested in the “sea of beaver.” [16] Antoine Champagne blames the negative portrayal of La Vérendrye adopted by Maurepas on the reports he received from jealous fur traders. [17] Overall, Champagne argues that the authorities in Versailles were not adequately grateful to La Vérendrye for the increase in the profitability of the fur trade, the possession of an immense and rich territory for France, his role in opening up the path to the Western Sea, and in having removed “des mains des barbares un bon nombre d’esclaves utiles à la colonie.” [18] With unconvincing evidence, Champagne suggests that a more benign form of slavery existed in French Canada; that slaves in New France led a relatively happy life; and that almost all were fond of their masters, who were in turn fond of them. [19] Champagne acknowledges that La Vérendrye was implicated in the institution of slavery, citing for example that La Vérendrye had a slave in his service during the Mandan expedition he presided over in 1738, but simply writes off La Vérendrye’s involvement in the slave trade as indicative of a custom of his time. [20] While it is true that in many respects La Vérendrye was simply a Frenchman colluding in a system in which slavery was acceptable, this does not mean that this aspect of his life should be glossed over in the historical record so that his heretofore romanticized legacy can remain a pleasant, unquestioned part of Manitoba’s meta-narrative. Similarly, the fact that patriarchy and white superiority seem to have prevailed in this period does not mean that we should ignore the racial and gendered perceptions and interactions between Aboriginal people, blacks, and French Canadians.

As of 1731, La Vérendrye and his team of eight came into contact with indigenous peoples of the region with whom they would trade, fight, woo, and seek to ally themselves. [21] As an explorer dependent on Aboriginal guides and geographical information, La Vérendrye’s travels are a prime example of the tenuous cooperation between French, almost exclusively white men, and Aboriginal men and women of widely different social classes and statuses. [22] In a letter to Maurepas on 12 May 1742, La Vérendrye brings his reliance on Aboriginal guides to light, stating that “La découverte ne s’est pas faite l’année dernière, faute de guide.” [23] French exploration and commerce depended on the cooperation of Aboriginal peoples. They were needed to trap and transport furs, and their help and technical expertise were vital for explorers wishing to travel west. [24] This cooperation also had racial implications often glossed over in accounts of the early French presence in Manitoba.

As La Vérendrye and his fellow “explorers” passed through diverse spaces, they met a wide range of Aboriginal nations who differed dramatically from them in world-view, language, and culture. [25] While earlier generations of historians emphasized the homogenous quality of French Canada, “when we take proper notice of all the people who were not Catholic, not French, or not white, it becomes apparent that New France was, in fact, a multicultural society.” [26] The ideology common among European explorers, newly arrived missionaries, and the monarchs who sent them, from the time of Columbus to the end of New France, generally assumed that the Aboriginal “savages” were culturally deficient humans who ought to recognize the “obvious” and assumed value of European tutelage. [27] For instance, Jesuit priest L. F. Nau believed that Aboriginals were incapable of intelligent thought. [28] Similar racist statements were commonplace. New France governor Pierre François de Rigaud, Marquis de Vaudreuil, for example, openly opposed interracial marriage, stating that “Bad should never be mixed with good … all the Frenchmen who have married savages have been licentious, lazy and intolerably independent; and their children have been characterized by as great a slothfulness as the savages themselves.” [29] It is possible that La Vérendrye was willing to include indigenous people within his categories of reason and humanity. After all, according to oral tradition, he had an Anishinaabe wife. [30] However, the archival records seem to paint a different story. La Vérendrye tells the Marquis de Beauharnois in 1738 that the Assiniboine, his “obedient children,” send their respects to their “father.” [31] This paternalistic attitude is also evident when he tells the Assiniboine that he wishes “to give them intellect,” and informs Beauharnois “I made the same recital to them that I had made to all the others. There was great thankfulness, with many tears and ceremonies, by passing their hands over my head, taking me in your room and place as their father, and our Frenchmen as brothers.” [32] That La Vérendrye and his team of explorers subscribed to ideas of white superiority is suggested by their willingness to immediately accept that the Mandan people who purportedly knew where the Western Sea was located were white. When the two Frenchmen that La Vérendrye left with the Mandan to acquire an understanding of their language were told by an Assiniboine chief that a tribe of white men existed among the Mandan, they quickly contacted La Vérendrye and informed him that

ces gens … étaient blancs comme eux qu’ils avaient de la barbe et priaient le grand Maître de la vie dans les livres, en leur dépeignant … qu’ils chantaient en tenant leurs livres dans de grandes maisons où ils s’assemblaient pour la prière, et qu’il leur nomma souvent les noms de Jésus et de Marie, en leur montrant une croix qu’il avait au col depuis la naissance. [33]

Map of western Canada based on La Verendrye’s travels. “Carte des nouvelles découvertes dans l’Ouest du Canada, dressée sur les memoires de Mr. de la Vérandrie et donnée au depot de la Marine par Mr. de la Galissoniére, 1750.”
Source: Archives of Manitoba, map collection.

