Monday, December 8, 2003
On this date in 1738, Pierre La Verendrye was midway through a 10 day stay with the Mandan Indians; reportedly, he and his group were the first white men to set foot in North Dakota, as well as the first to provide written records about the Native Americans they encountered.
Verendrye was born at a trading post in Quebec in 1685. Native Canadians who visited the post often spoke of a river flowing west to the ocean and also told of a tribe called the Mandans who they described as “white Indians” living in dwellings that resembled those of the French.
The stories worked on Verendrye’s imagination, and he devised a plan to hunt for both the river to the sea and the fabled “white Indians.” He won French government approval and was financed by Montreal merchants eager to cash in on the fur trade in the newly discovered territory.
In 1731, Verendrye, three of his sons, a nephew and about 50 men set out by canoe for the northern boundary waters of Minnesota. From there, Verendrye built a chain of trading posts along a canoe route from the Lake of the Woods to Lake Winnipeg and the Red River. It was dangerous work, and one of Verendrye’s sons, his nephew and several others lost their lives.
Three years later, Verendrye went back to Quebec having established a trade route but not having met either of his two main goals. So in 1738, 53 year-old Verendrye again set out on his mission. The 55 man expedition began their epic journey from Lake Manitoba on October 13th, expecting to reach the Mandans in about two weeks. Instead, the trip lasted 46 days, and it wasn’t until December 3rd that the group finally entered the first Mandan village. Their party by this point numbered in the hundreds, having picked up a band of Assiniboins along the way.
As Lewis and Clark discovered more than 60 years later, the Mandans were very friendly; they invited their visitors to share their food, and they traded with enthusiasm.
Verendrye described his “white Indians” as: “…mixed white and black. The women are fairly good looking…many of them have blond or fair hair. Both the men and the women…are very industrious. Their lodges are large and spacious, and are separated into several apartments by broad planks. Nothing is left lying about, for all their belongings are kept in large bags which are hung on posts. Their beds are made like tombs, surrounded by skins. All go to bed naked, men and women…They are for the most part great eaters, and they are extremely fond of feasting…The men are of good size and tall, very alert and for the most part good looking. They have fine features and are very affable. Most of the women do not have the Indian features.”
Despite bitter cold and hospitable hosts, Verendrye decided to head home 10 days later. He was very ill, and the trip took him more than two months. He later wrote, “Never in my life have I experienced so much misery, pain and fatigue as on that journey.”
Unfortunately, Verendrye didn’t receive a hero’s welcome back in Quebec. He was now deep in debt and was looked down on for failing to find the Pacific water route. Ironically, Verendrye didn’t realize the Mandans were sitting on a key part of that route, which Lewis and Clarke would later discover.
But despite being considered a failure, Verendrye’s contributions to exploration and trade were recognized five years later by the King of France, who not only gave him the prestigious Croix de Saint-Louis award, but also put him in charge of managing the western fur posts he helped create.
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm