Pathfinders of the Great Plains - A Chronicle of La Verendrye and his Sons
by Lawrence J. Burpee
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After tramping on for many days they came at last to an encampment of the Horse Indians. These people, just then, were in great trouble. They had been attacked not long before by a war party of the Snake Indians; many of their bravest warriors had been killed, and many of their women had been carried into captivity. When asked the way to the sea these Indians now declared that none of them had ever been there, for the very good reason that the country of the fierce Snake Indians must be crossed to reach it. They said that a neighbouring tribe, the Bow Indians, might be able to give some information, as they either themselves traded with the white men of the sea-coast, or were on friendly terms with other tribes who had been down to the sea. These Bow Indians, they added, were the only tribe who dared to fight against the Snake Indians, for they were under the leadership of a wise and skilful chief, who had more than once led his tribe to victory against these dangerous enemies. A guide {79} was found to lead the explorers to the Bow Indians, and they went off once more, still travelling south-westerly, until at length, on November 21, they came in sight of the camp of the Bows. It was a huge camp, much larger than any the explorers had yet visited. Everywhere they could see numbers of horses, asses, and mules—animals unknown among the northern tribes.

When they reached the camp the chief of the Bows met them and at once took them to his own lodge. Nothing could be more friendly or polite than his treatment of the white travellers. In fact, as Francois said, he did not seem to have the manners of a savage. 'Up to that time we had always been very well received in the villages we had visited, but what we had before experienced in that way was nothing in comparison with the gracious manners of the head chief of the Bows. He took as much care of all our belongings as if they had been his own.' With him Francois and his brother remained for some time; and, very soon, through the kindness of the chief, they learnt enough of the language to make themselves understood.

The explorers had many interesting talks with this friendly chief. They asked him if he {80} knew anything about the white people who lived on the sea-coast. 'We know them,' he replied, 'through what has been told us by prisoners of the Snake tribe. We have never been to the sea ourselves.' 'Do not be surprised,' he continued, 'to see so many Indians camped round us. Word has been sent in all directions to our people to join us here. In a few days we shall march against the Snakes; and if you will come with us, we will take you to the high mountains that are near the sea. From their summits you will be able to look upon it.' The brothers La Verendrye were overjoyed to hear such encouraging news, and agreed that one of them should accompany the Bow Indians on their expedition against the Snakes. It seemed almost too good to be true that they might be actually within reach of the sea, the goal towards which they and their father had been struggling for so many years. In fact, it proved too good to be true. Whether they had misunderstood the chief, or whether he was merely speaking from hearsay, certainly the view was far from correct that the mountains which they were approaching lay near the sea. These mountains, not far off, were the Rocky Mountains. Even if the explorers should succeed in reaching and in crossing them at {81} this point, there would still be hundreds of miles of mountain forest and plain to traverse before their eyes could rest on the waters of the Pacific ocean. Pierre and his brother never knew this, however, for they were not destined to see the western side of the mountains.

The great war party of the Bows, consisting of more than two thousand fighting men, with their families, started out towards the Snake country in December, the comparatively mild December of the south-western plains. The scene must have been singularly animated as this horde of Indians, with their wives and children, their horses and dogs, and the innumerable odds and ends that made up their camp equipage, moved slowly across the plains. Francois was too full of his own affairs to describe the odd appearance of this native army in the journal which he wrote of the expedition, but fortunately the historian Francis Parkman lived for some time among these tribes of the western plains, and he has given us a good idea of what such an Indian army must have looked like on the march. 'The spectacle,' he says, 'was such as men still young have seen in these western lands, but which no man will see again. The vast plain {82} swarmed with the moving multitude. The tribes of the Missouri and the Yellowstone had by this time abundance of horses, the best of which were used for war and hunting, and the others as beasts of burden. These last were equipped in a peculiar manner. Several of the long poles used to frame the teepees, or lodges, were secured by one end to each side of a rude saddle, while the other end trailed on the ground. Crossbars lashed to the poles, just behind the horse, kept them three or four feet apart, and formed a firm support, on which was laid, compactly folded, the buffalo-skin covering of the lodge. On this, again, sat a mother with her young family, sometimes stowed for safety in a large, open, willow basket, with the occasional addition of some domestic pet—such as a tame raven, a puppy, or even a small bear cub. Other horses were laden in the same manner with wooden bowls, stone hammers, and other utensils, along with stores of dried buffalo meat packed in cases of raw hide whitened and painted. Many of the innumerable dogs—whose manners and appearance strongly suggested their relatives the wolves, to whom, however, they bore a mortal grudge—were equipped in a similar way, with shorter poles and lighter loads. Bands of {83} naked boys, noisy and restless, roamed the prairie, practising their bows and arrows on any small animal they might find. Gay young squaws—adorned on each cheek with a spot of ochre or red clay and arrayed in tunics of fringed buckskin embroidered with porcupine quills—were mounted on ponies, astride like men; while lean and tattered hags—the drudges of the tribe, unkempt and hideous—scolded the lagging horses or screeched at the disorderly dogs, with voices not unlike the yell of the great horned owl. Most of the warriors were on horseback, armed with round white shields of bull hide, feathered lances, war clubs, bows, and quivers filled with stone-headed arrows; while a few of the elders, wrapped in robes of buffalo hide, stalked along in groups with a stately air, chatting, laughing, and exchanging unseemly jokes.'