La Vérendrye and his team could easily identify with the description of this alleged white group, for as reported by the Assiniboine chief, “leurs villes et forts sont entourés de bonnes murailles avec de grands fossés remplis d’eau, des ponts-levis, portes de fer et beaux remparts.” [34] Moreover, they were told that this white tribe made use of “poudre, canons, fusils, hâches et couteaux,” traded with the “sauvages”, raised all sorts of animals including lots of horses, worked with cotton and yarn, and wore similar clothing to their own. [35] It seemed logical to La Vérendrye that this “civilized” Mandan tribe, which was presumably Christian in character, had houses, farming technology, and which wore clothing like their own, would hold the answer to the Western Sea. [36] He was thus greatly disappointed when his party reached the Missouri river, and realized that the Mandan village was not white as they had been led to believe by the Assiniboine chief who, it would seem, fooled them so that he might earn goods and profit from their need for guides.

While this example illustrates that considerations of race were prevalent in New France, in some instances clear boundaries did not exist between Aboriginal, black and white people, tied by their land and common community yet divided into tenuous racial categories. Richard White’s concept of “middle ground” as a metaphor for the social space of the broad and shifting border territory between the increasingly European settled east and the distant and still unknown west is applicable, albeit with important limitations, to the rapprochement of French and Aboriginal individuals in La Vérendrye’s world. [37] Through a process of mutual invention, Aboriginal people and French Canadians built up a set of dynamic assumptions reflecting their interests, including the conduct of trade, which slowly assumed the characteristics of a genuine culture. On 7 August 1749, Swedish botanist Peter Kalm (1716–1779) met and dined with La Vérendrye and Governor La Galissonnière in Quebec. [38] Kalm was struck by the elements of Aboriginal culture adopted by French Canadian society:

Though many nations imitate the French customs, I observed, on the contrary, that the French in Canada in many respects follow the customs of the Indians, with whom they have constant relations … They follow the Indian way of waging war exactly; they mix the same things with tobacco; they make use of the Indian bark boats … they wrap a square of cloth round their feet, instead of stockings, and have adopted many other Indian fashions. [39]

La Vérendrye comments on his willingness to adopt aboriginal customs, and describes his frustration with the Mandan, who in spite of their professed commitment to the French, would not render their services until paid in advance, nor consider it wrong to trade with the French enemy, the English, when they found it to their advantage. [40] For a time, the Aboriginal tradition of gift exchanging worked to cement alliances with the French. [41] In his early years as an explorer, La Vérendrye reports an occasion when he received a slave and a necklace as gifts from the Cree: “In exchange for the slave, I gave a cloak, a shirt, leggings and breeches, a knife and an awl, gun powder and musket balls.” [42] To be sure, part of the gift exchanging tradition in New France involved Aboriginal prisoners of war who would become slaves in French-Canadian households. [43]

Allied indigenous peoples, especially the Ottawa and the Illinois, offered captives from their western enemies to French merchants associated with the fur trade as culturally powerful symbols of their emerging partnership, and French officials found that captive exchanges offered one of the most effective means of stabilizing the precarious alliances they forged with indigenous groups. [44] Astute to the cultural dimension of Aboriginal diplomacy which allotted to captives a symbolic power to mitigate effects of warfare and murder, the French strategically worked to forge alliances with indigenous groups who would express their gratitude in the form of violence, fur trading and via captives they could sell as slaves. [45] It should be said that female captives were at an advantage in polygamous societies such as that of the Illinois, where they integrated more smoothly than males. [46] Moreover, captives were not uniquely Aboriginal or black. For instance, in his journal, Antoine Bonnefoy, describes how he was attacked and enslaved by Cherokee Indians from 1741-1742. As he explains, four Frenchmen, himself included, and one black man in his party “fumes saisis par chacun un des ces sauvages qui nous fit son esclave. Mis à terre, nous fûmes attachés séparément par chacun un collier d’esclave gênés par le col et les bras seulement, sans cependant nous ôter la liberté pour manger et pagayer, lorsqu’il nous a été ordonné de faire dans la suite.” [47] In this case, men with different colour skin met the same fate at the hands of Cherokee aggressors.

In September 1938, a new 5-cent stamp commemorated the bicentenary of La Vérendrye’s arrival at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. A nineday celebration included the unveiling of a monument, a parade and a festival held in Whittier Park. The Winnipeg Canoe Club organized a flotilla of 200 canoes on the Red River.

Racial considerations did, however, play a factor in the way in which men and women were perceived and treated in French Canada. The categories “male” and “female” were well defined in French Canada and in Aboriginal societies, where work, diplomacy, social organization, and family arrangements were divided along gender lines. That being said, ideas about the status of women and the range of power within gender categories differed between French Canadians and Aboriginal peoples. [48] French Canadian women and the men who wrote of their “superiority,” inhabited an early modern world in which it was assumed that women, because of their nature, needed to be governed by men. As in France, French Canada was structured around patriarchy, where men ruled women, especially within the institution of the family. For women, more than men, the marital relationship was of critical importance. By European standards, virtually everyone outside the clergy married, and widows and widowers remarried soon after the deaths of their spouses, so that to be an adult woman was, in the overwhelming majority of cases, to be a wife. [49] French Canadian marital mergers did not, however, require a woman to completely subsume her economic identity under her husband’s name. Instead, couples such as Pierre de La Vérendrye and Marie-Anne du Sablé formed a two-person “marital community” or communauté de biens. [50] La Vérendrye’s Anishinaabe wife from the Winnipeg area was severely slighted by his marriage to Marie-Anne. According to oral tradition, she tried to poison Marie-Anne du Sablé when she accompanied him out West. [51] This marriage, while common knowledge in the Aboriginal communities of Manitoba, has not been legally recognized or even acknowledged in the historical record. Marriage contracts under French Canadian civil law normally required the signatures of both husband and wife. Although this might appear quite egalitarian, the Custom of Paris stated unequivocally that “the husband is master of the community.” [52] When Marie-Anne du Sablé signed her marriage contract, the notary surely recorded that she did so with the permission of her husband. The communauté de biens therefore conferred on women equal property rights but not equal marital powers.

Despite their subordination to their husbands, by the early eighteenth century men’s absences owing to involvement in warfare, exploration efforts and the fur trade generally gave women in New France more power and greater economic opportunities than they had in Europe. White women in early French Canada also enjoyed access to superior education and roles in leadership and commerce. They were perhaps better educated than their male counterparts, as the mother’s responsibility for the education of young children may have encouraged a larger proportion of women to develop their reading skills. [53] Marie-Anne likely spent time educating her and Pierre de La Vérendrye’s four sons and two daughters. French Canadian women also made an incalculable contribution to the early Canadian economy, although it remains difficult to gauge that contribution. Colonial records make it possible to estimate the production of commodities like wheat and furs handled mainly by French men, the amount of butter, wool, or eggs produced by women in New France is unknown. [54] The overall lack of documentation on women’s economic contributions reflects the subsidiary way in which they tended to be viewed.

In addition to their own responsibilities, women often contributed directly to their husband’s enterprises. La Vérendrye was confident in his wife’s abilities to take charge of his affairs during his absences. On multiple occasions, he signed documents giving her power to collect his salary or to manage supplies. [55] According to one expert, before her death in August 1740, Marie-Anne alone took care of La Vérendrye’s business affairs, acting as both lawyer and buyer throughout her husband’s travels. [56] La Vérendrye repeatedly refers to his wife as attorney and procurator during his long absences, bolstering the contention that the family, rather than the individual, was the main economic actor during the centuries when France ruled Canada. [57] In Greer’s words, “The family was a team, albeit with unequal members.” [58] Among women, noble and religious women such as Marie- Anne had the most power in New France, while slave women, two thirds of whom were Aboriginal and one-third of whom were black, were the most subjugated. Despite this hierarchy among women, all were subject to men.

Several cursory comments and tidbits in La Vérendrye’s letters and correspondence during his encounters with Aboriginal women, many of whom did not marry, hint at the gendered experience in New France. La Vérendrye expresses his surprise that Cree women have the responsibility of carrying male belongings, and that Mandan women are relegated to the same status as slaves and dogs carrying all the supplies while, as far as La Vérendrye can see, “the men only carry their weapons.” [59] His constructed notion of what women’s work ought to be is again challenged when he recounts his surprise when travelling with the Assiniboine in search of the Mandan nation that “I had all that I wished to carry at that time in a leather bag, which one of our guides’ women carried for me.” [60] French fur traders, explorers and colonial officers were often shocked by how hard Aboriginal women worked, and sometimes assumed that Aboriginal women were treated as “beasts of burden,” forced to do hard labour by Aboriginal men. [61] Describing the Mandan, La Vérendrye notes that “Both men and women of this nation are very laborious.” [62] Europeans seem to have cast Aboriginal women as “squaw drudges” to signify Aboriginal savagery and thus help to justify colonization. [63] To all intents and purposes, the “squaw drudge” stereotype reflected the discomfort of French Canadian men with Aboriginal women whose work—e.g. moccasin making, preparing hides, and supplementing diets with fish and small game—seemed to overlap with what they believed to be the male domain. European observers “failed to comprehend the full range of women’s economic roles, the extent to which Aboriginal women managed and directed their own activities, and perhaps most importantly, the extent to which women held ownership and distribution rights to things they produced and processed.” [64] Like French Canadian men and women, Aboriginal men and women had clearly defined gender roles. However, they did not live in a system of omnipresent patriarchy.

Istas Invenit Terras Easque Humanitati et Fidei Aperuit. A sculpture of La Vérendrye unveiled on Taché Avenue during bicentenary celebrations in 1938 featured this Latin inscription meaning “he discovered these lands and opened them to humanity and the faith.”
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Historic Sites – La Verendrye St. Bonfiace #1.

Women’s economic roles and political status within Aboriginal communities are subjects of great debate. Scholars agree that not all Aboriginal societies were egalitarian before contact, and that degrees of equality could vary. [65] However, they all recognize that contact with European traders, missionaries, and settlers led to or intensified the subordination of women. Indeed, in some of their earliest missionary efforts in Canada the Jesuits, notably La Vérendrye’s contemporary Père Aulneau, did their best to enforce patriarchal norms, encouraging Aboriginal men to beat their children, humiliate “rebellious” wives, and to dominate their families. [66] In this way, “Canada served an especially important function in early modern Jesuit thought.” [67] To Jesuits, Canada was a land of opportunity for the development of self and Christian society. As one letter explains, “When the French of Canada first entered these fur countries, every summer a priest came to instruct the traders and their men in their religious duties, and preach to them and the [Aboriginals].” [68] The Michililmakinac mission registry mentions the baptism of two slaves—Marie-Madeleine and Joseph—who belonged to the La Vérendrye family. [69] Early attempts to re-engineer Aboriginal society met with limited success, however, and missionaries did not succeed in altering the gender norms of some Aboriginal nations, including the Iroquois.

The Iroquois gender regime stands in basic contrast with the French one. Women shouldered the burdens of the domestic economy, but they also enjoyed control over their households, particularly over food. Moreover, because descent was uniquely traced through the female line, only women could bestow the names that men needed when they were elevated to chieftain status. This gave them an influential voice in the selection of chiefs. [70] The declaration of Jesuit missionary and writer Joseph-François Lafitau (1681-1746) serves as a testament to the power of Aboriginal women of the Iroquois community of Kahnawakké:

Nothing…is more real than this superiority of women. It is of them that the nation really consists… All real authority is vested in them. The land, the fields, and their harvests all belong to them. They are the souls of the Councils, the arbiters of peace and war. They have charge of the public treasury. To them are given the slaves…The children are their domain, and it is through their blood that the order of succession is transmitted. The men, on the other hand, are entirely isolated. [71]

While the paucity of sources on Aboriginal women, and women in New France in general, has traditionally limited scholars, this example is a testament to the prominent role that Aboriginal women occupied in their communities. In the last few decades Aboriginal women’s voices have been amplified though the work of feminist historians such as Sylvia Van Kirk whose Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur- Trade Society, 1670-1870 describes how Aboriginal women became integral to European traders as marriage partners because of their country skills and trading connections. [72] Problematically, Aboriginal voices are still subsumed in texts that “reclaim” race and gender in early Canada. Their role is rarely conceived of through oral and/or material history, but rather through colonial office records and surviving trader diaries and letters. Even fainter than the voices of Aboriginal women and their male counterparts, however, are those of the slaves that toiled in New France. That slavery, the ultimate relationship of subordination, existed in New France is clear, and La Vérendrye’s implication in this institution must be addressed and acknowledged.

La Vérendrye’s letters and reports point to his acceptance of slavery and interaction with slaves on a regular basis. When travelling with the Assiniboine in search of the Mandan nation, he wrote that “everything useful for my personal needs was carried by my servant and my slave.” [73] Moreover, in 1738, he listed those travelling with him, stating that “Notre petite bande était composée de vingt français, M. Lamarque, son frère, deux de mes enfants, mon domestique, un esclave, quatre sauvages avec leurs femmes, nous nous rendîmes aux Mantannes.” [74] He also stated that his cousin, Sr. de la Jemeraye, purchased three children and took them to Montréal. [75] Equally pertinent is the dispatch of 26 May 1742, to Beauharnois wherein Father Claude-Godefroy Coquart reported that a war party of Cree and Assiniboine had recently routed the Sioux of the prairies in a four-day battle, killed seventy men besides women and children, and captured such a large number of slaves that they made a line four arpents long. [76] When reporting this to Maurepas on 24 September 1742, Beauharnois explained that “this will not be good for La Vérendrye’s affairs for he will have more slaves than bundles of fur.” [77] In light of this evidence, Yves Zoltvany and Marcel Trudel, an acknowledged authority on slavery in New France, have adamantly asserted that La Vérendrye gathered and sold a substantial number of Aboriginal slaves. They cite the explorer’s memoir of 1744 to Maurepas, in which he states that the colony had benefited from his western activities in three chief ways: “the great number of people my enterprise provides with a living, the slaves it procures to the colony and the pelts which had previously gone to the English,” as telling of his activity in the slave trade. [78]

Peter Fidler’s map of the Red River district in 1819 resembled the landscape that La Vérendrye would have seen 80 years earlier.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, B.22/e/1 fo. 1d, N4149.

However, the leading expert on La Vérendrye, Antoine Champagne, passionately refutes this, asserting that Yves Zoltvany “ne connaît ici comme preuve que son imagination passionnée…Tout cet alinéa sent l’ignorance du sujet et le fantasme.” [79] Champagne’s denial of La Vérendrye’s complicity in the slave trade does not stand up to critical examination.

In his 1960 foundational study of Aboriginal and African slavery in early Canada, Marcel Trudel makes a case for the La Vérendrye as one of only three names which occupy a singular importance for the slave trade. Trudel is very critical of the reaction of utter shock at the thought of Canadian slavery. In his words,

Dès que nous abordons ce sujet de l’esclavage, on s’écrie: ‘Comment! De l’esclavage au Canada?’ Il faut sans cesse recommencer le même exposé: nous avons eu près de 4,000 esclaves, ces esclaves (dont 2 sur 3 étaient des sauvages) ont appartenu à des Canadiens de toutes les classes sociales, on en a fait un commerce pleinement reconnu par les lois…De cette page de notre histoire, le souvenir s’est bien rapidement perdu. [80]

The records show that slaves belonged to Canadians of different social classes and that the religious community to which slaves were donated by figures such as La Vérendrye, was involved in the trade. Trudel contends that La Vérendrye possessed at least three slaves, presents data which confirms that his sons had at least six, and that Louis- Joseph La Vérendrye gave a slave to the Jesuit mission of Michillimakinac as a gift in 1749. [81] Although the number of total slaves owned by La Vérendrye and his family seems relatively small, we can deduce based on his alliance with the Assiniboine – “ces grands rabatteurs d’esclaves” – and his declaration about the number of slaves his enterprises procured to the colony, that he helped to fuel the slave trade. [82] In addition, Trudel’s research suggests that La Vérendrye purchased a black slave from the widow of Philibert in 1748. [83] Thus, even women owned slaves. In fact, a family relation to the La Vérendryes, Marie-Marguerite, the founder of the Grey Nuns, owned three or four of the forty-three slaves that belonged to the clergy and religious communities of New France. [84]

The agency of Aboriginal as well as black slave women varied. When read against the grain, one of La Vérendrye’s letters highlights that Aboriginal slave women found openings to exercise a degree of action despite their status as property. La Vérendrye describes the attack on Sieur René Bourassa by a group of Sioux. He explains that Bourasssa was tied up and left to be burned when he was saved by the supplications of his “esclave siouse” who he had always treated well and had saved from death. [85] Although La Vérendrye’s explanation of Bourassa’s escape gives credence to Bourassa for his kindness to his slave woman and depicts this as the fundamental reason for his escape, it is clear that his slave, oftentimes in a situation which prohibited individually motivated actions, made a choice to save him from a painful death.

La Vérendryes were here. In early 1913, a lead tablet was discovered on the banks of the Missouri River near Pierre, South Dakota. Its Latin inscriptions read on front: “In the twenty-sixth year of the reign of Louis XV, in the name of the King, our thrice illustrious Sovereign, and for Monsieur the Marquis de Beauharnois, Peter Walter de Laverendrye placed (this tablet) 1741” and hand-carved in the back: “Deposited by the Chevalier de la Verandrye, Witnesses, St. Louis de la Londette, A. Miotte, March 30, 1743” (Manitoba Free Press, 12 April 1913).
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Events 197-198, N10384-5.

In Montréal, relatively close to La Vérendrye’s home in Trois Rivières, a woman by the name of Marie-Joseph Angélique, disadvantaged by her gender, race, and social position resisted her status as a black slave. She fled her owner several times and possibly set fire to Old Montréal on Saturday, 10 April 1734, a charge for which she was ultimately hung for treason. [86] These examples of the agency of slave women are exceptions to the rule. Nonetheless, they are important for they confirm that such acts did occur, and provide us with a glimpse into the degree to which slaves resisted their oppression and discrimination. Although Marie-Joseph Angélique’s complicity in setting fire to Old Montreal was largely acknowledged as fact, reflecting their racial and gender biases, the Superior Council of New France claimed that a mere “négresse” could not have committed such an audacious act entirely on her own. [87] The relationships of early Canadian slavery were thus founded upon an underlying brutality and important gender and racial demarcations that come to the surface in the historical record. Another form of brutality, the brutality of war during the 1730s and 1740s, underscores how precarious and tenuous the “middle ground” could be in French-Algonquian relations.

Numerous instances of violence and interracial murder marked the landscape of New France. Particularly bloody were the murders of Jesuit Missionary Father Aulneau and of La Vérendrye’s son Jean-Baptiste by a group of Sioux in June 1736 when a war party at Lake of the Woods killed twenty-two members of La Vérendrye’s party. [88] In his report on this tragedy, La Vérendrye conveys his deep sadness, and comments on how the loss of a son affected one mother he saw at the site of the tragedy: “Il n’y a eu que la calice, qu’une femme avait jeté à la rivière parce que son enfant était mort.” [89] At the time, many believed that the Sioux wanted to wreak revenge on La Vérendrye’s son because he had allied himself two years earlier with the Cristinaux to fight the Sioux. [90] Thus, revenge was an integral motivating force for indigenous groups seeking retribution and La Vérendrye experienced this first hand. While he befriended tribes for economic purposes, and reaped benefits through wars among them, he was deeply dismayed by his failure to maintain peace in the region. In his words, “l’on ne pourra de longtemps pacifier toutes ces nations ayant de mortels ennemis de tout temps.” [91] Karl Marx’s assertion that men and women “make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please” certainly applies to the New France in which violence, slavery, racial discrimination, and patriarchy existed. [92]

