Memorable Manitobans: Pierre Gaultier De Varennes La Vérendrye (1685-1749)
Soldier, fur trader, explorer.
Born in Trois-Rivières, Canada on 17 November 1685, he was briefly a student at the seminary of Quebec before entering the military. He served in the French army from 1708 to 1712 but could not afford the social obligations, so he returned to Canada, where he became a farmer-cum-fur trader. In 1726 he joined his brother Jacques-René in the western fur trade north of Lake Superior, soon beginning a quest for the “western sea,” which by all contemporary accounts lay not far to the west of the border lakes. His plan was to establish French posts further west -- not coincidentally, in rich fur-trading country -- from which the western sea could be easily reached. He and three sons set out in 1731 to execute this design. The extent to which he was ever seriously committed to the idea of the western sea is open to question.
In 1731 he declared to the intendant of New France that he sought “to carry the name and arms of His Majesty into a vast stretch of countries hitherto unknown, to enlarge the colony and increase its commerce.” The La Vérendryes built Fort Saint-Charles at Lake of the Woods in 1732. La Vérendrye succeeded in obtaining more government support at this point, chiefly in the form of fur-trading monopolies in the West. The next years were spent discovering that the Missouri River was not the “river of the west” but rather flowed southeast to the Gulf of Mexico, and getting some notion of the complexity of the Winnipeg River and Manitoba lakes system. At the same time, of course, La Vérendrye was collecting large numbers of furs and Indian slaves.
By 1737 he was made to realize by the government of New France that results were required, and he made a real push onto the prairies, establishing Fort la Reine at present-day Portage la Prairie in 1738 and moving onto Mandan country in western North Dakota. In 1741 he received another monopoly over the new territory he had opened up, and he returned to Fort la Reine. Over the next few years more posts were built in Cree territory, mainly for trade. The government in New France suspected his motives by now, however, and he resigned effective in 1744, settling down in Montreal. His last years were spent in relative penury. He never discovered his ocean, but he had certainly increased the influence of the French in the central lake and prairie region of North America.
He died at Montreal on 5 December 1749. He is commemorated by La Verendrye Park in Winnipeg.
Pioneers and Early Citizens of Manitoba, Winnipeg: Manitoba Library Association, 1971.
This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.
Page revised: 7 May 2021