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First Attempt at Exploration

As La Vérendrye led his men from the gates of Montreal to the river where waited his little fleet of birch-bark canoes, his departure was watched with varied and conflicting emotions. In the crowd that surrounded him were friends and enemies; some who openly applauded his design, others who less openly scoffed at it; priests exhorting him to devote all his energies to furthering the missionary aims of their Church among the wild tribes of the West; jealous traders commenting among themselves upon the injustice involved in granting a monopoly of the western fur trade to this scheming adventurer; partners in the enterprise anxiously watching the loading of the precious merchandise they had advanced to him, and wondering whether their cast of the dice would bring fortune or failure; busybodies bombarding him with advice; and a crowd of idle onlookers, divided in their minds as to whether La Vérendrye would return triumphantly from the Western Sea laden with the spoils of Cathay and Cipango, or would fall a victim to the half-human monsters that were reputed to inhabit the wilderness of the West.

But now everything was ready. La Vérendrye gave the word of command, and the canoes leaped forward on their long voyage. A new search for the Western Sea had begun. No man knew how it would end. The perils and hardships encountered by the discoverers of America in crossing the Atlantic were much less terrible than those with which La Vérendrye and his men must battle in exploring the boundless plains of the unknown West. The voyage across the sea would occupy but a few weeks; this journey by inland waterways and across the illimitable spaces of the western prairies would take many months and even years. There was a daily menace from savage foes lurking on the path of the adventurers. Hardy and dauntless must they be who should return safely from such a quest. Little those knew who stood enviously watching the departure of the expedition what bitter tribute its leader must pay to the relentless gods of the Great Plains for his hardihood in invading their savage domain.

The way lay up the broad and picturesque Ottawa, rich even then with the romantic history of a century of heroic exploits. This was the great highway between the St Lawrence and the Upper Lakes for explorers, missionaries, war parties, and traders. Up this stream, one hundred and eighteen years before, Champlain had pushed his way, persuaded by the ingenious impostor Nicolas Vignau that here was the direct road to Cathay. At St Anne's the expedition made a brief halt to ask a blessing on the enterprise. Here the men, according to custom, each received a dram of liquor. When they had again taken their places, paddles dipped at the word of command, and, like a covey of birds, the canoes skimmed over the dark waters of the Ottawa, springing under the sinewy strokes of a double row of paddlers against the swift current of the river. Following the shore closely, they made rapid progress up-stream. At noon they landed on a convenient island, where they quickly kindled a fire. A pot of tea was swung above it from a tripod. With jest and story the meal went on, and as soon as it was finished they were again afloat, paddling vigorously and making quick time. Sunset approached—the brief but indescribably beautiful sunset of a Canadian summer. The sun sank behind the maples and cedars, and a riot of color flooded the western horizon. Rainbow hues swept up half-way to the zenith, waving, mingling, changing from tint to tint, as through the clouds flamed up the last brightness of the sinking sun. A rollicking chorus sank away on the still air, and the men gazed for a moment upon a scene which, however familiar, could never lose its charm. The song of the birds was hushed. All nature seemed to pause. Then as the outermost rim of the sun dropped from sight, and the brilliant coloring of a moment ago toned to rose and saffron, pink and mauve, the world moved on again, but with a seemingly subdued motion. The voyageurs resumed their song, but the gay chorus that had wakened echoes from the overhanging cliffs,

En roulant ma boule,
Rouli, roulant, ma boule roulant,
En roulant ma boule roulant,
En roulant ma boule,

was changed to the pathetic refrain of a song then as now dear to the heart of French Canadians—A la claire fontaine.

