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Finders Keepers

When in 1913 those kids found the Verendrye tablet on a bluff in Fort Pierre, South Dakota, it was an important day for historians. The tablet was not just a 170-year-old curiosity. It was the key piece to a puzzle, allowing scholars to reconstruct the route of the French explorers’ journey of exploration across the plains in 1742-43.

But what did it mean to the children who uncovered this sensational artifact? Not much at the time, but once the public fuss began, it meant a lot. It’s interesting to read the clippings and letters in the files of the South Dakota State Historical Society whereby various parties put forward and disputed their claims to have found or been in some way involved with finding the tablet.

George O’Rielly was the first. He said he and other boys, brandishing wooden swords, were playing battle on the Fort Pierre bluffs and found the tablet while digging a trench. This contradicted the story of a girl named Ethel Parrish (later Hepner) who said that she and another girl, Hattie Foster, were with George that day, and that Hattie found the tablet by tripping over it. After George cleaned the dirt off with his pocket knife, she said, the three of them agreed that he would try to sell the lead tablet for scrap.

George revised his story to include the girls, but he grew irked over the years with accounts that cast him as a rascal and bully. Some said that after Hattie found the tablet, he snatched it from her and ran away with it. As an adult, George would say, “That’s a lot of bunk.”

Then too, Hattie later tried to claim that her sister Blanche also was there. Ethel protested this rank revisionism. Eventually, however, an official publication of the state historical society would name seven kids who were there, and Blanche made the list.

There seems to have been some gender conflict going on here. George, the boy, considered himself the discoverer of record, even though Hattie had first picked up the tablet. Indeed, state museum ledgers disclose that George and his father collected the $200 appropriated by the South Dakota legislature to buy the artifact.

Two legislators were involved with the discovery because they happened to meet George and his father at the Fort Pierre depot. The two politicians, of course, later would recall that they played important roles. Representative Elmer Anderson said it was he who called in state historian Doane Robinson, thereby seeing that the state acquired the leaden treasure.

According to Representative G.W. White, though, he knew the story of the Verendryes, recognized the tablet immediately, felt “an indescribable feeling” from head to foot when he touched it, translated the Latin inscription himself, and called Robinson about it.

Who owns history, anyway? Well, Ethel Parrish Hepner outlived all the rest of them, and so the last published word, in 1989, was hers. But it doesn’t much matter who found the la Verendrye tablet, or who was there when it happened. The point is that this piece of lead is important enough to argue about. It makes Fort Pierre, South Dakota, a place of antiquity.

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