On the first day of January 1743, the Indians, accompanied by the brothers La Verendrye and their Frenchmen, came within sight of the mountains. Rising mysteriously in the distance were those massive crags, those silent, snow-capped peaks, upon which, as far as we know, Europeans had never looked before. The party of Frenchmen and Indians pressed {84} on, for eight days, towards the foot of the mountains. Then, when they had come within a few days' journey of the place where they expected to find the Snakes, they altered their mode of advance. It was now decided to leave the women and children in camp under a small guard, while the warriors pushed on in the hope of surprising the Snakes in their winter camp near the mountains. Pierre remained in camp to look after the baggage of the party, which the Indians would probably pillage if left unguarded. Francois and his two Frenchmen went forward with the war party, and four days later they arrived at the foot of the mountains, the first Europeans who had ever put foot on those majestic slopes. Francois gazed with the keenest interest at the lofty summits, and longed to climb them to see what lay beyond.

Meanwhile he was obliged to share in a vivid human drama. The chief of the Bows had sent scouts forward to search for the camp of the Snakes, and these scouts now reappeared. They had found the camp, but the enemy had fled; and had, indeed, gone off in such a hurry that they had abandoned their lodges and most of their belongings. The effect produced by this news was singular. Instead of {85} rejoicing because the dreaded Snakes had fled before them, which was evidently the case, the Bow warriors at once fell into a panic. The Snakes, they cried, had discovered the approach of their enemies, and must have gone back to attack the Bow camp and capture the women and children. The great chief tried to reason with his warriors; he pointed out that the Snakes could not know anything about the camp, that quite evidently they had been afraid to meet the Bows and had fled before them. But it was all to no purpose. The Bows would not listen to reason; they were sure that the Snakes had played them a cunning trick and that they should hasten back as speedily as possible to save their families. The result was characteristic of savage warfare. The Indian army that had marched a few days earlier in good order to attack the enemy now fled back along the trail in a panic, each man for himself.

It was in these ignominious circumstances that Francois La Verendrye, having reached the foot of the Rocky Mountains, was obliged to turn back without going farther, leaving the mystery of the Great Sea still unsolved. Francois rode by the side of the disgusted chief and the two Frenchmen followed behind. Presently Francois noticed that his men had {86} disappeared. He galloped back for some miles, and found them resting their horses on the banks of a river. While he talked with them, his quick eye detected the approach of a party of Snake Indians from a neighbouring wood. They were covering themselves with their shields, and were evidently bent on an attack. Francois and his men loaded their guns and waited until the Indians were well within range. Then they took aim and fired. The Snakes knew little or nothing about firearms, and when one or two of their number fell before this volley, they fled in disorder.

There was still danger of an attack by a larger band of the enemy, and the Frenchmen remained on guard where they were until nightfall. Then, under cover of darkness, they attempted to follow the trail of the Bows. But the ground was so dry and hard at that season of the year that they found it impossible to pick up the trail of their friends. For two days they wandered about. Skill or good fortune, however, aided them, and at last they arrived at the camp of the Bows, tired and half starved. The chief had been anxious at the disappearance of his white guests, and was overjoyed at their safe return. It is almost needless to say that the panic-stricken warriors {87} had found their camp just as they had left it; no one had heard or seen anything of the Snakes; and the warriors were forced to submit to the jeers of the squaws for their failure to come even within sight of the enemy.

Pierre, Francois, and their two men accompanied the Bows for some days on their homeward journey. They found, however, that the Bows were travelling away from the course which they wished to follow, and so decided to leave them and to turn towards the Missouri river. The chief of the Bows seemed to feel genuine regret at bidding farewell to his French guests, and he made them promise to return and pay him another visit in the following spring, after they had seen their father at Fort La Reine. On the long journey to this point the three Frenchmen now set out across the limitless frozen prairie.

About the middle of March they came upon a party of strange Indians known as the People of the Little Cherry. They were returning from their winter's hunting, and were then only two days' journey from their village on the banks of the Missouri. Like all the other tribes, the People of the Little Cherry received the Frenchmen with perfect friendliness. The party lingered with these Indians in their {88} village until the beginning of April, and Francois spent most of his time learning their language. This he found quite easy, perhaps because he had already picked up a fair knowledge of the language of some of the neighbouring tribes, and it proved not unlike that of the Little Cherry Indians. Francois found in the village an Indian who had been brought up among the Spaniards of the Pacific Coast, and who still spoke their language as readily as he spoke his mother tongue. He questioned him eagerly about the distance to the Spanish settlements and the difficulties of the way. The man replied that the journey was long. It was also, he said, very dangerous, because it must be through the country of the Snake Indians. This Indian assured Francois that another Frenchman lived in the country where they were, in a village distant about three days' journey. Naturally this surprised Francois and his brother. They thought of going to visit him; but their horses were badly in need of a rest after the long trip from the mountains, and must be kept fresh for the journey to the Mandan villages. They therefore sent instead a letter to the Frenchman, asking him to visit them at the village of the Little Cherries, or, if that was not possible, {89} at least to send them an answer. No answer came, and we may well doubt whether such a Frenchman existed. Before leaving the country, La Verendrye buried on the summit of a hill a tablet of lead, with the arms and inscription of the French king. This was to take possession of the country for France. He also built a pyramid of stones in honour of the governor of Canada.[1]

About the beginning of April, when the horses were in good condition and all preparations had been made for the journey, the explorers said good-bye to the People of the Little Cherry and set out for the Mandan villages. Like the Bow Indians, the Little Cherries seemed sorry to lose them and begged them to come back. In return for the kindness and hospitality he had received, La Verendrye distributed some presents and promised to visit them again when he could.

On May 18 the travellers reached the {90} Mandan villages and were welcomed as if they had returned from the dead. Their long absence had led the Mandans to conclude that they had been killed by some unfriendly Indians, or that some fatal accident had happened on the way. They had intended to rest for some time at the Mandan villages, but they found that a party of Assiniboines was going to Fort La Reine, and they determined to travel with them. The Assiniboines had in fact already left on their journey, but the Frenchmen overtook them at their first camp.

This latter part of the journey had its own excitements and perils. On the last day of May, as they were travelling over the prairie, they discovered a party of Sioux waiting in ambush. The Sioux had expected to meet a smaller party, and now decided not to fight. At the same time, they were too proud to run away before the despised Assiniboines, even though they numbered only thirty and the Assiniboines numbered more than a hundred. They retreated with dignified slowness, facing around on the Assiniboines from time to time, and driving them back when they ventured too near. But when they recognized the Frenchmen, mounted on horses and armed with their deadly muskets, their attitude changed; they {91} forgot their dignity and made off as fast as they could go. Even with heavy odds against them these virile savages managed to wound several of the Assiniboines, while they lost only one man, who mistook the enemy for his friends and was captured. Pierre and Francois La Verendrye finally reached Fort La Reine on July 2, to the great delight of their father, who had grown anxious on account of their long absence. They had been away from the fort for one year and eighty-four days.

[1] This tablet remained buried where it was deposited for 170 years. In March 1913 it was found by a young girl on the west bank of the Missouri river opposite the city of Pierre, N. Dakota, thus bearing testimony to the trustworthiness of Francois La Verendrye's journal, from which this chapter was written before the tablet was discovered. Photographs of the tablet were made by W. O'Reilly of Pierre and published in the Manitoba Free Press and are reproduced in this book by courtesy of Charles N. Bell, F.R.G.S., of Winnipeg.




During all this time the elder La Verendrye had been working at other plans for discovery and for trade in the Far West. In the year 1739, on his return from the first visit to the Mandans, he had sent his son Francois to build a fort on the Lake of the Prairies, now known as Lake Manitoba. When young La Verendrye had built this fort, he went farther north to Cedar Lake, near the mouth of the Saskatchewan river, and there built another fort. The purpose was to intercept the trade of the Indians with the English on Hudson Bay. For over half a century the Indians of this region had taken their furs down the rivers leading from Lake Winnipeg to the trading-posts of the Hudson's Bay Company on the shores of the Bay, but now the French intended to offer them a market nearer home and divert to themselves this profitable trade. The first of their new forts was named Fort Dauphin, and the one on Cedar Lake was called Fort Bourbon.


