The Vérendryes and Their Successors, 1727-1760

by Father Antoine Champagne

MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 25, 1968-69 Season

This article was published originally in MHS Transactions 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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The purpose of this paper is to review the era of discovery of the west under the French Regime and to throw more light on some of the men who were more or less involved in it. The period that followed the fur trade period-has been thoroughly investigated, but the previous one, although of basic importance in the history of the west, is much less known. The lists of events, people, and the establishments they founded are incomplete. Due to insufficient documentation, the true moral value of the persons is not always made clear and consequently dubious interpretations have been suggested. Far from thinking we can set everything right, we hope we can throw a little more light on a few points.

To do this we will have to hark back on a few details in a previous paper read before the Manitoba Historical Society a few years ago on Grand Rapids. From this we can gather a clearer picture of the surroundings and circumstances in which the explorers laboured. This will better enable us to assess their true character and to determine to what degree the whole undertaking can be considered a success or a failure.

We have chosen the title "The Vérendryes and Their Successors, 1727-1760" [1] because, as will be seen, La Vérendrye, his sons and nephew, played by far the most prominent part in the discovery of the west and in the operations connected with it during that period. One cannot study the documents relating to the west of that time without realizing that it would not have been discovered for several years or even decades if it had not been for the Vérendryes.

The Gaultier Family and La Vérendrye

The Gaultier de La Vérendrye and Varennes, who had also other less known titles, were honest commoners, not as had been claimed, of ancient nobility. By skill and reliability some had attained high posts in the administration of their province of Anjou while others had done very well in the army.

Their ancestry is traced back to 1550. [2] La Vérendrye's father, Rene Gaultier de Varennes, was an officer in the Carignan regiment which came to Canada in 1665. Three years later he was appointed governor of Trois-Rivieres, then one of the three governments or provinces of Canada. La Vérendrye's mother was a daughter of Pierre Boucher who had virtually saved the colony when he repulsed the Iroquois at TroisRivieres in 1653. Later, Boucher had been ennobled and according to the customs and laws of the time, his rank was passed on to all his descendents, including La Verendyre and his children. So on his father's side as well as on his mother's, La Vérendrye could boast a lineage of valiant soldiers. He took after them.

He was but four and a half years old when his father died. His mother left Three Rivers to live on her seigniory of Varennes, some twenty miles lower than Montreal. A common error is to say that La Vérendrye was an inhabitant of Trois-Rivieres. When 22 years old he enlisted in the French army, fought gallantly in Flanders, and was severely wounded by a musket ball and eight sword thrusts. Picked up for dead on the battlefield of Malplaquet, he nonetheless recovered and was for several months a prisoner of war. After being set free in 1709 or 1710, probably as the outcome of an exchange of prisoners, he came back to Canada in 1711 or 1712.

In 1712 he married Marie-Anne Dandonneau, daughter of a seigneur of Ile-Dupas, an estate midway between Montreal and Trois-Rivieres. His wife was the owner of fine pieces of land on that island but they were not yet ready for cultivation. Nonetheless, they settled there and stayed for about fifteen years, raising a family of four boys and two girls. It might be noted here that La Vérendrye first applied himself to farming, but like many others, his father notably, he sought a little extra income in the trading of furs. The family was very poor and resorted to borrowing for survival as the land was not yet producing enough for their needs. On the other hand, he could indulge in trade without going very far. For some years he used to spend a few weeks in the late summer or early fall at La Gabelle, a seigniory owned by the Gaultier family a few miles north of Three Rivers. There he met the Indians coming down the Saint-Maurice to trade their furs for goods. This is probably La Vérendrye's first call to a life of adventure.

The Facts

What follows stems from much earlier situations. For centuries European countries such as Spain, Portugal, England, and France had been seeking a short and easy way to reach the Far East countries where trading in rare and highly appraised commodities was very rewarding. This had been the dream of Christopher Columbus and also of many of his followers. But at the beginning of the 18th century, France and England were the only countries still engaged in the quest.

The Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 had closed to France every access to the Northern Passage. A way had to be found through the continent. We then hear more and more about the discovery of a Western Sea, meaning the Pacific Ocean, or at least an inland sea leading to it. Before 1700 attempts to reach this elusive sea had been made by Radisson and Des Groseilliers. They had gone as far as the Upper Mississippi. Jacques de Noyon had passed a winter at Rainy Lake in 1688. Beyond that point lay an unknown vastness yet to be explored. [3]

In 1716 a plan was completed for the restoration of old trading forts and for the building of new ones at strategic points. Kaministiquia, the Present Fort William, built in 1717 by Zacharie Robutel de La Noue, would be the key fort and starting point of the operations. Nipigon followed in 1719 and Michipicoton about 1726. These would protect the northern route. To the south the old Sioux post would be restored on account of the perpetual Cree and Sioux feuds. This was done in 1731-1732.

In 1723 a Mr. Deschaillons is at the northern post of Kaministiquia. Three years later Jacques-Rene Gaultier de Varennes, an older brother of La Vérendrye, is in charge there. In the following year his younger brother is appointed by the governor to be his second in command with residence at Nipigon. From then on things move faster, for La Vérendrye has received his second call to adventure.

During the winter at Nipigon he met a few Indians of consequence, [4] Ochaga, Pako and others, who told him that they had just returned from a trip that led them as far as Lake Cumberland. They had drawn a map, the first of the west, remarkably clear and precise. La Vérendrye was elated and immediately offered his services towards discovery.

