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Finding the Shining Mountains

5/19/2005:

The first recorded visit of a non-native person in what is now North Dakota was by Pierre de la Verendrye when George Washington was just six years old. While working at a trading post north of Lake Superior, local Indians told Verendrye about a westward flowing river that reached the Shining Mountains; and, beyond those mountains lay a great salty sea.

Verendrye went to the governor of New France, in the Quebec region, and asked for permission to find this river and to claim it for France. The governor granted permission and promised to reward Verendrye with a fur trading franchise if he succeeded; but, Verendrye would have to raise the money himself.

Verendrye convinced a number of Montreal merchants to give him supplies in exchange for furs he would send back. Then, in June 1731, his expedition of 50 men began paddling their canoes west. Verendrye took along three of his sons, Jean, Pierre and Francois, as well as his nephew.

Historian Erling Rolfsrud says, “For seven grueling years Verendrye struggled slowly westward. Several times he or a part of his men had to return to Montreal to replenish supplies or to placate the Montreal merchants when furs sent them were not adequate to meet their demands. The men mutinied when they had to live on boiled roots and strips of moccasin leather. The nephew died. Indians killed the eldest son, Jean,” he wrote.

Verendrye established small trading posts and supply depots along the way; the last was Ft. La Reine, which is now Portage la Prairie, Manitoba. There, the Assiniboine Indians told Verendrye there was a tribe to the south that knew how to find the Shining Mountains and the sea beyond. Even though winter was quickly approaching, Verendrye immediately set off to find this tribe.

Four weeks later, the expedition, along with about 600 Assiniboine, arrived at a stockaded village believed to have been somewhere near Minot. This earthlodge tribe is generally thought to have been Mandans; they gave the party a friendly reception and insisted on carrying Verendrye into their village. One chief was concerned about the cost of hosting the 600 Assiniboine, so he leaked a rumor that the Sioux were on their way to attack; the Assiniboine promptly left, along with Verendrye’s bag of gifts and his Cree interpreter.

Having to rely on sign language, alone, Verendrye had to learn a great deal through observation. In his journal, he wrote, “This tribe is mixed white and black. The women are fairly good looking, especially the light-colored ones; many of them have blond or fair hair.”

Verendrye and his men stayed with the tribe long enough to realize none of their hosts had been to the shining mountains or the sea beyond. Verendrye left two men with the tribe to learn their language and, despite being quite ill, headed back through deep snow and blizzards to Ft. La Reine, which they reached in February.

Verendrye’s Montreal backers refused to advance him any more money, but his sons didn’t give up the search. On this date in 1742, Francois and Louis de la Verendrye again visited the Mandans, who offered to guide them west to the “Horse” Indians. The young men made contact with a number of tribes and partially climbed what many think was a mountain in the Bighorns on January 12th, 1743. They went far enough south to meet the Teton Sioux, and on March 30th, they inscribed and buried a lead plate, which a group of children found near present-day Pierre in 1913. But the sea beyond the shining mountains wasn’t to be theirs.

Source: Erling Rolfsrud, The Story of North Dakota, Lantern Books, 1963

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm