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The Failed French Journey


On this date in 1742, two French-Canadian explorers were making their way southwestward through North Dakota's badlands. Louis-Joseph de la Vérendrye and his brother François, were the sons of Pierre Gaultier de la Vérendrye, the first known white man in the area that could become North Dakota.

Little is certain about the brothers' adventure. In April, their father had sent them to find "the Western Sea" and the Rocky Mountains. They camped with the Mandans they had met four years earlier with their father.

Late in July 1742, Louis-Joseph and François left the Mandans to continue toward the Rockies, marching through the badlands, where they noted the colors and layers of the landscape, but opted against taking some of the soil back to their father. They and their four companions only carried only the essentials for their trip.

Aiming for the Rocky Mountains, the brothers probably found themselves in the Black Hills or as west as the Bighorn Mountains. One historian suggests they found White Butte, North Dakota's highest point, near Amidon. The de la Vérendrye brothers would later be called the first white men in Montana, though it’s uncertain if they made it that far.

They kept bad journals, broke their navigational instruments early on, and they failed to find the Pacific Ocean. The two turned around when the Pawnee prepared to make war on the Shoshones.

They returned to the Mandans by way of the Bad River in South Dakota. Along the way, the brothers planted a lead plate dated March 1743. It was found in 1913 near Fort Pierre by schoolchildren. The brothers' journals were found in a French archive in 1851.

The de la Vérendrye brothers' 11-month journey disappointed their father Pierre, who was in deep debt for financing his own expeditions. Pierre Gaultier de la Vérendrye died in 1749. Louis-Joseph died in a shipwreck in 1761, and his brother François, the last of the de la Vérendryes, died in 1794.

Over 60 years after the de la Vérendryes’ journey, another expedition would prove much more successful, and more legendary, finally reaching the Pacific Ocean: the Corps of Discovery, with Lewis and Clark.

Dakota Datebook written by Jack Dura


Burpee, L. J. (1915). Pathfinders of the great plains: A chronicle of La Vérendrye and his sons. Toronto: Glasgow, Brook & Company.

Flandrau, G. (1925). The Verendrye overland quest of the Pacific. Oregon Historical Society.

Holmes, K. (2008). Montana: Stories of the land. Helena, MT: Montana Historical Society Press.