In the cool twilight the men paddled on, placing mile after mile between them and Montreal. Presently the river widened into a lake like expanse. The moon rose and shot its soft gleam across the water. No ripple stirred the smooth surface, save where the paddles dipped and the prow of each canoe cut like a knife through the stream. Belated birds flew overhead, making for home. A stag broke through the bushes on the farther shore, caught sight of the canoes, gazed at them for a moment, and then disappeared. It was growing late when La Vérendrye, from the foremost canoe, gave the word to camp. The canoes turned shoreward, lightly touching the shelving bank, and the men sprang nimbly to the land. Fires were lighted, the tents were pitched, and everything was made snug for the night. The hunters had not been idle during the day, and a dozen brace of birds were soon twirling merrily on the spit, while venison steaks added appetizing odors.

Their hunger satisfied, the men lounged about on the grass, smoking and listening to the yarns of some famous story-teller. He would tell them, perhaps, the pathetic story of Cadieux, who, on this very stream, had held the dreaded Iroquois at bay while his comrades escaped. Cadieux himself escaped the Iroquois, only to fall a victim to the folie des bois, or madness of the woods, wandering aimlessly in circles, until, famished and exhausted, he lay down to die. When his comrades returned in search of him, they found beside him a birch bark on which he had written his death chant:

Thou little rock of the high hill, attend!
Hither I come this last campaign to end!
Ye echoes soft, give ear unto my sigh;
In languishing I speedily shall die.


Dear little birds, your dulcet harmony
What time you sing makes this life dear to me.
Ah! had I wings that I might fly like you;
Ere two days sped I should be happy too.

Then, as the camp-fires sank into heaps of glowing embers, each man would wrap his blanket about him and with kind mother earth for his pillow and only the dome of heaven above him, would sleep as only those may whose resting-place is in the free air of the wilderness.

At sunrise they were once more away, on a long day's paddle up-stream. They passed the Long Sault, where long before the heroic Dollard and his little band of Frenchmen held at bay a large war party of Iroquois—sacrificing their lives to save the little struggling colony at Montreal. Again, their way lay beneath those towering cliffs overlooking the Ottawa, on which now stand the Canadian Houses of Parliament. They had just passed the curtain-like falls of the Rideau on one side, and the mouth of the turbulent Gatineau on the other, and before them lay the majestic Chaudière. Here they disembarked. The voyageurs, following the Indian example, threw a votive offering of tobacco into the boiling cauldron, for the benefit of the dreaded Windigo. Then, shouldering canoes and cargo, they made their way along the portage to the upper stream, and, launching and reloading the canoes, proceeded on their journey. So the days passed, each one carrying them farther from the settlements and on, ever on, towards the unknown West, and perhaps to the Western Sea.

From the upper waters of the Ottawa they carried their canoes over into a series of small lakes and creeks that led to Lake Nipissing, and thence they ran down the French river to Lake Huron. Launching out fearlessly on this great lake, they paddled swiftly along the north shore to Fort Michilimackinac, where they rested for a day or two. Fort Michilimackinac was on the south side of the strait which connects Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, and lay so near the water that the waves frequently broke against the stockade. Passing through the gates, above which floated the fleurs-de-lis of France, they found themselves in an enclosure, some two acres in extent, containing thirty houses and a small church. On the bastions stood in a conspicuous position two small brass cannon, captured from the English at Fort Albany on Hudson Bay, in 1686, by De Troyes and Iberville.1

It was now the end of July, and La Vérendrye had still a long way to go. After a brief rest, he gathered his party together, embarked once more, and steered his way on that great inland sea, Lake Superior. All that had gone before was child's play to what must now be encountered. In contrast to the blue and placid waters of Lake Huron, the explorers now found themselves in the midst of a dark and somber sea, whose waves, seldom if ever still, could on occasion rival the Atlantic in their fierce tumult. Even in this hottest month of the year the water was icy cold, and the keen wind that blew across the lake forced those who were not paddling to put on extra clothing. They must needs be hardy and experienced voyageurs who could safely navigate these mad waters in frail bark canoes. Slowly they made their way along the north shore, buffeted by storms and in constant peril of their lives, until at last, on August 26, they reached the Grand Portage, near the mouth of the Pigeon river, or about fifteen leagues south-west of Fort Kaministikwia, where the city of Fort William now stands.

