The bluff-top site in Fort Pierre commands an expansive view of the Missouri River valley. You can look across from the Verendrye monument toward Pierre and the earth-sheltered South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center. In that center reposes a piece of lead found on the bluff, near the monument site. This is the Verendrye tablet, and it has a story.
One Sunday in February, 1913, some school kids were playing on the Fort Pierre bluffs and found the rectangular lead tablet, about six by eight inches and 3/16-inch thick. There was some strange writing on it, which attracted the interest of one of the kids’ fathers and of two state representatives who happened to be hiking in the area. They brought the tablet to the attention of state historian Doane Robinson, who purchased it for his museum.
Robinson recognized that in his hands was the most important piece of metal ever picked up on the northern plains. On one side is a Latin inscription in block letters; it says that the tablet was placed by Peter Gaultier de la Verendrye in the twenty-sixth year of King Louis XIV of France, which would have been 1741.
That’s not quite true. The tablet was placed in 1743, and by Verendrye’s sons, Chevalier and Louis. So on the flip side they scrawled a correction, in French, saying that they, along with a companion, A. Miotte, were responsible. According to their journal, they put the tablet under a stone cairn.
Their journal does not amount to much. In it the French explorers give a rough narrative of their expedition, but you cannot reconstruct from it where they did what. That’s why finding the tablet was so important. It places the explorers at the moment they built that cairn and buried the tablet. We know thereby that in 1742-43 the brothers Verendrye, exploring from French Canada in a frustrating and futile search for the western sea, came southwest nearly as far as the Black Hills, then returned north and east across the middle of South and North Dakota.
This is historic, but more interesting to me is what we make of things like this Verendrye tablet. I have observed that people on the plains are hungry for history. They long to own a piece of it. That’s why, judging from the monuments erected by enthusiastic citizens, Fray Juan de Padilla of the Coronado expedition died four times, and why every hole in a rock on the northern plains is proclaimed by Nordic citizens to be a Viking mooring stone. This is good. It’s a sign of something, I’m not sure what, but something good.
Now back to Fort Pierre. Naturally, people here claim possession of the Verendryes by virtue of having the tablet. There were skeptics in other states who said the tablet might have been carried from elsewhere to the Fort Pierre site by Indians, that the tablet is no proof the Verendryes ever stood where I stood on that bluff overlooking the Missouri River.
Part of me takes this with the same skepticism I hold toward all those people on the southern plains who insist that Coronado traipsed across their farms because they plowed up pieces of chain mail. But when you get up close to that tablet in the Heritage Center in Pierre, it feels better to believe.
Besides, if I don’t believe their stories, they might not believe mine.