With his death in 1749, La Vérendrye’s expedition to “locate” the western sea came to an end. His legacy is felt in many ways, not the least of which is his role as the first European to establish a trading post at the site of what is now Winnipeg, the vibrant capital of the province of Manitoba. La Vérendrye is traditionally judged to be of irreproachable character and presented as the embodiment of all that was finest in early French Canada. According to one biographer writing in 1927, “In the years since La Vérendrye’s death there has been full chance for learning if any degree of unworthiness marked his nature. Nothing to his discredit has come to light.” [93] Ignoring the turbulent interactions La Vérendrye shared with indigenous populations and the tensions between him and French government officials over his true motivations, Irene Moore believes that his “graces of mind and person and the vastness of his performance earned for this well-nigh incomparable voyageur to the last syllable of recorded time the love and remembrance of the dwellers in this country of his birth and the lands of his discovering.” [94] Based on these types of accounts, the master narrative has long hailed La Vérendrye as a bold, heroic symbol of the early French presence in North America. If we are to restore some sort of balance to the historiography pertaining to this eighteenth-century explorer, however, we need to look closely at his implication in the slave trade and at the gendered and racialized contexts in which he operated.

As this article has emphasized, non-Catholic, nonwhite elements formed an indispensable and influential part of French Canadian colonial society and culture. In a general sense, men ruled in New France. Indeed, outside Iroquois and other indigenous enclaves, where Aboriginal women did not submit to male authority, a basic early modern patriarchy prevailed. In Canada at the time, however, the basic principle of patriarchy left room for all sorts of complexity, diversity, and contradiction in the realworld relations of men and women, especially when men like La Vérendrye were absent for lengthy periods of time. That being said, New France was far from an egalitarian society. Slavery was institutionalized there just as it was across Amerindia. Finally, as evidenced by La Vérendrye’s experiences, French-Canadians were thrust into a situation where it was vital that they cooperate and negotiate an often precarious, ever-changing middle ground with Aboriginals. The first inhabitants of Canada thus had an important, enduring presence in New France as they continue to do so throughout Canada today.


1. Thank you to the following individuals for their insightful feedback during the early stages of this project: Adele Perry, Brittany Luby, Carolyn Podruchny, Paul Lovejoy, and Tom Peace. I have put the term discovery in quotes in order to highlight that land was discovered and trade routes were established long before La Vérendrye’s arrival. Histories which suggest otherwise need to be studied, but not replicated. The terms encounter and colonized are more accurate terms than discovery. I would like to acknowledge the need to deconstruct terms such as “discovery” and “explorer,” which constitute part of the ideology run by entrepreneurs, merchants, and proto-capitalists under the auspices of the church, military, and colonial government’s stated aims of noble enterprise that are extremely problematic in and of themselves.

2. Irene Moore lists two pages worth of Verendryean Memorials alone in Valiant La Vérendrye. Quebec: King’s Printer, 1927. A number of Verendryean sites, tributes and images can be found on the Encyclopédie du patrimoine culturel de l’Amérique française website under “La Vérendrye d’hier à aujourd’hui” and “documents complémentaires.”

3. Programme of the bi-centennial celebration of the arrival of Pierre Gaultier de La Vérendrye at the forks of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, Winnipeg and St. Boniface, September 3rd to 11th, 1938. Winnipeg: S.N., 1938, pp. 23, 26.

4. For the purposes of this paper, black and white are considered to be adjectives insensitive to the differences between groups and national identities. They are therefore un-capitalized.

5. See, for example, Allan Greer, The People of New France, ed. Craig Heron and Franca Iacovetta. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998 and Robin Winks, The Blacks in Canada 2nd ed. Montreal: McGill- Queen’s University Press, 1997. Not everyone we consider white today was perceived as white in New France at this time. There were significant divisions amongst Greeks, Jews, Finns, etc., not to mention the big divide between English speaking whites and French speaking whites in the same terrain.

6. Marcel Trudel, L’esclavage au Canada français: histoire et conditions de l’esclavage. Québec: Presses de l’Université Laval, 1960, pp. 331-333.

7. See Maureen G. Elgersman, Unyielding Spirits: Black Women and Slavery in Early Canada and Jamaica. New York: Garland, 1999, xi, and Brett Rushforth, “A Little Flesh We Offer You: The Origins of Indian Slavery in New France,” The William and Mary Quarterly, 2003 vol. 60, no. 4,

8. Carolyn Podruchny, Making the Voyageur World: Travelers and Traders in the North American Fur Trade. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006, p. 7.

9. Ibid, p. 54.

10. Yves F. Zoltvany, “Gaultier de Varennes et de la Vérendrye, Pierre,” In Dictionnaire biographique du Canada, vol. III. Sainte-Foy: Presses de l’Université Laval, 1974, p. 266.

