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La Verendrye


On this date in 1738, Pierre La Verendrye was midway through a 10 day stay with the Mandan Indians; reportedly, he and his group were the first white men to provide written records about the Native Americans they encountered.

Verendrye was born at a trading post in Quebec in 1685. Native Canadians who visited the post often spoke of a river flowing west to the ocean and also told of a tribe called the Mandans who they described as “white Indians” living in dwellings that resembled those of the French.

The stories worked on Verendrye’s imagination, and he devised a plan to hunt for both the river to the sea and the fabled “white Indians.” He won French government approval and was financed by Montreal merchants eager to cash in on the fur trade in the newly discovered territory.

In 1731, Verendrye, three of his sons, a nephew and about 50 men set out by canoe for the northern boundary waters of Minnesota. From there, Verendrye built a chain of trading posts along a canoe route from the Lake of the Woods to Lake Winnipeg and the Red River. It was dangerous work, and one of Verendrye’s sons, his nephew and several others lost their lives.

Three years later, Verendrye went back to Quebec having established a trade route, but not having met either of his two main goals. So, in 1738, 53-year-old Verendrye again set out on his mission. The 55 man expedition began their epic journey from Lake Manitoba on October 13th, expecting to reach the Mandans in about two weeks. Instead, the trip lasted 46 days, and it wasn’t until December 3rd that the group finally entered the first Mandan village.

As Lewis and Clark discovered more than 60 years later, the Mandans were very friendly; they invited their visitors to share their food, and they traded with enthusiasm.

Verendrye described his “white Indians” as: “...mixed white and black. The women are fairly good looking...many of them have blond or fair hair. Both the men and the women...are very industrious.

Despite bitter cold and hospitable hosts, Verendrye decided to head home 10 days later. He was very ill, and the trip took him more than two months. He later wrote, “Never in my life have I experienced so much misery, pain and fatigue as on that journey.”

Unfortunately, Verendrye didn’t receive a hero’s welcome back in Quebec. He was now deep in debt and was looked down on for failing to find the Pacific water route. But despite being considered a failure, Verendrye’s contributions to exploration and trade were recognized five years later by the King of France, who not only gave him the prestigious Croix de Saint-Louis award, but also put him in charge of managing the western fur posts he helped create.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm