Dakota Datebook

Pierre La Verendrye, part 1

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Today begins a two-part series written by guest author and historian Tracy Potter of Bismarck. Tomorrow is the 320th birthday of Pierre Gaultier, who would inherit the title of La Verendrye and become known to generations of North Dakota school children as the first non-Indian to visit the state.

Pierre was born in Three Rivers, Quebec, a town known for its explorers and fur traders. His father was Governor of the colony, as was his grandfather. Three Rivers was a frontier community in a violent time. The French and their Indian allies were involved in a series of hot and cold wars against the English and their Indian allies.

Pierre became a soldier before he was even old enough to be called a man. As a young officer, he participated in a bloody attack on Deerfield, Massachusetts, and helped lead a hundred English captives – men, women and children – on a difficult winter march on snowshoes back to New France.

Pierre also fought in Newfoundland and then, after his brother Louis died in battle in Europe, Pierre inherited the title La Verendrye. Pierre took Louis’s place, joining his brother’s Regiment de Bretagne.

In France, he fought in the War of Spanish Succession. He was wounded nine times and left for dead at Malplaquet, the critical battle of that war. La Verendrye proved tough, however, and didn’t die. He was captured by the English and nursed back to health. Eventually he was released, probably in a prisoner exchange.

As the war ended in Europe, La Verendrye returned to Canada and married Marie-Anne Dondoneau, a young woman from a prominent Three Rivers’ family. Together they raised children, crops and cattle for more than fifteen years . . . before La Verendrye appears to have suffered a mid-life crisis.

At age 44, he left the farm in his wife’s capable hands and headed west. At a fur trade post in the woods above Lake Superior, he began to hear fantastic tales of ferocious four-foot tall men and great rivers that led to sea coasts where white men rode horses, sailed ships and fired cannons.

He also heard of a people the Cree Indians called Ouachippouennes or “the Sioux who go underground.” These were described as a nation of bearded white people who lived in houses like the French and farmed miles of land near a great river of the west. They were a peaceful nation, who preferred trade to war, but were brave in defense of their homeland. They grew grain and squash, and the land along their river had limited timber, so they burned buffalo chips to warm their homes.

Imagine that the country from Manitoba to Nebraska was not a sea of grass, but a sea of water. That was the official belief of the French government in the 1730s. That Western Sea did not exist, but it was every bit as real to the French of the early 18th century as the Fountain of Youth or the Seven Cities of Gold had been to Spanish explorers of an earlier period.

Believing their river might lead to the Western Sea, La Verendrye decided he needed to meet those Sioux who go underground – people he came to call the Mantannes, which was probably an Assiniboine name for the earth-lodge dwellers.

Tune in tomorrow for part 2.

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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