Having built Fort Bourbon, Francois La Verendrye had ascended the Saskatchewan river as far as the Forks, where the north and south branches of that great river join. Here he met a number of Crees, whom he questioned as to the source of the Saskatchewan. They told him that it came from a great distance, rising among lofty mountains far to the west, and that beyond those mountains they knew of a great lake, as they called it, the water of which was not good to drink. The mountains were of course the Rocky Mountains, and the waters of the great lake which the Crees spoke of were the salt waters of the Pacific ocean. Francois La Verendrye had continued his work of building forts. Shortly after building Fort Bourbon, he built Fort Paskoyac, on the Saskatchewan, at a place now known as the Pas, between Cedar Lake and the Forks. It is interesting to know that a railway has just been completed to this place, and that it is to be continued from there to the shores of Hudson Bay. How this modern change would have startled the old fur-traders! Even if they could have dreamed of anything so wonderful as a railway, we can imagine their ridicule of the idea that some day men should travel from the East to the far-off {94} shores of the Saskatchewan in two or three days, a trip which cost them months of wearisome paddling.

In carrying on his work in the West, La Verendrye had to face difficulties even greater than those caused by the hard life in the wilderness. His base of supplies was in danger. He had many enemies in Canada, who took advantage of his absence in the West to prejudice the governor against him. They even sent false reports to the king of France, saying that he was spending his time, not in searching for a way to the Western Sea, but in making money out of the fur trade. This was not true. Not only was he making no money out of the fur trade, but, as we have seen, he was heavily in debt because of the enormous cost of carrying on his explorations. For a time, however, the truth did not help him. The tales told by his enemies were believed, and he was ordered to return to Montreal with his sons. He and they withdrew from their work in the West, left behind their promising beginnings, and returned to the East. Never again, as it happened, was the father to resume his work. Another officer, M. de Noyelle, was sent to the West to continue the work of exploration. Noyelle spent two years in the West without {95} adding anything to the information La Verendrye had gained. By that time a natural reaction had come in favour of La Verendrye, and the acting governor of Canada, the Marquis de La Galissoniere, decided to put the work of exploration again in charge of La Verendrye and his sons. In recognition of his services he was given the rank of captain and was decorated with the Cross of St Louis.

While these events were ripening, the years passed, and not until 1749 was La Verendrye restored to his leadership in the West. Though now sixty-four years old, he was overjoyed at the prospect. Not only was he permitted to continue his search for the Western Sea; the quality of his work was recognized, for the governor and the king had at last understood that, instead of seeking his own profit in his explorations, as his enemies had said, he had the one object of adding to the honour and glory of his country. He made preparations to start from Montreal in the spring of 1750, and intended to push forward as rapidly as possible to Fort Bourbon, or Fort Paskoyac, where he would spend the winter. In the spring of the following year he would ascend the Saskatchewan river and make his way over the mountains to the shores of the Western {96} Sea, the Pacific ocean as we know it to-day. But the greatest of all enemies now blocked his way. La Verendrye was taken ill while making his preparations for the expedition, and before the close of the year 1749 he had set out on the journey from which no man returns.

After the death of La Verendrye, his sons made preparations to carry out his plan for reaching the Western Sea by way of the Saskatchewan river. They had the same unselfish desire to bring honour to their king and to add new territories to their native land. Moreover, this project, which their father had had so much at heart, had become now for them a sacred duty. To their dismay, however, they soon found that the promise made to their father did not extend to themselves. Another officer, Legardeur de Saint-Pierre, was appointed by the governor of Canada to carry on the search for the Western Sea. They had spent years of toil and discomfort in the wilderness and endured countless hardships and dangers. They had carefully studied the languages, manners, and customs of the Indian tribes, and they had found out by hard experience what would be the best means of completing their discovery. Yet now they were thrown aside in {97} favour of an officer who had never been in the Far West and who knew nothing of the conditions he would there be compelled to meet.

They could at least appeal for justice. In a last attempt to obtain this for himself and his brothers, Francois de La Verendrye wrote this letter to the king's minister:

The only resource left to me is to throw myself at the feet of your Lordship and to trouble you with the story of my misfortunes. My name is La Verendrye; my late father is known here [in Canada] and in France by the exploration for the discovery of the Western Sea to which he devoted the last fifteen years of his life. He travelled and made myself and my brothers travel with such vigour that we should have reached our goal, if he had had only a little more help, and if he had not been so much thwarted, especially by envy. Envy is still here, more than elsewhere, a prevailing passion against, which one has no protection. While my father, my brothers, and myself were exhausting ourselves with toil, and while we were incurring a crushing burden of expense, his steps and ours were represented as directed only towards [our own gain by] the finding of {98} beaver; the outlay he was forced to incur was described as dissipation; and his narratives were spoken of as a pack of lies. Envy as it exists in this country is no half envy; its principle is to calumniate furiously in the hope that if even half of what is said finds favour, it will be enough to injure. In point of fact, my father, thus opposed, had to his sorrow been obliged more than once to return and to make us return because of the lack of help and protection. He has even been reproached by the court [for not giving adequate reports upon his work]; he was, indeed, more intent on making progress than on telling what he was doing until he could give definite statements. He was running into debt, he failed to receive promotions. Yet his zeal for his project never slackened, persuaded as he was that sooner or later his labours would be crowned with success and recompense.

