Dakota Datebook

Pierre La Verendrye, part 2

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Yesterday, we brought you part 1 of the story on Pierre Gaultier la Verendrye, who was born on this date 320 years ago, written by guest author and historian Tracy Potter of Bismarck. La Verendrye was the first known non-Indian to set foot in what is now North Dakota.

Over a nine-year period, La Verendrye extended French influence and established trading posts from Lake of the Woods, to the Red River near Lake Winnipeg, to the junction of the Assinboine and Red Rivers, or what is currently called The Forks in the city of Winnipeg.

During those nine years, La Verendrye persevered through financial difficulties and personal tragedies. His wife and a daughter died of natural causes while he was out on the frontier. The Sioux killed his son, Jean-Baptiste at a place subsequently called Massacre Island at Lake of the Woods, and his nephew and top Lieutenant La Jemeraye took ill and died where the Roseau River meets the Red River. Debts mounted and La Verendrye was forced to play creditors against one another, while simultaneously trying to keep his men on the frontier happy – or at least alive.

In September 1738, the 52 year-old La Verendrye set out walking west from the Winnipeg Forks, while his men paddled on a parallel course on the Assiniboine River. Near the modern town of Portage la Prairie, he established a trading post named La Reine, the Queen.

This became Verendrye’s final jumping-off point for his great quest to find a route to the western sea and to see the mysterious bearded “underground people” he called the Mantannes. From Fort La Reine, La Verendrye took 52 men, half Assiniboine and half French, including two of his sons, and walked south, then west, then southwest.

On December 3rd, they reached a village of the Mantannes, where he was greeted with great hospitality. The Mantannes insisted on carrying him the last miles into their village. Though it was the smallest of their six villages, it was still very impressive. La Verendrye said the fortifications protecting the village would be impregnable to other Indians. “They are not Indian,” he declared, though of course they were.

These Mantannes were without doubt either the Hidatsa or Mandan Indians. Though not bearded, La Verendrye did describe the Mantannes as a mixed tribe of black and white, with some village residents being fair-skinned and even blonde. He found them to be a very hospitable people and fond of feasts. In fact, La Verendrye came to complain about the twenty dishes of food his hosts placed in front of him each day.

La Verendrye stayed with the Mantannes for just eight days. He never saw the Missouri River, though he sent his son Louis-Joseph to do just that. When he left the Mantannes, La Verendrye still hoped the Missouri would be the river that would lead to a Sea of the West, but that dream died shortly thereafter.

La Verendrye left behind two men to study the language of the Mantannes and to learn about the local geography. Subsequent visits by sons of La Verendrye convinced the French the Missouri was a river already known to them, from contacts far to the south, and that there was no Sea of the West. Still, finding the most convenient watercourse to the Pacific Ocean would be a great patriotic accomplishment.

La Verendrye subsequently shifted his interest to the north. He was preparing to cross the Rockies to blaze a Lewis-and-Clark-like trail to the Pacific when he died peacefully in Montreal, December 5, 1749.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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