La Vérendrye would have pushed on at once for Lac la Pluie, or Rainy Lake, where he purposed to build the first of his western posts, but when he ordered his men to make the portage there was first deep muttering, and then open mutiny. Two or three of the boatmen, bribed by La Vérendrye's enemies at Montreal, had drawn such terrible pictures of the horrors before them, and had so played upon the fears of their superstitious comrades, that these now refused flatly to follow their leader into the unhallowed and fiend-infested regions which lay beyond. The hardships they had already endured, and the further hardships of the long and difficult series of portages which lay between them and Rainy Lake, also served to dishearten the men. Some of them, however, had been with La Jemeraye at Lake Pepin, on the Mississippi, and were not to be dismayed. These La Vérendrye persuaded to continue the exploration. The others gradually weakened in their opposition, and at last it was agreed that La Jemeraye, with half the men, should go on to Rainy Lake and build a fort there, while La Vérendrye, with the other half, should spend the winter at Kaministikwia, and keep the expedition supplied with provisions.

In this way the winter passed. The leader was, we may be sure, restless at the delay and impatient to advance farther. The spring brought good news. Late in May La Jemeraye returned from Rainy Lake, bringing canoes laden with valuable furs, the result of the winter's traffic. These were immediately sent on to Michilimackinac, for shipment to the partners at Montreal. La Jemeraye reported that he had built a fort at the foot of a series of rapids, where Rainy Lake discharges into the river of the same name. He had built the fort in a meadow, among groves of oak. The lake teemed with fish, and the woods which lined its shores were alive with game, large and small. The picture was one to make La Vérendrye even more eager to advance. On June 8 he set out with his entire party for Fort St Pierre, as the new establishment had been named, to commemorate his own name of Pierre. It took a month to traverse the intricate chain of small lakes and streams, with their many portages, connecting Lake Superior and Rainy Lake.

After a short rest at Fort St Pierre, La Vérendrye pushed on rapidly, escorted in state by fifty canoes of Indians, to the Lake of the Woods. Here he built a second post, Fort St Charles, on a peninsula running out far into the lake on the south-west side—an admirable situation, both for trading purposes and for defense. This fort he describes as consisting of 'an enclosure made with four rows of posts, from twelve to fifteen feet in height, in the form of an oblong square, within which are a few rough cabins constructed of logs and clay, and covered with bark.'

In the spring of 1735 Father Messager returned to Montreal, and with him went La Jemeraye, to report the progress already made. He described to the governor the difficulties they had encountered, and urged that the king should be persuaded to assume the expense of further exploration towards the Western Sea. The governor could, however, do nothing.

Meanwhile Jean, La Vérendrye's eldest son, had advanced still farther and had made his way to Lake Winnipeg. He took with him a handful of toughened veterans, and tramped on snow-shoes through the frozen forest—four hundred and fifty miles in the stern midwinter {31} of a region bitterly cold. Near the mouth of the Winnipeg river, where it empties into Lake Winnipeg, they found an ideal site for the fort which they intended to build. Immediately they set to work, felled trees, drove stout stakes into the frozen ground for a stockade, put up a rough shelter inside, and had everything ready for La Vérendrye's arrival in the spring. They named the post Fort Maurepas, in honor of a prominent minister of the king in France at the time.

La Vérendrye had now carried out, and more than carried out, the agreement made with the governor Beauharnois. He had established a chain of posts—strung like beads on a string—from Lake Superior to Lake Winnipeg, from the river Kaministikwia to the open prairie. But the distance he had traversed, the difficulties he had encountered, and, above all, the expense incurred, had been far in excess of anything he had anticipated. These were discouraging experiences. He seemed at last to have reached the limit of his resources and endurance. To advance farther with the slender means now at his command seemed almost impossible. Should he turn back? His men were more than willing. Every step eastward would bring them nearer their homes, their families, and the pleasures and dissipations of the Canadian towns on the far-off St Lawrence. To turn back was the easiest thing for them. But it was not easy for a man like La Vérendrye. To return meant failure; and for him there was no such thing as failure while health and strength endured. At whatever cost, he must push on towards the Western Sea.