At the time when he was most eager in the good work, envy won the day, and he saw the posts he had established and his own work pass into other hands. While he was thus checked in his operations, the reward of a plentiful harvest of beaver skins [which he had made possible] went {99} to another rather than himself. Yet [in spite of this profitable trade the good work slackened]; the posts, instead of multiplying, fell into decay, and no progress was made in exploration; it was this, indeed, which grieved him the most.

Meanwhile the Marquis de la Galissoniere arrived in the country [to act as governor]. In the hubbub of contradictory opinions that prevailed, he came to the conclusion that the man who had pursued such discoveries at his own charge and expense, without any cost to the king, and who had gone into debt to establish useful posts, merited better fortune. Apart from advancing the project of discovery, practical services had been rendered. There was [the marquis reported] a large increase of beaver in the colony, and four or five posts had been well-established, and defended by forts as good as could be made in countries so distant; a multitude of savages had been turned into subjects of the king; some of them, in a party which I commanded, showed an example to our own domiciled savages by striking at the Anniers Indians, who are devoted to England. Progress [the marquis concluded] could be hastened and rendered {100} more efficacious only by allowing the work to remain in the same hands.

Thus it was that the Marquis de la Galissoniere was good enough to explain his position. No doubt he expressed himself to the court to a similar effect, for in the following year, that is to say last year, my father was honoured with the Cross of St Louis, and was invited to continue with his sons the work which he had begun. He made arrangements with great earnestness for starting on his expedition; he spared nothing that might make for success; he had already bought and prepared all the goods to be used in trade; he inspired me and my brothers with his own ardour. Then in the month of December last death carried him off.

Great as was my grief at the time, I could never have imagined or foreseen all that I lost in losing him. When I succeeded to his engagements and his responsibilities, I ventured to hope that I should succeed to the same advantages. I had the honour to write on the subject to the Marquis de la Jonquiere [then governor], informing him that I had recovered from an indisposition from which I had been suffering, and which might {101} serve as a pretext to some one seeking to supplant me. His reply was that he had chosen Monsieur de Saint-Pierre to go to the Western Sea.

I started at once for Quebec from Montreal, where I then was; I represented the situation in which I was left by my father; I declared that there was more than one post in the direction of the Western Sea and that I and my brothers would be delighted to be under the orders of Monsieur de Saint-Pierre, and that we could content ourselves, if necessary, with a single post, and that the most distant one; I stated that we even asked no more than leave to go on in advance [of the new leader], so that while we were pushing the work of exploration, we might be able to help ourselves by disposing of my father's latest purchases and of what remained to us in the posts. We should in this have the consolation of making our utmost efforts to meet the wishes of the court.

The Marquis de la Jonquiere, though he felt the force of my representations, and, as it seemed to me, was touched by them, told me at last that Monsieur de Saint-Pierre did not wish for either me or my brothers. I asked what would become of the debts we {102} had incurred. Monsieur de Saint-Pierre, however, had spoken, and I could not obtain anything. I returned to Montreal with this not too consoling information. There I offered for sale a small piece of property, all that I had inherited from my father. The proceeds of this sale served to satisfy my most urgent creditors.

Meanwhile the season was advancing. There was now the question of my going as usual to the rendezvous arranged with my hired men, so as to save their lives [by bringing provisions], and to secure the stores which, without this precaution, would probably be pillaged and abandoned. In spite of Monsieur de Saint-Pierre, I obtained permission to make this trip, and I was subject to conditions and restrictions such as might be imposed on the commonest voyageur. Nevertheless, scarcely had I left when Monsieur de Saint-Pierre complained of my action and alleged that this start of mine before him injured him to the amount of more than ten thousand francs. He also accused me, without the slightest reserve, of having loaded my canoe beyond the permission accorded me.

The accusation was considered and my canoe was pursued; had I been overtaken {103} at once, Monsieur de Saint-Pierre would have been promptly reassured. He overtook me at Michilimackinac, and if I can believe what he said, he now saw that he had been in the wrong in acting as he did, and was vexed with himself for not having taken me and my brothers with him. He expressed much regret to me and paid me many compliments. It may be that this is his usual mode of acting; but it is difficult for me to recognize in it either good faith or humanity.

