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Across the Plains

For several years La Vérendrye had been hearing wonderful accounts of a tribe of Indians in the West who were known as the Mandans. Wherever he went, among the Chippewas, the Crees, or the Assiniboines, some one was sure to speak of the Mandans, and the stories grew more and more marvelous. La Vérendrye knew that Indians were very much inclined to exaggerate. They would never spoil a good story by limiting it to what they knew to be true. They liked a joke as well as other people; and, when they found that the white men who visited them were eager to know all about the country and the tribes of the far interior, they invented all sorts of impossible stories, in which truth and fiction were so mingled that at length the explorers did not know what to believe.

Much that was told him by the Indians concerning the Mandans La Vérendrye knew could not possibly be true; he thought that some of their stories were probably correct. The Indians said that the Mandans were white like himself, that they dressed like Europeans, wore armor, had horses and cattle, cultivated the ground, and lived in fortified towns. Their home was described as being far towards the setting sun, on a great river that flowed into the ocean. La Vérendrye knew that the Spaniards had made settlements on the western coast of America, and he thought that the mysterious strangers might perhaps be Spaniards. At any rate, they seemed to be white men, and, if the Indian stories were even partially true, they would be able to show him that way to the great water which it was the ambition of his life to find. His resolve, therefore, was inevitable. He would visit these white strangers, whoever they might be; and he had great hopes that they would be able to guide him to the object of his quest.

For some time, however, he was not able to carry out this intended visit to the Mandans. The death of his nephew La Jemeraye, followed soon after by the murder of his son Jean, upset all his plans for a time. Further, he had great difficulty in keeping peace among the Indian tribes. The Chippewas and the Crees, who had always been friendly to the French, were indignant at the treacherous massacre of the white men by the Sioux, and urged La Vérendrye to lead a war party against this enemy. La Vérendrye not only refused to do this himself, but he told them that they must on no account go to war with the Sioux. He warned them that their Great Father, the king of France, would be very angry with them if they disobeyed his commands. Had they not known him so well, the Indians would have despised La Vérendrye as a coward for refusing to revenge himself upon the Sioux for the death of his son; but they knew that, whatever his reason might be, it was not due to any fear of the Sioux. As time went on, they thought that he would perhaps change his mind, and again and again they came to him begging for leave to take the war-path. 'The blood of your son,' they said, 'cries for revenge. We have not ceased to weep for him and for the other Frenchmen who were slain. Give us permission and we will avenge their death upon the Sioux.'

La Vérendrye, however, disregarding his personal feelings, knew that it would be fatal to all his plans to let the friendly Indians have their way. An attack on the Sioux would be the signal for a general war among all the neighboring tribes. In that case his forts would be destroyed and the fur trade would be broken up. In the end, he and his men would probably be driven out of the western country, and all his schemes for the discovery of the Western Sea would come to nothing. It was therefore of the utmost importance that he should remain where he was, in the country about the Lake of the Woods, until the excitement among the Indians had quieted down and there was no longer any immediate danger of war.

At length, in the summer of 1738, La Vérendrye felt that he could carry out his plan of visiting the Mandans. He left one of his sons, Pierre, in charge of Fort St Charles, and with the other two, François and Louis, set forth on his journey to the West. Travelling down the Winnipeg river in canoes, they stopped for a few hours at Fort Maurepas, then crossed Lake Winnipeg and paddled up the muddy waters of Red River to the mouth of the Assiniboine, the site of the present city of Winnipeg, then seen by white men for the first time. La Vérendrye found it occupied by a band of Crees under two war chiefs. He landed, pitched his tent on the banks of the Assiniboine, and sent for the two chiefs and reproached them with what he had heard—that they had abandoned the French posts and had taken their furs to the English on Hudson Bay. They replied that the accusation was false; that they had gone to the English during only one season, the season in which the French had abandoned Fort Maurepas after the death of La Jemeraye, and had thus left the Crees with no other means of getting the goods they required. 'As long as the French remain on our lands,' they said, 'we promise you not to go elsewhere with our furs.' One of the chiefs then asked him where he was now going. La Vérendrye replied that it was his purpose to ascend the Assiniboine river in order to see the country. 'You will find yourself among the Assiniboines,' said the chief; 'and they are a useless people, without intelligence, who do not hunt the beaver, and clothe themselves only in the skins of buffalo. They are a good-for-nothing lot of rascals and might do you harm.' But La Vérendrye had heard such tales before and was not to be frightened from his purpose. He took leave of the Crees, turned his canoes up the shallow waters of the Assiniboine river, and ascended it to where now stands the city of Portage la Prairie. Here he built a fort, which he named Fort La Reine, in honor of the queen of France.