The situation was nevertheless most critical. His own means had long since been exhausted. True, he possessed a monopoly of the fur trade, but what did it profit him? He had not touched, and never would be able to touch, a franc of the proceeds: the shrewd merchants of Montreal had made sure of this. To La Vérendrye the monopoly was simply a millstone added to the burdens he was already forced to bear. It did not increase his resources; it delayed his great enterprise; and it put an effective weapon in the hands of his enemies. Little cause had he to be grateful for the royal monopoly. He would have infinitely preferred the direct grant of even a score of capable, well-equipped men. These, maintained at the king's expense, he might lead by the quickest route to the Western Sea.

As it was, the merchants in Montreal refused to send up further supplies; his men remained unpaid; he even lacked a sufficient supply of food. There was nothing for it but to turn back, make the long journey to Montreal and Quebec, and there do his utmost to arrange matters. He had already sunk from 40,000 to 50,000 livres in the enterprise. In all justice, the king should assume the expense of further explorations in quest of the Great Sea. The governor, the Marquis de Beauharnois, shared this view, and had already pressed the court to grant La Vérendrye the assistance he so urgently needed. 'The outlay,' he wrote to the king's minister, Maurepas, 'will not be great; the cost of the engagés [hired men] for three years, taking into account what can be furnished from the king's stores, would not exceed 30,000 livres at most.' The king, however, refused to undertake the expense of the expedition. Those who had assumed the task should, he thought, be in a position to continue it by means of the profits derived from their monopoly of the fur trade. The facts did not justify the royal view of the matter. La Vérendrye had enjoyed the monopoly for two or three years—with the result that he was now very heavily, indeed alarmingly, in debt.

His was not a nature, however, to be crushed by either indifference or opposition. He had reached the parting of the ways. Nothing was to be hoped for from the court. He must either abandon his enterprise or continue it at his own risk and expense. He went to Montreal and saw his partners. With infinite patience he suffered their unjust reproaches. He was neglecting their interests, they grumbled. The profits were not what they had a right to expect. He thought too much of the Western Sea and not enough of the beavers. He was a dreamer, and they were practical men of business.

What could La Vérendrye say that would have weight with men of this stamp? Should he tell them of the glory that would accrue to his and their country by the discovery of the Western Sea? At this they would only shrug their shoulders. Should he tell them of the unseen forces that drew him to that wonderful land of the West—where the crisp clear air held an intoxicating quality unknown in the East; where the eye foamed on and on over limitless expanses of waving green, till the mind was staggered at the vastness of the prospect; where the very largeness of nature seemed to enter into a man and to crush out things petty and selfish? In doing this he would be beating the air. They were incapable of understanding him. They would deem him mad.

Crushing down, therefore, both his enthusiasm for the western land and his anger at their dulness, he met the merchants of Montreal on their own commercial level. He told them that the posts he had established were in the very heart of the fur country; that the Assiniboines and Crees had engaged to bring large quantities of beaver skins to the forts; that the northern tribes were already turning from the English posts of the Hudson's Bay Company in the Far North to the more accessible posts of the French; that the richly watered and wooded country between Kaministikwia and Lake Winnipeg abounded in every description of fur-bearing animal; that over the western prairies roamed the buffalo in vast herds which seemed to blacken the green earth as far as eye could reach. His eloquence over the outlook for trade proved convincing. As he painted the riches of the West in terms that appealed with peculiar force to these traders in furs, their hostility melted away. The prospect of profit at the rate of a hundred per cent once more filled them with enthusiasm. They agreed to equip the expedition anew. It thus happened that when the intrepid explorer again turned his face towards the West, fortune seemed to smile once more. His canoes were loaded with a second equipment for the posts of the Western Sea. Perhaps at that moment it seemed to him hardly to matter that he was in debt deeper than ever.