Monsieur de Saint-Pierre might have obtained all that he has obtained; he might have made sure of his interests and have gained surprising advantages; and have taken [as he desired] some relative with him while not shutting us out entirely. Monsieur de Saint-Pierre is an officer of merit, and I am only the more to be pitied to find him thus turned against me. Yet in spite of the favourable impressions he has created on different occasions, he will find it difficult to show that in this matter he kept the main interest [that of discovery] in view, and that he conformed to the intentions of the court and respected the kindly disposition with which the Marquis de la Galissoniere honours us. Before {104} such a wrong could be done to us, he must have injured us seriously in the opinion of Monsieur de la Jonquiere, who himself is always disposed to be kind.

None the less am I ruined. My returns for this year were only half collected, and a thousand subsequent difficulties make the disaster complete; with credit gone in relation both to my father and to myself, I am in debt for over twenty thousand francs; I remain without funds and without patrimony. Moreover, I am a simple ensign of the second grade; my elder brother has only the same rank as myself, while my younger brother is only a junior cadet.

Such is the net result of all that my father, my brothers, and I have done. The one who was murdered some years ago was not the most unfortunate of us. His blood does not count in our behalf. Unless Monsieur de Saint-Pierre becomes imbued with better sentiments and communicates them to the Marquis de la Jonquiere, all my father's toils and ours fail to serve us, and we must abandon what has cost us so much. We certainly should not have been and should not be useless to Monsieur de Saint-Pierre. I explained to him fully how I believed I could serve him; clever as he {105} may be, and inspired with the best intentions, I venture to say that by keeping us away he is in danger of making many mistakes and of getting often on the wrong track. It is something gained to have gone astray, but to have found out your error; we think that now we should be sure of the right road to reach the goal, whatever it may be. It is our greatest cause of distress to find ourselves thus snatched away from a sphere of action in which we were proposing to use every effort to reach a definite result.

Deign therefore, Monseigneur, to judge the cause of three orphans. Our misfortune is great, but is it without remedy? There are in the hands of your Lordship resources of compensation and of consolation, and I venture to hope for some benefit from them. To find ourselves thus excluded from the West would be to find ourselves robbed in the most cruel manner of our heritage. We should have had all that was bitter and others all that was sweet.

This eloquent appeal of Francois fell upon unheeding ears; the appointment of his rival was confirmed. The only grace he could obtain was leave to take to the West a small portion of the supplies for which he and his {106} brothers had already paid, and to return with the furs his men had collected and brought down to Michilimackinac. Thus ended, sadly enough, the devoted efforts of this remarkable family of explorers to complete the long search for a route overland to the Pacific ocean. The brothers La Verendrye, ruined in purse and denied opportunity, fell into obscurity and were forgotten.

It remains only to tell briefly of the attempts of Saint-Pierre and his men to carry out the same great project. In obedience to the governor's instructions, Saint-Pierre left Montreal in the spring of 1750. He paddled up the Ottawa, and then through Lake Nipissing, and down the French river to Georgian Bay. He crossed Lake Huron to Michilimackinac, where he remained for a short time to give his men a rest. Then he pushed on to Grand Portage, where he spent some time in talking to the Indians. In spite of his ungenerous treatment of the sons of La Verendrye, Saint-Pierre was a brave and capable soldier; but he knew very little of the hardships of western exploration, or of the patience needed in dealing with Indians. He grumbled bitterly about the difficulties and hardships of the portages, which La Verendrye {107} had taken as a matter of course; and, instead of treating the Indians with patience and forbearance, he lost no opportunity to harangue and scold them. We need not wonder, therefore, that the natives, who had looked up to La Verendrye as a superior being, soon learned to dislike the overbearing Saint-Pierre, and would do nothing to help him in his attempts at exploration.

Saint-Pierre visited Fort St Charles; he spent the winter at Fort Maurepas; in the spring of 1751 he went on to Fort La Reine. Meanwhile he had sent Niverville, a young officer of his party, to the Saskatchewan river, with instructions to push his discoveries westward beyond the farthest point reached by La Verendrye. Winter had set in before Niverville set out on his long journey, and he travelled over the snow and ice with snowshoes, dragging his provisions on toboggans. He knew nothing of the Indian method of harnessing dogs to their toboggans, and he and his men dragged the toboggans themselves. He travelled slowly across Lake Winnipeg, over rough ice and through deep snowdrifts, with no protection from the bitter winds. So great were the hardships that, in the end, he was compelled to abandon some of the heavier {108} supplies and provisions. Before he and his men reached Fort Paskoyac they were at the point of starvation. During the last few days they had nothing to eat but a few small fish caught through holes in the ice.