In 1728, his brother being recalled for military duty elsewhere, he takes over and immediately prepares plans for explorations. He submits these to the governor in several consecutive journals or diaries. Then he goes to Quebec to present in person his current ideas on the matter. Governor Beauharnois adopts his plan and appoints him commander of the whole undertaking.

He left Montreal in June 1731 with some fifty men in seven or eight canoes which were loaded with trade goods. [5] A missionary, Father Charles-Michel Mesaiger, joined the party at Michilimakinac. On reaching Grand Portage part of the crew mutinied, played out by a very arduous trip and reacting with diffidence to the coming portage. But a few of them agreed to proceed further, led by La Vérendrye's nephew and his eldest son Jean-Baptiste. This advance party built Fort SaintPierre on the west shore of Rainy Lake. This first small post was hardly more than a symbol. In the meantime La Vérendrye himself spent the winter at Kaministiquia.

In consequence of the difficulties at Grand Portage, which probably arose as early as 1731, another post was erected at the east end of the portage. It would be used from time to time as a gathering place, a resting place, and periodically, as an important trading post. The following year, Fort Saint-Charles, the first regular establishment on the west shore of Lake of the Woods, was constructed near the eastern limit of the first prairie steppe. This fort will continue to be an important base of operations until the conquest and shortly thereafter. These two forts will for the time being satisfy the Monsonis, a Cree tribe living between Hudson Bay and Lake Superior and Rainy Lake as well as other Cree bands. Fort Saint-Charles, situated in Cree territory, catered to them and to their allies, the Assiniboines, who came from the nearby prairies.

But the Crees were clamoring for a fort deeper in their territory on the shore of Lake Winnipeg. The Assiniboines also wanted one in their own prairies. In the early spring of 1733, La Vérendrye sent ahead his nephew and eldest son to go and see what could be done to please the Crees. But they were stopped by ice in the Winnipeg River some twenty miles from Lake Winnipeg. Further progress was cut off that year when the Quebec merchants supplying the capital for the expedition withheld financial support.

Jean-Baptiste, however, stayed a while at the point of his farthest penetration down the Winnipeg River and there built a little post called La Barriere (The Barrier). The spot still bears that name. La Jemmeraye on the other hand went east to Quebec to try and iron out the financial difficulties and succeeded to some degree.

In the following year, 1734, [6] La Vérendrye travelled from Fort Saint-Charles back to Fort Saint-Pierre on Rainy Lake to try to pacify the Monsonis and the Crees who were thinking of making war on the Sioux. He succeeded for a time in keeping them away from such a decision. A war between the Cree and the Sioux would have spoilt all his plans.

In the spring of the same year, Jean-Baptiste had been asked by the Monsonis, Crees and Assiniboines to accompany them as an observer in a war expedition against the Sioux to the south. On his return from this ineffective expedition he built a fort on Red River that would satisfy for a time the Crees and Assiniboines. In building this fort he may have had the help of Sieur Joseph Cartier, a merchant. This fort stood west of the river at a point five leagues south of Lake Winnipeg; that would be about five or six miles north of Selkirk. Fort Maurepas, well situated on the Red, was intended to be an important centre of operations. It was five times larger than Fort Saint-Charles and eleven times larger than Fort Saint-Pierre. Future happenings, made its usefulness short lived.

However, two Frenchmen who had been sent ahead a few months earlier in search of a suitable place for a fort, reached the forks of the Red and Assiniboine and thus became the first known white men to set foot on the site of the present city of Winnipeg. On the same trip they explored the southern part of Lake Winnipeg right up to the Bull's Head Strait.

In 1735 La Vérendrye came back west with another missionary, Father Jean-Pierre Aulneau, who was to replace the ailing Father Mesaiger. Next year sorrowful events took place. [7] During the winter La Jemmeraye who was in charge of Fort Maurepas became very ill. Early in the spring, two sons of La Vérendrye were sent to help him.

They tried to get him back to Fort Saint-Charles. Lake Winnipeg being still blocked by ice, they tried the Red and Roseau rivers, and at the forks of these streams La Jemmeraye died. He was buried on the west bank of Red River not far from the site of the present village of Letellier.

Meanwhile, at Fort Saint-Charles, provisions were running short. Jean-Baptiste La Vérendrye with Father Aulneau and nineteen other Frenchmen, among whom was Joseph Cartier, the important trader who had earlier been on the Red, left for Kaministiquia or Michilimakinac, if necessary, to get much needed supplies. Some roaming Sioux massacred the whole party on the morning of June 6 [8] on a little island in Lake of the Woods, seven leagues from the fort. La Vérendrye spent the summer trying to restrain his Indian friends, the Crees, Monsonis, and Assiniboines, from seeking revenge against the Sioux. He considered that this would have made an already difficult situation more so. Even at that, a small fort was built near the mouth of Vermillion River, and this establishment which bore the name of the river was intended as a base for trading with the Sauteux whose territory extended to the south and southwest.

In the following winter, La Vérendrye went to Fort Maurepas through the prairies and there, at the beginning of March, held a grand council with the Crees and Assiniboines. He came back to Fort Saint-Charles by the Winnipeg River, while his younger son Louis-Joseph with a band of Crees was attempting an exploration of Lake Winnipeg as well as of the lower part of the Saskatchewan River. An epidemic of smallpox brought death to the Crees at Fort Maurepas. Some of his guides were stricken and so he was prevented from going on to his goal. However, he managed to return to the fort without losing any of his men.