While in the East completing these arrangements, La Vérendrye took steps to ensure that his youngest son, Louis, now eighteen years of age, should join the other members of the family engaged in the work. The boy was to be taught how to prepare maps and plans, so that, when he came west in the following year, he might be of material assistance to the expedition. The explorer would then have his four sons and his nephew in the enterprise.

The hopeful outlook did not long endure. It was soon clear that La Vérendrye had again to meet trials which should try his mettle still more severely. Shortly after his return to Fort St Charles on the Lake of the Woods, his son Jean arrived from Fort Maurepas, with evil news indeed. La Jemeraye, his nephew and chief lieutenant, whose knowledge of the western tribes was invaluable, whose enthusiasm for the great project was only second to his own, whose patience and resourcefulness had helped the expedition out of many a tight corner—La Jemeraye was dead. He had remained in harness to the last, and had labored day and night, in season and out of season, pushing explorations in every direction, meeting and conciliating the Indian tribes, building up the fur trade at the western posts. Though sorely needing rest, he had toiled on uncomplainingly, with no thought that he was showing heroism, till at last his overtaxed body collapsed and he died almost on his feet—the first victim of the search for the Western Sea.

Meanwhile the little garrison at Fort St Charles was almost at the point of starvation. La Vérendrye had travelled ahead at such rapid speed that his supplies were still a long way in the rear when he reached the fort. In face of the pressing need, it was decided to send a party down to meet the boats at Kaministikwia and to fetch back at once the supplies which were most urgently required. Jean, now twenty-three years of age, was placed in charge of the expedition, and with him went the Jesuit missionary, Father Aulneau, on his way down to Fort Michilimackinac. The day for departure was named, and everything was made ready the night before so that there might be no delay in starting early in the morning. The sun had hardly risen above the horizon and was yet filtering through the dense foliage of pine and cedar, when Jean de La Vérendrye and his men embarked and pushed off from the shore. The paddles dipped almost noiselessly, and the three light canoes skimmed lightly over the surface of the Lake of the Woods, followed by shouts of farewell from the fort.

For a time the party skirted the shore. Then they struck out boldly across the lake. The melodies of the forest followed them for a time, and then died away in the distance. Nothing was now to be heard but the dip of paddles and the soft swirl of eddies flying backward from either side of the canoes. The morning sun swept across the lake; a faint breeze stirred a ripple on the surface of the water. From far away came faintly the laugh of a solitary loon. The men paddled strenuously, with minds intent upon nothing more serious than the halt for breakfast. The priest was lost in meditation. Jean de La Vérendrye sat in the foremost canoe, with eyes alert, scanning the horizon as the little flotilla drew rapidly across the lake.

At the same time, approaching from the opposite direction, was a fleet of canoes manned by a hundred savages, the fierce and implacable Sioux of the prairie. They had reached the Lake of the Woods by way of a stream that bore the significant name The Road of War. This was the war-path of the Sioux from their own country, south of what is now the province of Manitoba, to the country of the Chippewas and the Crees farther east. Whenever the Sioux followed this route, they were upon no peaceful errand. As the Sioux entered the lake, a mist was rising slowly from the water; but before it completely hid their canoes a keen-sighted savage saw the three canoes of the French, who were about to land on the far side of an island out in the lake. Cautiously the Sioux felt their way across to the near side of the island, and landed unperceived. They glided noiselessly through the thick underbrush, and, as they approached the other shore, crept from tree to tree, finally wriggling snake-wise to the very edge of the thicket. Beneath them lay a narrow beach, on which some of the voyageurs had built a fire to prepare the morning meal. Others lay about, smoking and chatting idly. Jean de La Vérendrye sat a little apart, perhaps {40} recording the scanty particulars of the journey. The Jesuit priest walked up and down, deep in his breviary.