Niverville was taken seriously ill, and had to remain at Fort Paskoyac, while some of his men in the spring of 1751 ascended the Saskatchewan in canoes. These men, we are told, paddled up the river to the foot of the Rocky Mountains, where they built a fort, named Fort La Jonquiere, in honour of the governor. Later in the year Niverville followed his men up the river. At Fort La Jonquiere he met a party of Western Indians, who told him that in the course of a war expedition they had encountered a number of Indians of a strange tribe carrying loads of beaver skins. These strange Indians told the Frenchmen that they were on their way over the Rocky Mountains to trade their furs with white men on the sea-coast. For some reason, either through lack of supplies or because he did not possess the courage and enthusiasm which had carried the La Verendryes through so many difficulties, Niverville made no effort to cross the mountains. This attempt to reach the Western Sea ended, so far as French {109} explorers were concerned, at Fort La Jonquiere. All the toils and hardships of the French explorers ended in failure to achieve the great end at which they aimed. Members of another race reaped the coveted reward. Many years later a Scottish-Canadian explorer, Alexander Mackenzie, realized La Verendrye's dream by successfully crossing the Rocky Mountains and forcing his way through the difficult country that lay beyond, until at last he stood upon the shores of the Pacific ocean.

Meanwhile Saint-Pierre had remained at Fort La Reine, leaving the work of exploration to his young lieutenant, Niverville. One incident of his life there remains to be described before we close this story of the search for the Western Sea. It cannot be better told than in Saint-Pierre's own narrative:

On February 22, 1752 [he says], about nine o'clock in the morning, I was at this post with five Frenchmen. I had sent the rest of my people, consisting of fourteen persons, to look for provisions, of which I had been in need for several days. I was sitting quietly in my room, when two hundred Assiniboines entered the fort, all of them armed. These Indians scattered immediately all through the place; several {110} of them even entered my room, but unarmed; others remained in adjacent parts of the fort. My people came to warn me of the behaviour of these Indians. I ran to them and told them sharply that they were very impudent to come in a crowd to my house, and armed. One of them answered in the Cree language that they came to smoke. I told them that they were not behaving properly, and that they must leave the fort at once. I believe that the firmness with which I spoke somewhat frightened them, especially as I put four of the most resolute out of the door, without their saying a word.

I went at once to my room. At that very moment, however, a soldier came to tell me that the guard-house was full of Indians, who had taken possession of the arms. I ran to the guard-house and demanded, through a Cree interpreter, what they meant by such behaviour. During all this time I was preparing to fight them with my weak force. My interpreter, who proved a traitor, said that these Indians had no bad intentions. Yet, a moment before, an Assiniboine orator, who had been constantly making fine speeches to me, had told the interpreter that, in spite of him, the Indians would kill and rob me.


When I had barely made out their intentions I failed to realize that I ought to have taken their arms from them. [To frighten them] I seized hold of a blazing brand, broke in the door of the powder magazine, and knocked down a barrel of gunpowder. Over this I held the brand, and I told the Indians in an assured tone [through the interpreter] that I expected nothing at their hands, and that even if I was killed I should have the glory of subjecting them to the same fate. No sooner had the Indians seen the lighted brand, and the barrel of gunpowder with its head staved in, and heard my interpreter, than they all fled out of the gate of the fort. They damaged the gate considerably in their hurried flight. I soon laid down my brand, and then I had nothing more exciting to do than to close the gate of the fort.

Soon after this incident with the Assiniboines, Saint-Pierre gave up his half-hearted attempt to find a route to the Western Sea, and returned to Montreal. He had proved himself a brave man enough. He did not, however, understand, and made no attempt to understand, the character of the Indians, and, as an explorer, he was a complete failure. In {112} a couple of years he managed to undo all the work which La Verendrye had accomplished. After he abandoned the West, the forts which had been built there with such difficulty and at such great expense soon fell into decay. The only men who had the knowledge and the enthusiasm to make real La Verendrye's dream of exploration, his own sons, were denied the privilege of doing so; and no one else seemed anxious even to attempt such a difficult task.

The period of French rule in Canada was now rapidly drawing to a close. Instead of adding to the territories of France in North America, her sons were preparing to make their last stand in defence of what they already possessed. Half a dozen years later their dream of western exploration, and of a great North American empire reaching from the Atlantic to the Pacific, came to an end on the Plains of Abraham. It was left for those of another race who came after them to turn the dream of their rivals into tangible achievements. It must never be forgotten, however, that, although Pierre de La Verendrye failed to complete the great object of his ambition, we owe to him and his gallant sons the discovery of a large part of what is to-day Western Canada.



