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Banner: Pathfinders and Passageways: The Exploration of Canada About This Site
The Mapmakers: An Essay in Four Parts
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Pierre Gaultier de Varennes et de La Vérendrye (1685 - 1749)
Jean-Baptiste de La Vérendrye (1713 - 1736)
Pierre de La Vérendrye (1714 - 1755)
François de La Vérendrye (1715 - 1794)
Louis-Joseph de La Vérendrye (1717 - 1761)
Christophe Dufrost de La Jemerais (1708 - 1736)

After La Salle's last expedition, French and Canadian explorers approached the Mississippi River from the south, except for the brothers Pierre-Antoine and Paul Mallet, who got as far as Santa Fe, New Mexico, from Louisiana in 1739. The search for the western sea through the north would be taken up by Pierre Gaultier de Varennes et de La Vérendrye and his four sons, Jean-Baptiste, Pierre, François and Louis-Joseph, and his nephew Christophe Dufrost de La Jemerais.

Born in Trois-Rivières in 1685, Pierre Gaultier de Varennes et de La Vérendrye was the son of Jean-René de Varennes, Governor of Trois-Rivières, and of Marie Boucher, the daughter of the first governor of Trois-Rivières. A military officer in Europe and then in New France, he farmed a piece of land near Trois-Rivières before being named commanding officer of the post at Kaministiquia (Thunder Bay) in 1727. A passion for exploration was lit in him by Native people's descriptions of a sea west of the Great Lakes. La Vérendrye proposed to Governor Beauharnois and to Hocquart, the district administrator, that he go in search of this sea to set up trading posts and to encourage the Cree to bring their furs to the French rather that to Hudson's Bay posts. His project was supported. With little money of his own, La Vérendrye created a company with several Montreal merchants. To pay the costs of the expedition, the company obtained a three-year monopoly on the furs that would come from the newly discovered territories. The Governor appointed La Vérendrye as administrator of the fur trade district called Mer de l'Ouest.

On August 26, 1731, La Vérendrye left Montreal with three of his sons, Jean-Baptiste (18 years old), Pierre (17) and François (15), his nephew La Jemerais and approximately 50 hired people as well as the Jesuit Charles-Michel Mésaiger. Their expedition to the north was punctuated by their establishment of trading posts. From Kaministiquia, they went as far as Rainy Lake, where they set up Fort St-Pierre. The following year, they built Fort St-Charles on Lake of the Woods. Two years later, the explorers built Fort Maurepas at the mouth of the Red River on Lake Winnipeg.

These explorations and settlements did not occur without drama. After staying at the colony, the father La Vérendrye returned west in October 1736 with his youngest son, Louis-Joseph. On arrival at Fort St. Charles, he learned of the death of his nephew, La Jemerais, as a result of illness in May. This death was followed by an even sadder event. In 1734, caught in the middle of wars between First Nations, La Vérendrye had made the mistake of leaving his son Jean-Baptiste with the Assiniboine as an advisor to them on matters such as trade and war. On June 6, 1736, the Sioux, enemies of the Assiniboine, decapitated the young man as well as 19 other men at Lake of the Woods.

In spite of his sorrow, La Vérendrye could not stop his explorations -- the money that had been invested in his journeys obliged him to continue. During 1738-1739, the remaining members of the La Vérendrye family explored the complex network of Manitoba lakes and rivers as well as the Red, Assiniboine and White rivers (in southern Saskatchewan) and helped build Fort La Reine (Portage-La-Prairie). These discoveries were followed, two years later, by the establishment of forts Dauphin, on Dauphin Lake, and Bourbon, on Lac La Biche.

La Vérendrye put great faith in Native guides, especially in Auchagah, a Cree, who informed him of the existence of various passable routes west of Lake Superior.

" Rapport au guide j'ay fait choix d'un nommé Auchagah Sauvage de mon poste fort attaché à la nation françoise le plus en état de guider le convoy et dont il n'y a pas lieu de craindre que l'on soit abandonné dans la route,"

"With reference to the guide, the man I have chosen is one named Auchagah, a savage of my post, greatly attached to the French nation, the man most capable of guiding a party, and with whom there would be no fear of our being abandoned on the way."

(Burpee 1927, 52)

"Le premier fevrier, j'ay fait partir quinze sauvages et leurs femmes pour me tracer le chemin le plus court, le débarasser et me marquer les campemens, je garday les huit autres et leurs femmes pour mener les vivres et me servir."

"On the first of February I sent off fifteen savages and their wives to mark out the shortest way for me, clear it of obstacles and select places to camp; the eight others and their wives I kept to carry provisions and be of service to me."

(Burpee 1927, 240)

In October 1738, La Vérendrye, his son Louis-Joseph, 20 men, the Nolan merchants and 25 Assiniboine left for the southwest to discover a great river in the land of the Mandan. From Fort La Reine, they headed towards the sources of the Missouri River. At Little Knife River (North Dakota), La Vérendrye, physically exhausted, sent Louis-Joseph on to the Missouri. Because of high cliffs, the latter did not see that the river flowed south. After this expedition, Pierre de La Vérendrye returned to Montreal, where he learned of the death of his wife.

Resolved to find the western sea, La Vérendrye the elder returned to Fort La Reine in 1741 to see if he could reach this sea through the southwest. In 1742-1743, he sent his sons Louis-Joseph and François to the Mandan, an expedition that took longer than 14 months, as far as the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming. Faced by wars between the First Nations in the area, they returned to the junction of the Missouri and Bad rivers, present-day site of Pierre city, in the centre of South Dakota. They buried a lead plaque that spoke of the mission that was entrusted to them by the Marquis of Beauharnois, Governor of New France. La Vérendrye returned to Montreal without having reached the western sea.

Faced by criticism from Minister Maurepas for not reaching the western sea and losing money year after year, Pierre de La Vérendrye submitted his resignation in 1743. His sons stayed in western posts for several years before returning to the colony and serving in the army. If La Vérendrye met with impatience from Maurepas, the same cannot be said of the governors Beauharnois and de La Galisonnière, who provided him with trade licences and bestowed upon him the rank of army captain. Shortly before his death, in 1749, Louis XV recognized his exploits by bestowing on him the highest military honour reserved for officers, the Saint-Louis Cross.

La Vérendrye's explorations pushed the limits of New France to the Saskatchewan River in the north and to the borders of South Dakota and Wyoming. Their last expeditions contributed to opening the Saskatchewan route not only to the English explorers who were to follow 30 years later but also to two French Canadians, François-Antoine and Joseph Larocque, who would pick up the search for the western sea by means of the Missouri and reach the Pacific. La Vérendrye's explorations also led the Hudson's Bay Company to send explorers to the country's interior because the profitability of its trading posts were threatened by those that the La Vérendryes and their successors had set up.

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