Shortly afterwards, at the request of the Indians who were in great need of supplies, La Vérendrye went for a second time to Montreal. Back in the west in 1738, he could at last undertake a trip he had had in mind for more than ten years: a trip to the Mandans on the Missouri. [9] With two of his sons, Louis-Joseph and Francois, and some agents of the Montreal merchants who were financing his undertakings, he reached the forks of the Red and Assiniboine on September 24 of that year. There, on the south side of the Assiniboine, Sieur Louis Damours de Louvieres, built a little fort on La Vérendrye's instructions. This was called Fort Rouge.

At the same time, La Vérendrye himself built Fort La Reine at Portage-la-Prairie. This fort proved to be very important for many years, even after the conquest. It was situated on the trail which the Crees and the Assiniboines took to the Mandans in the southwest and to the English in the northeast on Hudson Bay.

La Vérendrye's trip to the Mandans was long and tedious. The return journey was most distressing. He travelled while sick during the coldest days of the winter, but took comfort, nonetheless, in the hearty welcome of the Mandans who were to remain his fast friends thereafter. On the other hand, contrary to what he had heard, he found the Mandans to be much like other Indians although more industrious, given to cultivation of grain, and building for themselves half decent houses.

He was back at Fort La Reine on the tenth of February 1739. The following spring he sent his son Louis-Joseph to resume his interrupted voyage of 1737. Through Lake of the Prairie (Lake Manitoba) he reached Lake Winnipeg and explored its western shore. Then he went up the Paskoya or Saskatchewan River and past Cedar Lake, right up to a spot, it seems, a few miles farther at the first junction of Summerberry River. [10] Here the Crees would gather each spring for a great council, after which they would take their furs either to the French posts or the English posts. The Chevalier Louis-Joseph attended the council and on his way back completed the exploration of Lake Winnipeg. He returned to Fort La Reine by the Red and Assiniboine rivers.

Meanwhile the Indians, aware of La Vérendrye's lack of trade goods, and apparently fearing to lose their function as middlemen between the Mandans and the French, were camping at the mouth of the Winnipeg River, getting ready to start for Hudson Bay. La Vérendrye then decided to build a new fort there as he had promised to do long before. This was to be the second Fort Maurepas. The first fort of that name on the Red was abandoned, and the new fort, situated on north side of the Winnipeg River nearly opposite the present town of Pine Falls, [11] was probably built in 1739 or in the following year.

During the summer of 1740 La Vérendrye went to Montreal for the third time to try and settle matters with the business partners. He had left instructions with his son Pierre for an exploration past the Mandan country. Pierre, however, could not finish this trip in 1741, having to turn back because of lack of guides. He seems to have gone as far as the territory of the Pawnees in the northern part of Nebraska. He came back to Fort La Reine with two horses the Indians had acquired from the Spanish in New Mexico. Also a few objects from the same origin. These horses would be the first historically known in Manitoba. Almost at the same time La Vérendrye came back from the east. [12]

From Fort La Reine he sent his son to build Fort Dauphin on or near the site of the present town of Winnipegosis. [13] A little before some men from Fort Maurepas were sent to Grand Rapids, near the mouth of the Saskatchewan River, to build Fort Bourbon. The fort probably stood at the foot of the rapids where the portage started.

In April 1742 the explorer could not leave his forts on account of the warlike attitude of the Indians, but he sent the Chevalier and his brother Francois with other Frenchmen toward the southwestern countries. [14] The party seems to have reached the foothills of the Rockies and the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming. They met numerous Indian tribes or nations who roamed the plains between the Bad Lands and the mountains. These were getting ready for a war expedition under the direction of the Bow Indians, a Pawnee tribe, against the Snake Indians, their common enemies. But the colorful multitude got into a panic and fled. The explorers were very disappointed in not climbing over those high mountains, from the top of which they were hoping to have a good view of the Western Sea. [15]

On the way back they accompanied the Bows to their country, which seems to have been in the northern part of Nebraska. Doing so, they reached the nation or tribe of the Small Cherry, related to the Bows, and living on the shores of the Missouri near the present city of Pierre, the capital of South Dakota.

Near there they buried on the top of a hill a lead tablet to record taking possession of the land. On the reverse of this they engraved with a pocket knife or awl the following inscription: "Placed here by the Chevalier de Laver., t b 1 t , Louy la Londette, Amiotte. The 30th of March, 1743." The letters t b 1 t most probably stand for Tremblet or Tremblay, the official name of Francois La Vérendrye, sieur du Tremblay; la Londette is, no doubt, a nickname for Lalonde, and Amiotte stands for Amiot or Amyot. This tablet found in 1913 is the most important historical artifact relating to the history of the western prairies. Having thus officially claimed the land, the Frenchmen returned to Fort La Reine on July 2nd, 1743. They had been gone thirteen months.

In the meantime a new fort had been built near the first outlet of the Saskatchewan River on Cedar Lake. [16] The site of this fort as well as that of Fort Bourbon had been chosen by the Chevalier in 1739. The new fort, built in 1743, was named Paskoya [17] and was used but a few years.

Toward the end of the summer, Father Godefroy Coquart, who in 1741 had accompanied La Vérendrye to Michilimakinac, reached Fort La Reine to the great delight of the commander as well as of his men. [18] He was the third missionary to come to the west and the first to reach the plains of Manitoba.

It was likely he who brought La Vérendrye letters from the Minister Maurepas, blaming the discoverer for his so called inaction. This official had been suspicious of the explorer ever since his first explorations, the consequence of several unfair informations received from Canada and of his being inclined to prejudices. It was too much for La Vérendrye this time. He sent his resignation to take effect the following year.

He then went back East in 1744 and was succeeded by Nicolas-Joseph de Noyelles, who kept the sons of the explorer as his seconds. [19] But de Noyelles got no more encouragement from the Court of France than his predecessor and did not get anywhere as far as discoveries were concerned. Disheartened by the quarrels between Indian tribes, he resigned in 1746 and went back East in 1747.

In the fall of 1746, La Vérendrye had been appointed again as commander of the Western Posts by Governor Beauharnois who held him in great esteem. [20] But the explorer did not return to the west. He let his sons keep things going as best they could, considering the difficulties caused by the King George's War, which were felt even in such far away parts. Thanks to their efforts, the posts could at least survive. After the treaty of Aachen in 1748, they again functioned normally.

La Vérendrye had just been granted the Saint-Louis Cross in 1749 when La Galissonniere, who had succeeded Beauharnois, and LouisAntoine Rouille, the new Minister, asked him to resume his work of discovery. Although 64 years of age, he was eagerly getting ready to leave. What he had learned in 1743 by the expedition of the Chevalier and the establishment of the forts on the Saskatchewan had given him full confidence that the way to the Western Sea was at hand. It was just a matter of going upstream on that river to its sources and then down one of the rivers flowing to the ocean. So that even though his bodily strength had lessened, he was preparing to go with the same enthusiasm of twenty years ago.

What follows is all the more tragic. An epidemic in New France was causing the death of hundreds of victims. La Vérendrye was one of them. Full of life at the beginning of November, he departed from this world on the fifth of December and was buried in Montreal Notre-Dame Church on the seventh. [21] The house in which he lived had been rented from a widow named Curot. All he left his sons was old furniture, used clothing worth no more than four thousand French francs, also sizable debts which his son the Chevalier paid later.

His successors up to the Conquest of Canada did not do much towards discovery. Jacques Le Gardeur de Saint-Pierre, who was in charge from 1750 to 1753, [22] was considered as a strong man. But, as can be seen from his diary, he found the job very trying. He did no more than go a bit farther on the Saskatchewan and build a few small posts. Of these, only one lasted more than a few years.

Acting on his orders, Joseph-Claude Boucher, Chevalier de Niverville, left Fort La Reine in 1750 and proceeded through Lakes Manitoba and Winnipegosis to the Saskatchewan. The trip was very arduous but he finally reached his destination and restored the old Fort Paskoya, west of Cedar Lake. From then on this was known as second Fort Bourbon and Cedar Lake became Lake Bourbon. The following spring, Niverville sent a few men to build another small post further up the river and named it Fort La Jonquiere. Some authors have claimed on poor reasons that this post would have been situated near the present site of Calgary, while it could not have been farther west than the eastern part of the province of Saskatchewan, probably in the Nipawin area. This post was intended as a supply base in view of a further advance, but because of the bad disposition of the Indians and other causes, such as Niverville's sickness, no further progress was accomplished.

Back from a business trip to Grand Portage, Saint-Pierre spent the winter of 1752-1753 at the Forks, where he seems to have rebuilt Fort Rouge, probably on its original location South of the Assiniboine. The same year he built a small trading post between the two parts of Lake Winnipeg and called it Tete-de-Boeuf or Bull's Head. [23] It was merely a commercial post and lasted only one season.

His successor, Louis-Francois, Chevalier de Lacorne, who must not be mistaken for his brother Luc who never came west, spent the winters of 1753 and 1754 at the Forks. The only early mentions of this establishment, which was situated North of the Assiniboine, are made by L'Hunon, 1784 and 1817, and by Harmon in 1800. [24] However, Lacorne returned to the Saskatchewan River and built a second Fort Paskoya which became Le Pas, and further on, just below the junction of the two branches of the Saskatchewan, another fort called Fort des Prairies or Fort Saint-Louis and which was later named Fort Lacorne. [25] The Chevalier de La Vérendrye succeeded Lacorne and was Commander of the West from 1756 to 1758 but could not get to his territory and administered the country through agents. [26] He did not build any other establishment as far as we know.

The last commander, never before mentioned by the historians, was Charles-Rene Dejordy de Villebon. He was there from 1758 to 1760. But the war was on and he lacked ammunition, trade goods and provisions. The Indians had been restless since Saint-Pierre's administration and were encouraged by the English at the Hudson Bay in their hostile dispositions. Dejordy went back east in 1760. [27]

This completes the list of the Commanders of the West and of the principal establishments they built. There are however a few minor posts that should be mentioned, such as the one at Portage de l'Isle, which stood at the junction of the Winnipeg and English rivers, on the route leading to Fort Severn, and the one named Fort La Biche, on the La Biche or Red Deer River, which flows into the northwest corner of Lake Winnipegosis. The former was probably built between 1750 and 1757 and the latter between 1753 and 1757, but the name of their builder is not known nor do we know on what occasion they were built.

Fort Nipawi must also be mentioned, although it is likely to have been built by free traders after the Conquest, even though some English authors say it was a French fort. Also the second Fort Dauphin, probably built in 1767, on the North shore of Lake Dauphin, this name being applied then, both to the fort and to the lake. It must be mentioned, to avoid confusion between the two, that there was a distance of twelve miles, as the crow flies, between them.