11. Ibid, p. 267. Pierre Gaultier de Varennes et de La Vérendrye, Journals and Letters of Pierre Gaultier de Varennes de La Vérendrye and his Sons With Correspondence Between the Governors of Canada and the French Court, Touching the Search for the Western Sea, ed. Lawrence J. Burpee. Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1927, “Report of La Vérendrye (1730), p. 50. Also see Donatien Frémont, Les aborigenès du Nord-Ouest canadien au temps de La Vérendrye. Ottawa: Société Royale du Canada, 1949, p. 15.

12. For a fuller, more detailed overview of La Vérendrye’s life and expeditions, see Nellis M. Crouse, La Vérendrye: Fur Trader and Explorer. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1956; Antoine Champagne, Les La Vérendrye et le poste de l’Ouest. Québec: Les Presses de l’Université Laval, 1968; and Martin Kavanaugh, La Vérendrye: His Life and Times: a Biography and a Social Study of a Folklore Figure, Soldier, Fur Trader, and Explorer. Brandon: Martin Kavanaugh, 1967.

13. Zoltvany, “Gaultier de Varennes et de la Vérendrye, Pierre,” pp. 272- 273.

14. See, for example, Archives Nationales de Paris, Col., B, vol. 58, fol. 411.

15. Brett Rushforth in “A Little Flesh We Offer You: The Origins of Indian Slavery in New France,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 4 October 2003, p. 53.

16. Crouse, La Vérendrye, p. 98. See La Vérendrye, Journals and Letters, “Maurepas to Beauharnois, April 22, 1737”, pp. 269-271. Although suspected of being more prone to fur trading and the “sea of beaver” than exploring, La Vérendrye died a poor man. His sons sold part of their property in Eastern Canada in order to pay off the debt incurred by their father. Moore, Valiant La Vérendrye, pp. 126-127.

17. Fonds Antoine Champagne 10/56, Société historique de Saint- Boniface.

18. Champagne, Les La Vérendrye et le poste de l’Ouest, p. 312.

19. Ibid, p. 358. While the Creole populations in early French Canada are unique, their experience of slavery is analogous to that of other groups across Amerindia, a topic that needs to be further examined. During this period, all populations of people were small and slavery in New France should not be seen as peripheral.

20. Ibid, pp. 358-359.

21. Greer, The People of New France, pp. 120-121.

22. Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 51. As White explains, until the 1730s, relatively few French women ever came out West.

23. Fonds Antoine Champagne 10/81/39, Société historique de Saint- Boniface.

24. Conrad E. Heidenreich, “French Exploration out of the St. Lawrence Valley,” In Germaine Warkentin and Carolyn Podruchny eds. Decentring the Renaissance. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001, p. 249.

25. Podruchny, Making the Voyageur World, p. 302.

26. Greer, The People of New France, p. 76.

27. Ibid.

28. White, The Middle Ground, p. 69.

29. Ibid, p. 70.

30. Brittany Luby, interview with Karlee Sapoznik, 7 May 2008.

31. Pierre Gaultier de Varennes et de La Vérendrye, North-Western Explorations: Journal of La Vérendrye in the forms of a letter, from the 20th of July, 1738, date of my departure from Michilimakinak, to May, 1739, sent to the Marquis de Beauharnois, Comander of the Military Order of St. Louis, Governor and Lieutenant Governor of whole of New France and country of Louisiana. Canadiana House, 1967, p. 2.

32. Ibid, pp. 3, 5.

33. La Vérendrye, Journals and Letters, p. 369.

34. Ibid.

35. Ibid, pp. 369-370.

36. Georges Dugas, The Canadian West: Its Discovery by the Sieur de la Vérendrye; Its Development by the Fur-Trading Companies, Down to the Year 1822. Montréal: Librairie Beauchemin, 1905, pp. 57-58. Dugas argues that “civilization” made Aboriginals more exacting. Also see La Vérendrye, North-Western Explorations, p. 6.

37. See White, The Middle Ground, pp. 50-93. Also see the limitations to White’s concept of a middle ground presented by Brett Rushforth in “A Little Flesh We Offer You: The Origins of Indian Slavery in New France,” October 2003, and Germaine Warkentin’s piece, “Discovering Radisson: A Renaissance Adventurer between Two Worlds,” in Reading Beyond Words: Contexts for Native American History, eds. Jennifer S. H. Brown and Elizabeth Vibert. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 1996, p. 48.

38. La Vérendrye, Journals and Letters, 27 . Also see Champagne, Les La Vérendrye et le poste de l’Ouest, 296. La Galissonnière wrote a letter to Maurepas on 23 October, 1747 defending La Vérendrye. See AN, Col., C11E, vol. 16, pp. 300-301.

39. Peter Kalm, Peter Kalm’s Travels in North America, trans. Adolph Benson, New York: Dover, 1937. Quoted in Greer, The People of New France, p. 84.

40. Burpee, Journals and Letters, “Report of La Vérendrye [October 31, 1744], pp. 454-455, and Frémont, Les aborigenès du Nord-Ouest canadien au temps de La Vérendrye, pp. 15, 18.