The circumstances could hardly have been more favorable for the sudden attack which the savages were eager to make. The French had laid aside their weapons, or had left them behind in the canoes. They had no reason to expect an attack. They were at peace with the western tribes—even with those Ishmaelites of the prairie, the Sioux. Presently a twig snapped under the foot of a savage. Young La Vérendrye turned quickly, caught sight of a waving plume, and shouted to his men. Immediately from a hundred fierce throats the war-whoop rang out. The Sioux leaped to their feet. Arrows showered down upon the French. Jean, Father Aulneau, and a dozen voyageurs fell. The rest snatched up their guns and fired. Several of the Sioux, who had incautiously left cover, fell. The odds were, however, overwhelmingly against the French. They must fight in the open, while the Indians remained comparatively secure among the trees. The French made an attempt to reach the canoes, but had to abandon it, for the Sioux now completely commanded the approach and no man could reach the water alive.

The surviving French, now reduced to half a dozen, retreated down the shore. With yells of triumph the Sioux followed, keeping within shelter of the trees. In desperation the voyageurs dropped their guns and took to the water, hoping to be able to swim to a neighboring island. This was a counsel of despair, for wounded and exhausted as they were, the feat was impossible. When the Sioux rushed down to the shore, they realized the plight of the French, and did not even waste an arrow on them. One by one the swimmers sank beneath the waves. After watching their tragic fate, the savages returned to scalp those who had fallen at the camp. With characteristic ferocity they hacked and mutilated the bodies. Then, gathering up their own dead, they hastily retreated by the way they had come.

For some time it was not known why the Sioux had made an attack, seemingly unprovoked, upon the French. Gradually, however, it leaked out that earlier in the year a party of Sioux on their way to Fort St Charles on a friendly visit had been fired upon by a party of Chippewas. The Sioux had shouted indignantly, 'Who fire on us?' and the Chippewas, in ambush, had yelled back with grim humor, 'The French.' The Sioux retreated, vowing a terrible vengeance against the treacherous white men. Their opportunity came even sooner than they had expected. A trader named Bourassa, who had left Fort St Charles for Michilimackinac shortly before the setting out of Jean de La Vérendrye and his party, had camped for the night on the banks of the Rainy river. The following morning, as he was about to push off from the shore, he was surrounded by thirty canoes manned by a hundred Sioux. They bound him hand and foot, tied him to a stake, and were about to burn him alive when a squaw who was with him sprang forward to defend him. Fortunately for him his companion had been a Sioux maiden; she had been captured by a war party of Monsones some years before and rescued from them by Bourassa. She knew of the projected journey of Jean de La Vérendrye. 'My kinsmen,' she now cried, 'what are you about to do? I owe my life to this Frenchman. He has done nothing but good to me. Why should you destroy him? If you wish to be revenged for the attack made upon you, go forward and you will meet twenty-four Frenchman, with whom is the son of the chief who killed your people.'

Bourassa was too much frightened to oppose the statement. In his own account of what happened he is, indeed, careful to omit any mention of this particular incident. The Sioux released Bourassa, after taking possession of his arms and supplies. Then they paddled down to the lake, where they were only too successful in finding the French and in making them the victims of the cruel joke of the Chippewas.

This murder of his son was the most bitter blow that had yet fallen upon La Vérendrye. But he betrayed no sign of weakness. Not even the loss of his son was sufficient to turn him back from his search for the Western Sea. 'I have lost,' he writes simply to Maurepas, 'my son, the reverend Father, and my Frenchmen, misfortunes which I shall lament all my life.' Some comfort remained. The great explorer still had three sons, ready and willing like himself to sacrifice their lives for the glory of New France.

Footnotes:

1. See The 'Adventurers of England' on Hudson Bay, pages 73-88.


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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