Some authors, such as Alexander Mackenzie and Alexander Henry, the elder, mention other French posts which would have existed at Lac du Bois-Blanc or Basswood Lake, and Lake Saguinaga and even elsewhere. But there seems to be a lot of confusion as to their exact location. In any case, the information available is too vague and these establishments were so short-lived, even if they existed, that they are hardly worth mentioning. As a whole, there were without any doubt as many as twenty trading posts in the west besides the few doubtful ones.

We should perhaps say a few words about some temporary buildings such as the one on the east shore of Lake of the Woods where in 1733 ten Frenchmen spent the winter "living very graciously on fishing and hunting." [11] Also a house built by the La Vérendrye brothers in the Hills of the Horse People (Gens des Chevaux) in 1742, while awaiting the return of those Indians, and lastly, Fort La Butte, a kind of stopping place on the trail to the Mandans, which is mentioned in 1743 but which could have been built during the expedition of La Vérendrye in those parts in 1738.

Character of La Vérendrye

Such are in brief the principal happenings which made up the history of the west during La Vérendrye's tenure and that of his successors. For a better understanding of them, let us consider the character of the explorer, innate or acquired, by self-training, and compare it with that of the men connected with his undertaking.

With many authors, notably Margry and Parkman, we notice that the character of this man is most interesting and, as explorers go, quite unusual. He had faults like any man, but they were overshadowed by a whole range of qualities.

La Vérendrye was without a doubt an idealist and an enthusiast. While this could be exaggerated into a fault, it can become with proper control a source of activity and strength which seems to be the case here. He was an idealist in the better sense of the word, eager for fame but ready to give his all for the glory of his country, Canada, as well as that of his mother-country, France. This explains the objective he had set for himself: to discover the Western Sea and to make available to it riches which would ensure its greatness.

He was by nature rather timid, and this made him complaining sometimes and also helpless to defend himself. But those faults were detrimental to himself only. He nevertheless went ahead steadfastly, even stubbornly. He never lost sight of his objective. He would attain it or perish in the attempt. As he was at Malplaquet, such he was here, a man of strength and energy. Notwithstanding his feelings, he was a man for whom duty was paramount.

Known facts revealed at different times show him to have been a man both mild and strong, strong in that he remained in control of things in time of crisis, but always in a mild and peaceful manner. Always humane, ready for self-sacrifice for the sake of peace, he remained friendly even towards those who opposed him. In spite of all the controversy with men much more selfish, he never quarreled with any of them. He said once: "I was threatened with a lawsuit, I who hate lawsuits!" That lawsuit never took place because he chose to be the loser.

As to his dealings with the Indians, while others had so much trouble with them, he was successful most of the time in getting them to give up their war projects, even when in so doing he had to give up exploring trips in which he was strongly interested. This is what Beauharnois expressed so well in his letter to Maurepas when he announced having reappointed La Vérendrye to his former charge: "This officer is better adapted than any other to the task of discovery. He knows the Indians better than anyone else, having lived with them fourteen years. Being a man both mild mannered and steadfast, he is better able to obtain from them the information required to pursue his undertakings."

Mild mannered and steadfast is just what he was, and this is why he succeeded where his successors failed utterly. La Vérendrye, idealist as he was, was no dreamer. He was even a surprisingly efficient organizer. The proof of that is the chain of forts built at strategic points for trade as well as for discovery, and his insistence in exploring the land to the southwest where he obtained definite information that this was not the way to the Western Sea.

As to his natural failings, he did not show himself very efficient in coping with his personal business and acquiring wealth for himself. But this likely stemmed from his spirit of chivalry which made him ignore his own interest to think solely of his mission, or it could have been honesty overdone to a fault. It can also be mentioned that his disposition may be due in part to his religious feelings. They manifested themselves on numerous occasions, as early as the time he spent in the Quebec Seminary, from 1696 to 1699. His offering to God the first day of the year, in 1723, is to be noted as well as the list of religious books mentioned in the inventory of his estate in 1749-1750. And what of his delight at having a missionary with him, and of his mentioning the obstacles they sometimes met to reach the western country? His Journal of 1743-1744 is worth quoting in this respect. About Father Coquart, who had reached Fort La Reine in 1743, he writes: "On the invitation of the General (the Governor of Quebec), we now have him with us to the great satisfaction of every one."

It is also due to his honesty and his religious spirit that he succeeded in maintaining discipline in the west, and it is noted that he never consented to use liquor as trade goods. It is true there were laws against trading, but most traders and their employees ignored them. We know that it is Saint-Pierre who started trading with liquor in the west. Two documents more particularly prove it.

The first is from Father Aulneau and was written on April 30th, hardly a month before he was killed by the Sioux. He says: "The English and the French, prompted by despicable greed, have given the Indians in this country a liking for liquor and so have added to their other vices drunkenness. I must say however that the Frenchmen with whom I travelled never resorted to that infamous traffic and even when the Indians requested some, they would rather forego good trading offers than yield to their demand." This document is dated five years after La Vérendrye came to the west. Afterward Saint-Pierre started using liquor as trade goods, and Madame Begon has this to say in a letter to her son-in-law on duty in Louisiana, written on October 1st, 1752: "It is said that liquor is quite the fashion by the Western Sea thanks to Monsieur de Saint-Pierre, and in the Sioux country thanks to Marin and Chevalier de Repentigny. They have all been recalled. I do not think liquor will flow as freely this year as it did the two previous ones. [28]

To get a better idea of La Vérendrye's character, it must be remembered that he met many and considerable obstacles and that he faced them and managed to overcome them. There were, evidently, those that all explorers encounter. It is easy to imagine the energy needed to establish all the forts mentioned. We must think of the great distances covered, the boredom of the long canoe trips, the endless journeys along impossible trails on solid rocks or in bottomless marshes, the sudden rainstorms, the clouds of greedy insects, the torrid heat of the summer days and the blinding blizzards of the winter: all these are the ordinary trials encountered by explorers, and they are not even mentioned by the Vérendryes. And though the portages seemed to combine all these hardships, Jean-Baptiste La Vérendrye wrote in 1735 from Fort Maurepas on the Red River: "I have built a fort on Lake Winnipeg ... Life is very pleasant here ... (from Saint-Charles here) there are 30 portages, and not a bad one." But Monsieur de Saint-Pierre did not think so. Hardened as he was, he said about this same route in 1753: "What was left of the trip was not very pleasant. At all times you are in danger of losing not only your supplies but also your life." This statement may be pessimistic and the other was surely optimistic, but all these hardships were not easy for anybody to bear.

But the greatest obstacles that faced the explorer were not those. What was most aggravating was to be constantly and falsely accused by prejudiced and jealous people and consequently subjected to vexations, interference and unfair treatment at the hands of the Minister. La Vérendrye laboured under these handicaps practically all through his career as a discoverer. As early as March 24th, 1733, the Minister revealed his attitude when he wrote about the mutiny at Grand Portage and La Vérendrye's stay at Kaministiquia: "It is well known that beaver is plentiful in those parts. That could have been the main reason for wintering there. His Majesty would highly disapprove of that."

From then on, the Minister became more and more suspicious. It became a real obsession with him. After a while, deeds followed words until the explorer could bear no more and tended his resignation. The Minister kept on denouncing him as much as four times in a single year. Maurepas had been forced to appoint him captain of a company, but, on May 12th, 1745, however, he refused him his due in favour of younger and less deserving officers, writing: "The same reasons that kept His Majesty from giving him a company last year forced him not to give him back priority on those who have been preferred. During several years he has been solely concerned with his private business and has altogether neglected his duties. The only result of his trips was some trading with the Indians he visited."

Here the Minister goes beyond all bounds and of all the rebuffs La Vérendrye had to suffer, this was the most stinging. Maurepas not only repeated his usual reproaches but flatly accused him of completely neglecting his duties for the sake of personal gains, and La Vérendrye will bear the humiliation of being the last in rank among the other army captains. Coming from the highest authority, all this was partially the cause of his limited achievements. It would have stopped short a less eager explorer. More than the death of La Jemmeraye, his 28 years old nephew and lieutenant, more than the massacre of his eldest son, a missionary and nineteen of his best men, more than the hardships and moral suffering he had to endure afterwards, more than the lack of supplies and the meanness of the merchants who were financing the undertaking, more than the opposition coming from many sides, even from his own friends; more than the quarrels of the Indians, we may affirm that the unfairness and fault-finding of the Minister-a man otherwise very capable-was the thorn in his side that slowed his progress. Yet, and this is one of the most interesting facets of La Vérendrye's character, he hardly ever complained, and whenever he did, it was only in a mild way. Not until his vindication brief of 1744 does he disclose in detail all his acts and makes clear his purpose. And even then he does it in a manner most respectful of his superiors.

However, it is only fair to mention that notwithstanding all this opposition, he benefited from a good measure of help from his collaborators, either continually or on occasion. Failing that, he would never have attained the results we know. The first to be mentioned should be the young La Jemmeraye, his "second" as he calls him; then come his four sons, especially the youngest, Louis-Joseph, usually called "le Chevalier." There was Governor Beauharnois who so often upheld his cause, who encouraged him, helped him, who was to him a dear friend and who, with Intendant Hocquart, did his best to assist him.

Let us also mention some of the merchants who accompanied him to look after their own interests but who took part in the venture, sometimes with a real enthusiasm, such as Louis Damours de Louvieres who built Fort Rouge, the brothers Lamarque and Nolan who went with him to the Mandans and whose company was very pleasant. Also Nicolas-Joseph de Noyelles who succeeded him in 1744 and kept his sons in his service, even leaving them in full charge for a whole year. Let us add Philippe Leduc who probably built the first Fort Bourbon, Eustache Gamelin who was his attorney at the time of his wife's death and who built little Fort Vermillion with Rene Bourassa, and the merchant Joseph Cartier, who was killed in 1736. Finally, Fathers Mesaiger and Aulneau who comforted him greatly during the first years and Father Coquart who followed him to Fort La Reine.

While not of his stamp, some of his successors achieved something, maintaining at least what had been done. There are also the Chevalier de Niverville and Father de la Morinie who in spite of sickness did their share and reached the prairies. La Vérendrye was no doubt the leader but all the above named helped him to some extent.

It would be very unfair not to mention the Indians, whole tribes or nations, such as the Monsonis, the Crees, the Assiniboines, the Mandans, some tribes of the Pawnees, and occasionally the Sauteux, [29] to mention only the best known. In spite of their quarrels, their fickleness, their unfair dealings, their exaggerated statements, they were often very helpful. They gave useful information; they assisted him in many ways. They had a sincere friendship for La Vérendrye, who won them over by his kindness. Pako, Ochaga, Tachigi are only a few of them.

The Plan

We have given the facts and the names of the men involved. Before drawing any conclusion, let us consider what their objective was and then try to find out if it was reached and whether the undertaking was a success or a failure. Let it be clear that in La Vérendrye's times the plans for discovery were broader than generally believed. This has often been misunderstood. At first, that is between 1713 and 1716, it was quite simple: to reach the Western Sea, supposed to lead to the Far East. Soon the project broadens into five main objectives that were never lost from sight and which no historian should forget if he wants to give a true and complete picture.

It was easy to talk about finding a way to the Western Sea, but this required men, supplies, trade goods, and money. At first, the Court of France meant to finance the whole undertaking but later decided to let the fur trade foot the bill ... Trading would be the means to the end. However it soon became a second objective when it was apparent that there were enough furs in the west to bring an influx of capital into the colony. And capital was needed, not only in the Colony but also in the mother-country. At the same time it would create a serious competition with the English now firmly established on Hudson Bay, where some furs from the west were taken by the Indians.

Then a third objective cropped up: the promotion of science, especially geography. The French authorities were very interested in that, especially as a means of obtaining prestige in Europe, a steady concern since Louis XIV.

Then there was a fourth and more important objective, namely: enhance the French political predominance in the whole world by establishing a long line of posts, well fortified, across the whole continent, and by formally taking possession of the land. The fact that two tablets, and maybe others, had been prepared beforehand, to be completed on the spot by the Vérendryes, and of which one has been recovered, well illustrates the intended aim.

Fifth and last objective was the establishment of Christianity and civilization by the missionaries who would accompany the explorers.

It must be remembered that on those five points every one agreed, La Vérendrye as well as the authorities in Quebec and in France. The disagreement between the explorer and the Minister was not on these five points. Maurepas's letters and all Canadian documents on the matter are very clear on the subject and La Vérendrye and Beauharnois were very frank with Maurepas about it all. Some authors, misunderstanding this, have given a false impression of La Vérendrye's character and of his work. They showed the Minister as an advocate of the discovery while the explorer and the Quebec authorities were supposed to have been mainly concerned with the trade.

The Results

We can now assess the whole venture by comparing results with the proposed plan. We find that:

lst. - A large part of the route to the Western Sea has been found and followed. It is now a matter of proceeding up the Saskatchewan and down the rivers of the western slopes of the Rockies to the ocean.

2nd. - The fur trade which had been on the decline in the old posts gained a new impetus and furs in greater quantities and of better quality reached Montreal, Quebec and France. An era of prosperity prevailed in Canada which a lengthy period of peace contributed to ensure.

3rd. - Geographical observations of importance are recorded, and by the exploration of the southwest as well as of the west, knowledge was gained of the far-flung prairies bounded on the west by the Rockies, of the Missouri that came down from these mountains to reach French Louisiana, and even of the Spanish Colonies of New Mexico and California.

4th. - A huge and wealthy empire had been acquired for France. A long line of fortified posts would ensure its possession. Those forts are "redoubtable only to the Indians" but for the time being they are sufficient. Numerous Indian tribes avail themselves of the title of Children of the French Chief, thus ensuring the stability of the empire.

5th. - The seed of Christianity and civilization had been planted and had started to grow. Very slowly at first but enough to leave traces that Harmon found fifty years later.

There may be more of it. Good deeds sometimes bring unexpected rewards. The west, discovered at the cost of such generous sacrifices will later prove to be one of the most important granaries of the World and the adopted country of men and women of many races.


For more than a century La Vérendrye was ignored. He was considered as just another trader, but gradually, following scrutiny of documents by Margry, Parkman and a few others, he has been recognized for what he was.

Today he is considered as one of our great explorers. Most historians will mention him along with Cartier, Champlain, La Salle, d'Iberville. They have realized the magnitude of his work. They have called him the Discoverer of the West. They do not hesitate to say that he was one of the men who made History in America.

The adverse circumstances that have been mentioned and his early death did not allow him to go as quickly and as far as he would have liked. War made matters very different from what he had foreseen, but all in all he seems to have attained a good measure of success. Whether the results are such as to be called success or failure, we do not hesitate to say success and one of the greatest achievements of our history.


1. All the necessary information on this subject, with references, may be found in the book Les La Vérendrye et le Poste de l'Ouest, by Antonio Champagne. See Bibliography.

2. See MSGCF, April 1958; BRH, April-June and October-December 1956; RHAF, September-December 1958.

3. See Les La Vérendrye ..., chap. III.

4. See the Memoirs of La Vérendrye, 1728, 1729 and 1730: a) La Vérendrye-De Gonnor, November 3d, 1728, BN, Nouvelles acquisitions frangaises, Margry 9286, fol. 65-67. Unpublished. b) Suite du Memoire La Vérendrye De Gonnor, October 25, 1729, AN-AMFO - DFC, carton 5, no. 296. See: Suite, Histoire des Canadiens-Francais, vol. 6, pp. 145-150. c) Deuxieme suite du Memoire La Vérendrye-De Gonnor. AN, Moreau de Saint-Mery, vol. 9, F 11, fol. 304ss., and Letter of Beauharnois, which accompanies the Memoire, AN, C 11 A, vol. 52, fol. 160, October 10, 1730. - Burpee, Journals ..., pp, 43-63.

