Pierre Gaultier de Varennes et de la Verendrye

November 17, 1685 - December 5, 1749

Verendrye, Pierre Gaultier de Varennes et de la, explorer, fur trader (Nov. 17, 1685-Dec. 5, 1749). Born at Three Rivers, Quebec, he studied briefly at the Quebec seminary, was commissioned in the colonial regulars in 1696 and was a member of Hertel de Rouville's force which attacked Deerfield, Massachusetts, in 1704. He campaigned briefly in Newfoundland, went to France in 1708 and was commissioned in the Bretagne Regiment, being seriously wounded and captured by the British on September 11, 1709; he returned to Canada in 1712. He married, fathered six children, and lived quietly for 15 years, entering meanwhile into the fur trade in a small way. In 1726 a brother, Jacques Rene Gaultier de Varennes came into command of a wilderness area north of Lake Superior, with headquarters at Kaministiquia (present Fort William, Ontario) and Verendrye was taken into the company as second in command; he became commander in 1728 when his brother left to take part in a campaign against the Fox Indians. Verendrye became interested in the perennial French preoccupation with the "western sea." as a theoretical pathway to the Orient, and questioned Indians about the lands and peoples to the west. In 1730 he went to Quebec, conferred with governor Charles de la Boische, the Marquis de Beauharnois, who became his friend and longtime supporter. Beauharnois determined to send Verendrye the next summer to Lake Winnipeg to build a post; in 1731 Verendrye journeyed with his party to the western end of Lake Superior and went on to Rainy Lake where Fort St. Pierre was built, the first of eight posts he constructed in the northwest. Fort St. Charles was built on Lake of the Woods the next year, it serving for some time as Verendrye's principal base. In 1734 he again returned to Montreal, received some financial assistance from Beauharnois and the next year went west again, eventually reaching Lake Winnipeg and the Red River of the North, then returned to Quebec in 1737, still seeking substantial backing for further exploration to the west. Thus far his probing the frontier and pushing it northwestward had benefitted the beaver trade, but had not fulfilled his ambitions and his mission to explore a route to the western sea. He argued however that employment to large numbers of French, the capture of considerable numbers of slaves and the harvest of great quantities of beaver had all been of benefit to France. He returned to the west in 1738, reaching Fort Maurepas on the Red River September 22 and building Fort La Reine on the site of the present Portage la Prairie on the Assiniboin River south of Lake Winnipeg. On October 18, with two sons, 20 other whites and 25 Assiniboins he struck off for the southwest, on the third day being joined by an additional 40 lodges of Assiniboins. He reached the Mandan villages on the Missouri River in present North Dakota December 3, the site about 20 miles from the present town of Sanish. He found that "This nation is mixed white and black (meaning perhaps, fair-skinned and red-brown skinned). The women are fairly good-looking, especially the white, many with blonde and fair hair . . . . The men are stout and tall, generally very active, fairly good looking with a good physiognomy and very affable. The women have not the Indian physiognomy . . ." He said also that their forts were well built, "the palisade supported on cross-pieces mortised into posts of fifteen feet," surrounded by a moat 15 feet deep and 18 feet wide. "Their fort can only be gained by steps or posts which can be removed when threatened by an enemy. If all their forts are alike they may be called impregnable to Indians. Their fortifications are not Indian." Since Verendrye was the first white of record to visit the Mandans, his report is of particular interest; he did not describe what tools they used to "mortise" the joints in their log fortifications. He and his expedition were well treated during their visit to the several Mandan villages. Verendrye regained Fort La Reine in January 1739, and went on the next year to Quebec where Beauharnois received him as warmly as ever and granted him a fur trade monopoly at the posts he had founded. He reached Fort La Reine once more in 1741, sent out on another exploration with his son Louis Joseph Gaultier de la Verendrye that took the expedition in 1742-43 perhaps to the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming because of which Louis Joseph is considered by some to have "discovered" the Rockies, or at least the northern extension of them. Verendrye resigned his position as commandant of the northwest in 1743, realizing that support for him was wanting in Paris, although he won a comfortable retirement and maintained his economic interests in the west. He died at Montreal. Verendrye was one of the great figures of the frontier of New France, although not sufficiently appreciated by the officials of his own day, a fate not rare among enterprising Frenchmen of the time.

Russell Reid, "Verendrye's Journey to North Dakota in 1738." No. Dak. Hist., Vol. 32, No. 2 (Apr. 1965), 117-29 (this presents a detailed study and map of Verendrye's route on his 1738-39 exploration journey); The Verendrye Overland Quest of the Pacific. Repr. from Quar. of Ore. Hist. Soc., Vol. XXVI, No. 2 (June 1925); DCB, III DAB; G. Hubert Smith, The Exploration of La Verendryes in the Northern Plains, 1738-43, ed. by Raymond Wood. Lincoln Univ. of Nebr. Press, 1980.