An Indian encampment
From a painting by Paul Kane

While this was being done, a party of Assiniboines arrived. La Vérendrye soon found, as he had expected, that the Crees through jealousy had given the Assiniboines a character which they did not deserve. With all friendliness they welcomed the strangers and were overjoyed at the presents which the French gave them. The most valued presents consisted of knives, chisels, awls, and other small tools. Up to this time these people had been dependent upon implements made of stone and of bone roughly fashioned to serve their purposes, and these implements were very crude and inferior compared with the sharp steel tools of the white men.

While La Vérendrye had been occupied in building Fort La Reine, one of his men, Louvière, had been sent to the mouth of the Assiniboine to put up a small post for the Crees. He found a suitable place on the south bank of the Assiniboine, near the point where it enters the Red, and here he built his trading post and named it Fort Rouge. This fort was abandoned in a year or two, as it was soon found more convenient to trade with the Indians either at Fort Maurepas near the mouth of the Winnipeg, or at Fort La Reine on the Assiniboine. The memory of the fort is, however, preserved to this day. The quarter of Winnipeg in the vicinity of the old fort is still known as Fort Rouge. The memory of La Vérendrye is also preserved, for a large school built near the site of the old fort bears the name of the great explorer.

The completion of Fort La Reine freed La Vérendrye to make preparations for his journey to the Mandans. He left some of his men at the fort and selected twenty to accompany him on his expedition. To each of these followers he gave a supply of powder and bullets, an ax, a kettle, and other things needful by the way. In later years horses were abundant on the western prairie, but at that time neither the French nor the Indians had horses, and everything needed for the journey was carried on men's backs.

Three days after leaving Fort La Reine, La Vérendrye met a party of Assiniboines travelling over the prairie. He gave them some small presents, and told them that he had built in their country a fort where they could get all kinds of useful articles in exchange for their furs and provisions. They seemed delighted at having white men so near, and promised to keep the fort supplied with everything that the traders required.

A day or two afterwards several other Indians appeared, from an Assiniboine village. They bore hospitable messages from the chiefs, who begged the white travelers to come to visit them. This it was difficult to do. The village was some miles distant from the road on which they were travelling and already they had lost much time because their guide was either too lazy or too stupid to take them by the most direct way to the Mandan villages on the banks of the Missouri. Still, La Vérendrye did not think it wise to disappoint the Assiniboines, or to offend them, since he might have to depend upon their support in making his plans for further discoveries. Accordingly, although it was now nearly the middle of November, the very best time of the year for travelling across the plains, he made up his mind to go to the Assiniboine village.

As the party drew near the village, a number of young warriors came to meet them, and to tell them that the Assiniboines were greatly pleased to have them as guests. It is possible that the Assiniboines had heard of the presents which the French had given to some of their countrymen, and that they too hoped to receive knives, powder and bullets, things which they prized very highly. At any rate, the explorer and his men received vociferous welcome when they entered the village. 'Our arrival,' says La Vérendrye, 'was hailed with great joy, and we were taken into the dwelling of a young chief, where everything had been made ready for our reception. They gave us and all our men very good cheer, and none of us lacked appetite.'


An Assiniboine Indian.
From a pastel by Edmund Morris


The following day La Vérendrye sent for the principal chiefs of the tribe, and gave to each of them a present of powder and ball, or knives and tobacco. He told them that if the Assiniboines would hunt beaver diligently and would bring the skins to Fort La Reine, they should receive in return everything that they needed. One of the chiefs made a speech in reply. 'We thank you,' he said, 'for the trouble you have taken to come to visit us. We are going to accompany you to the Mandans, and then to see you safely back to your fort. We have already sent word to the Mandans that you are on your way to visit them, and the Mandans are delighted. We shall travel by easy marches, so that we may hunt by the way and have plenty of provisions.' The explorer was not wholly pleased to find that the entire village was to accompany him, for this involved still further delays on the journey. It was necessary, however, to give no cause of offence; so he thanked them for their good-will, and merely urged that they should be ready to leave as soon as possible and travel with all speed by the shortest road, as the season was growing late.

On the next morning they all set out together, a motley company, the French with their Indian guides and hunters accompanied by the entire village of Assiniboines. La Vérendrye was astonished at the orderly way in which these savages, about six hundred in number, travelled across the prairies. Everything was done in perfect order, as if they were a regiment of trained soldiers. The warriors divided themselves into parties; they sent out scouts in advance to both the right and the left, in order to keep watch for enemies and also to look out for buffalo and other game; the old men marched in the centre with the women and the children; and in the rear was a strong guard of warriors. If the scouts saw buffalo ahead, they signaled to the rear-guard, who crept round the herd on both sides until it was surrounded. They killed as many buffaloes as were needed to provision the camp, and this completed the men's part of the work. It was the women who cut up the meat and carried it to the place where the company encamped for the night. The women, indeed, were the burden-bearers and had to carry most of the baggage. There were, of course, dogs in great numbers on such excursions, and these bore a part of the load. The men burdened themselves with nothing but their arms.


This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

Chronicles of Canada, Pathfinders of the Great Plains, La Vérendrye Explorations, 1731-43, by Lawrence J. Burpee, 1914

 

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