5. Memoir of La Vérendrye, 1744, which gives a resume of most of the operations of La Vérendrye.

6. For the events of that period, see the Journal of 1734 and the map of Chaussegros de Lery, same year. The dark line on the map shows the discoveries made to date, but there is an error in the location of Fort Maurepas, due to the fact that La Vérendrye had not seen the place where the fort was located.

7. The events of this period are related in the Memoir of 1737 and in the Aulneau documents.

8. Detail from Necrologe or obituary of the Jesuits of the province of Aquitaine, France, 1737.

9. The following events are related in the Journal of 1739.

10. See Hind's map of 1857-1858, which mentions the "Great Camping Place" of the Indians.

11. John McDonnell situates the French fort at the foot of the last rapid and six miles from Lake Winnipeg.

12. See the Memoir of 1740. (Extracts).

13. Joseph Derouen, A voyage from Montreal ... to the Western Sea.

14. For this period, see the Journal of the Chevalier de La Vérendrye, 1743.

15. To the West of the small town of Buffalo, Wyoming, certain peaks attain an altitude of 12,443 and 13,160 feet.

16 The Saskatchewan River has two outlets, one, West of Cedar Lake, and the real one, West of Lake Winnipeg.

17. In the original notes of Claude Porlier, notary royal, several "engagements" or contracts of voyageurs for Fort Paskoya. AJM.

18. See Memoir of 1744.

19. Several "engagements" in Porlier, to Nicolas-Joseph de Noyelles. AJM.

20. Beauharnois to the Minister. AN, C 11 E, vol. 16, pp. 292-295. Burpee, Journals . . ., pp. 461-462.

21. Parish Register, Notre-Dame Parish, Montreal, December 7, 1749.

22. See the Journal of Jacques Le Gardeur de Saint-Pierre.

23. Liste de marchandises (trade goods) pour le poste de la Tete-de-Boeuf, 28 septembre 1752. Original in Archives du Seminaire de Quebec, Fonds Verreau, carton 17, no. 13.

24. Harmon saw, among other vestiges, the bases of stone chimneys. - See Declaration by J.-B. L'Hunon, Montreal, September 6, 1817. Original in Burton Historical Collection, Woodridge Papers, Public Library Archives, Detroit, Michigan, U.S.A.

25. A few miles down this place, the HBC built its "Fort-a-la-Corne" in 1846.

26. See Engagements au sieur Lacorne, in Danre de Blanzy, notary royal, AJM - RAPQ, 1931-1932.

27. See Engagements au sieur Dejordy, in Panet, notary royal. AJM - RAPQ, 1932-1933.

28. See Letters of Father Aulneau and of Mme Begon.

29. These Indians, a branch of the Ojibway Family, are sometimes called Saulteurs and Saulteux, but the word Saulteux is not found in any French document and should be avoided.



Archives judiciaires de Montreal


Archives nationales, Paris, France


Archives nationales, Archives du Ministere de la France d'Outremer


Archives nationales, Depot des cartes et plans de la Marine


Archives nationales, Depot des fortifications des Colonies


Bibliotheque nationale, Paris, France


Bulletin des Recherches historiques, Quebec, Canada


Bulletin de la Societe historique de Saint-Boniface, Saint-Boniface, Manitoba, Canada


Ministere des Affaires etrangeres, Paris, France


Memoires de la Societe genealogique canadienne-francaise, Montreal, Canada


Rapport sur les Archives canadiennes, Ottawa, Canada


Rapport de l'Archiviste de la province de Quebec, Quebec, Canada


Revue d'histoire de 1'Amerique francaise, Montreal-Outremont, Canada


Wisconsin Historical Collections, Madison, Wisconsin, U.S.A.


Burpee, L. J. Journals and Letters of Pierre Gaultier de La Vérendrye and His Sons. The Champlain Society, Toronto, 1927. Original text with English translation.

Champagne, Antonio. Les La Vérendrye et le Poste de l'Ouest. Les Presses de l'Universite Laval, Quebec, 1968. A documented history of the Vérendryes and their Successors in the West.

Haxo, H. E., and Libby, O. G. English translation of La Vérendrye's Journal of 1739. North Dakota Historical Quarterly, Bismarck, North Dakota, July 1941.

Jones, A. E., s.j. The Aulneau Collection, 1734-1745, in Rare and Unpublished Documents, Montreal, 1893. English translation of letters from or to Father Jean-Pierre Aulneau.

Lefebvre, J. J. Documents on the Gaultier de Varennes and de La Vérendrye. RAPQ, 1949-1950.

Margry, P.-A. Decouvertes et etablissements des Frangais dans l'Ouest et le Sud de l'Amerique septentrionale, 6 vol., Paris, 1879-1888. See principally vol. 6.

Marmette, J. E. E. Journal de Jacques Le Gardeur de Saint-Pierre. RAC, 1886.

Prud'homme, L.-A. Documents sur la decouverte de l'Ouest, copies par M. Leau, BSHSB, 1911.

Roy, P.-G. Various documents in RAPQ. Permis pour l'Ouest, 1921-1923; Engagements pour l'Ouest, 1929-1933 and 1942-1947; Lettres du Pere Aulneau, 1926-1927; Lettres de Mme Begon, 1934-1935.

Sulte, B. Suite du Memoire La Vérendrye-De Gonnor, in: Histoire des Canadiens-francais, vol. 6. Montreal, 1882-1884.

Thwaites, R. G. Nineteen volumes of documents in WHC. Volumes 16-19, 1902-1910 particularly, contain documents on La Vérendrye and the West.

Page revised: 22 May 2010