41. Rushforth, “A Little Flesh We Offer You,” p. 59.

42. Denis Combet, À la recherche de la mer de l’Ouest: Mémoires choisis de La Vérendrye. Winnipeg: Great Plains Publications, 2001, p. 57.

43. Brett Rushforth, “Slavery, the Fox Wars, and the Limits of Alliance,” The William and Mary Quarterly, 2006, vol. 63, no. 1, p. 8.

44. Ibid, 27. In provoking the depletion of resources, the fur trade increased rivalry and wars between Aboriginal groups. See André Champagne, L’histoire du régime français, (Québec: Éditions du Septentrion et Société Radio-Canada, 1996, p. 90.

45. Ibid, pp. 14, 34.

46. Rushforth, “A Little Flesh We Offer You,” p. 12.

47. Antoine Bonnefoy, Fonds Antoine Champagne 10/87/1-2, Société historique de Saint-Boniface.

48. Podruchny, Making the Voyageur World, p. 249.

49. Greer, The People of New France, p. 64.

50. Ibid, p. 69.

51. Luby, Interview, 7 May 2008.

52. Greer, The People of New France, p. 70.

53. Ibid, p. 67.

54. Ibid.

55. See for instance, Fonds Antoine Champagne, 10/79/24 and 10/80/22 “Procuration de M. de La Vérendrye à son épouse, 11 juin 1735” as well as 10/79/30-31, Société historique de Saint-Boniface.

56. Combet, À la recherche de la mer de l’Ouest, p. 117.

57. Greer, The People of New France, p. 68.

58. Ibid.

59. Combet, À la recherche de la mer de l’Ouest, 63 and 105. Also see La Vérendrye, North-Western Explorations, p. 6.

60. Ibid, p. 103.

61. Podruchny, Making the Voyageur World, p. 251.

62. La Vérendrye, North-Western Explorations, p. 10.

63. Podruchny, Making the Voyageur World, p. 251.

64. Ibid. Produchny has taken this idea from Priscilla Buffalohead.

65. Ibid, p. 250.

66. Greer, The People of New France, p. 63.

67. Peter A. Goddard, “Canada in Seventeenth-Century Jesuit Thought,” in Decentring the Renaissance, eds. Germaine Warkentin and Carolyn Podruchny. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001, pp. 197-198.

68. See David Thompson, Fonds Antoine Champagne 10/40, Société historique de Saint-Boniface.

69. Mgr. Cyprien Tanguay, Dictionnaire généalogique des familles canadiennes (Montréal, 1887), III, p. 606.

70. Greer, The People of New France, p. 62.

71. Joseph F. Lafitau, Moeurs des sauvages américains comparées aux moeurs des premiers temps. Paris, 1724. Quoted in The People of New France, p. 62.

72. Sylvia Van Kirk, Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur Trade Society, 1670-1870. Winnipeg: Watson and Dwyer Publishing, 1980.

73. Combet, À la recherche de la mer de l’Ouest, p. 103.

74. La Vérendrye, North-Western Explorations, 5. Also see Fonds Antoine Champagne 10/87/30, Société historique de Saint-Boniface.

75. Ibid, 10/79/42-43.

76. Zoltvany, “Gaultier de Varennes et de la Vérendrye, Pierre”, 6. An arpent is roughly equivalent to an acre, or one third of a hectare. See La Vérendrye, Journals and Letters, “Beauharnois to Maurepas, September 24, 1742,” pp. 380-382.

77. Ibid. Also see Combet, À la recherche de la mer de l’Ouest, p. 129.

78. See Marcel Trudel, L’esclavage au Canada français: histoire et conditions de l’esclavage. Québec: Presses de l’Université Laval, 1960, pp. 72, 333. Zoltvany, “Gaultier de Varennes et de la Vérendrye, Pierre”, 8; La Vérendrye, Journals and Letters, “Report of La Vérendrye [October 31, 1744], pp. 451-452.

79. Fonds Antoine Champagne 10/43, Société historique de Saint- Boniface.

80. Trudel, L’esclavage au Canada français, p. 333.

81. Ibid, p. 145.

82. Ibid.

83. Ibid, p. 121.

84. Ibid, pp. 154-156.

85. Champagne, Les La Vérendrye et le poste de l’Ouest, 181. See La Vérendrye, Journals and Letters, “Beauharnois to Maurepas, October 14, 1736,” p. 212.

86. See Afua Cooper’s The Hanging of Angélique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal. Toronto: Harper Collins Ltd., 2006.

87. Ibid, p. 88.

88. Crouse, La Vérendrye, pp. 107-108. See La Vérendrye, Journals and Letters, “Affair of the murder of twenty-one voyageurs at the Lake of the Woods, in the month of June 1736,” pp. 262-266.

89. Fonds Antoine Champagne 10/89/14, Société historique de Saint- Boniface.

90. Ibid, 10/80/30.

91. Ibid, 10/97/32.

92. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. New York, 1963, p. 15.

93. Moore, Valiant La Vérendrye, p. 13.

94. Ibid, p. 131.

Page revised: 19 May 2016

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