An English translation of The Journals of La Verendrye edited by Lawrence J. Burpee, with the French text, will be found among the publications of the Champlain Society. The reader should consult also Parkman, A Half Century of Conflict, chapter xvi.; Burpee, The Search for the Western Sea; Shortt and Doughty (editors), Canada and Its Provinces, vol. i., 'The Pathfinders of the Great West.'



Abnakis, 4.

Assiniboines, 49, 50-63, 90, 109.

Aulneau, Father, 37-40.

Beauharnois, Marquis de, 16, 31, 33

Bow Indians, 78-87.

Caughnawagas, 4.

Chippewas, 39, 41, 43, 46.

Coureurs de bois, 10-12.

Cree Indians, 39, 46, 47, 49, 93.

Fort Bourbon, 92.

Fort Dauphin, 92.

Fort La Jonquiere, 108.

Fort La Reine, 49, 68, 91, 107.

Fort Maurepas, 31, 47, 107.

Fort Michilimackinac, 19, 29.

Fort Paskoyac, 93, 108.

Fort Rouge, 49.

Fort St Charles, 30, 37, 47, 107.

Fort St Pierre, 30.

Good-looking Indians, 76, 77.

Horse Indians, 78.

Kaministikwia river, 15, 31, 37.

La Galissoniere, Marquis de, 95, 96, 99, 100.

La Jemeraye, 19, 28, 29, 30; dies, 37.

La Jonquiere, Marquis de, 100, 101.

La Verendrye, Francois, 19, 65, 67, 74, 81; reaches Rocky Mountains, 84; 87, 92, 96, 97-106.

La Verendrye, Jean-Baptiste, 19, 30, 36, 37; is killed by the Sioux, 40.

La Verendrye, Louis, 36, 47.

La Verendrye, Pierre, son of the elder Pierre, 19, 47, 74, 87.

La Verendrye, Pierre Gaultier de, birth and childhood, 1-3; enters army, 3; expedition against Deerfield, 4-7; raid on St John's, 7; serves in War of Spanish Succession, and is made lieutenant, 8; returns to Canada and enters fur trade, 9; determines to find the Western Sea, 14; marries Mlle Dandonneau, 14; commands trading-post on Fort Nipigon, 15; granted monopoly of Western fur trade as a means of financing his Western expedition, 17-19; his first journey of exploration, 20-32; returns to Montreal, 33-5; starts again for the West, 36; refuses to revenge himself on the Sioux for the murder of his son, 46; with the Assiniboines, 49-54; with the Mandans, 55-68; falls ill, 69; returns to Assiniboines, 70; at Fort La Reine, 71, 72, 74, 92; returns to Montreal, 94; given the rank of captain and decorated, 95; dies, 96; 112.

Louviere, builds Fort Rouge, 49.

Mackenzie, Alexander, 109.

Mandans, tribe of Indians, 44-67, 72, 73, 89.

Messager, Father, 19, 30.

Niverville, 107-8.

Noyelle, M. de, 94.

Ochagach, his story of the Western Sea, 15-16, 19.

Parkman, Francis, his description of Bow Indians, 81-3.

People of the Little Cherry, 87-89.

Rainy Lake, fort built at, 29.

Rocky Mountains, explorers reach, 85, 93, 108, 109.

Rouville, Hertel de, guerilla leader, 4.

Saint-Pierre, Legardeur de, 96, 102-3, 104, 106-7, 109-11.

Sioux Indians, 39-43, 46, 90, 91.

Snake Indians, 80, 86, 88.

Subercase, leader of raid on St John's, 8.

Three Rivers, 1-2.

Western Sea, 12-19, 21, 73, 93, 95, 109.

Winnipeg, Lake, fort built at, 30-1.

Printed by T. and A. Constable, Printers to His Majesty at the Edinburgh University Press








2. THE MARINER OF ST MALO By Stephen Leacock.




4. THE JESUIT MISSIONS By Thomas Guthrie Marquis.

5. THE SEIGNEURS OF OLD CANADA By William Bennett Munro.

6. THE GREAT INTENDANT By Thomas Chapais.




8. THE GREAT FORTRESS By William Wood.

9. THE ACADIAN EXILES By Arthur G. Doughty.


11. THE WINNING OF CANADA By William Wood.








15. THE WAR CHIEF OF THE OTTAWAS By Thomas Guthrie Marquis.








21. THE RED RIVER COLONY By Louis Aubrey Wood.


23. THE CARIBOO TRAIL By Agnes C. Laut.



24. THE FAMILY COMPACT By W. Stewart Wallace.

25. THE 'PATRIOTES' OF '37 By Alfred D. DeCelles.

26. THE TRIBUNE OF NOVA SCOTIA By William Lawson Grant.









31. ALL AFLOAT By William Wood.

32. THE RAILWAY BUILDERS By Oscar D. Skelton.



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