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La Verendryes Latter Days

During all this time the elder La Vérendrye had been working at other plans for discovery and for trade in the Far West. In the year 1739, on his return from the first visit to the Mandans, he had sent his son François to build a fort on the Lake of the Prairies, now known as Lake Manitoba. When young La Vérendrye had built this fort, he went farther north to Cedar Lake, near the mouth of the Saskatchewan river, and there built another fort. The purpose was to intercept the trade of the Indians with the English on Hudson Bay. For over half a century the Indians of this region had taken their furs down the rivers leading from Lake Winnipeg to the trading-posts of the Hudson's Bay Company on the shores of the Bay, but now the French intended to offer them a market nearer home and divert to themselves this profitable trade. The first of their new forts was named Fort Dauphin, and the one on Cedar Lake was called Fort Bourbon.

Having built Fort Bourbon, François La Vérendrye had ascended the Saskatchewan river as far as the Forks, where the north and south branches of that great river join. Here he met a number of Crees, whom he questioned as to the source of the Saskatchewan. They told him that it came from a great distance, rising among lofty mountains far to the west, and that beyond those mountains they knew of a great lake, as they called it, the water of which was not good to drink. The mountains were of course the Rocky Mountains, and the waters of the great lake which the Crees spoke of were the salt waters of the Pacific ocean. François La Vérendrye had continued his work of building forts. Shortly after building Fort Bourbon, he built Fort Paskoyac, on the Saskatchewan, at a place now known as the Pas, between Cedar Lake and the Forks. It is interesting to know that a railway has just been completed to this place, and that it is to be continued from there to the shores of Hudson Bay. How this modern change would have startled the old fur-traders! Even if they could have dreamed of anything so wonderful as a railway, we can imagine their ridicule of the idea that some day men should travel from the East to the far-off shores of the Saskatchewan in two or three days, a trip which cost them months of wearisome paddling.

In carrying on his work in the West, La Vérendrye had to face difficulties even greater than those caused by the hard life in the wilderness. His base of supplies was in danger. He had many enemies in Canada, who took advantage of his absence in the West to prejudice the governor against him. They even sent false reports to the king of France, saying that he was spending his time, not in searching for a way to the Western Sea, but in making money out of the fur trade. This was not true. Not only was he making no money out of the fur trade, but, as we have seen, he was heavily in debt because of the enormous cost of carrying on his explorations. For a time, however, the truth did not help him. The tales told by his enemies were believed, and he was ordered to return to Montreal with his sons. He and they withdrew from their work in the West, left behind their promising beginnings, and returned to the East. Never again, as it happened, was the father to resume his work. Another officer, M. de Noyelle, was sent to the West to continue the work of exploration. Noyelle spent two years in the West without adding anything to the information La Vérendrye had gained. By that time a natural reaction had come in favour of La Vérendrye, and the acting governor of Canada, the Marquis de La Galissonière, decided to put the work of exploration again in charge of La Vérendrye and his sons. In recognition of his services he was given the rank of captain and was decorated with the Cross of St Louis.

While these events were ripening, the years passed, and not until 1749 was La Vérendrye restored to his leadership in the West. Though now sixty-four years old, he was overjoyed at the prospect. Not only was he permitted to continue his search for the Western Sea; the quality of his work was recognized, for the governor and the king had at last understood that, instead of seeking his own profit in his explorations, as his enemies had said, he had the one object of adding to the honour and glory of his country. He made preparations to start from Montreal in the spring of 1750, and intended to push forward as rapidly as possible to Fort Bourbon, or Fort Paskoyac, where he would spend the winter. In the spring of the following year he would ascend the Saskatchewan river and make his way over the mountains to the shores of the Western Sea, the Pacific ocean as we know it to-day. But the greatest of all enemies now blocked his way. La Vérendrye was taken ill while making his preparations for the expedition, and before the close of the year 1749 he had set out on the journey from which no man returns.


The Marquis de la Galissonière.
From an engraving in the Château de Ramezay

After the death of La Vérendrye, his sons made preparations to carry out his plan for reaching the Western Sea by way of the Saskatchewan river. They had the same unselfish desire to bring honor to their king and to add new territories to their native land. Moreover, this project, which their father had had so much at heart, had become now for them a sacred duty. To their dismay, however, they soon found that the promise made to their father did not extend to themselves. Another officer, Legardeur de Saint-Pierre, was appointed by the governor of Canada to carry on the search for the Western Sea. They had spent years of toil and discomfort in the wilderness and endured countless hardships and dangers. They had carefully studied the languages, manners, and customs of the Indian tribes, and they had found out by hard experience what would be the best means of completing their discovery. Yet now they were thrown aside in favor of an officer who had never been in the Far West and who knew nothing of the conditions he would there be compelled to meet.

They could at least appeal for justice. In a last attempt to obtain this for himself and his brothers, François de La Vérendrye wrote this letter to the king's minister:

The only resource left to me is to throw myself at the feet of your Lordship and to trouble you with the story of my misfortunes. My name is La Vérendrye; my late father is known here [in Canada] and in France by the exploration for the discovery of the Western Sea to which he devoted the last fifteen years of his life. He travelled and made myself and my brothers travel with such vigor that we should have reached our goal, if he had had only a little more help, and if he had not been so much thwarted, especially by envy. Envy is still here, more than elsewhere, a prevailing passion against, which one has no protection. While my father, my brothers, and myself were exhausting ourselves with toil, and while we were incurring a crushing burden of expense, his steps and ours were represented as directed only towards [our own gain by] the finding of beaver; the outlay he was forced to incur was described as dissipation; and his narratives were spoken of as a pack of lies. Envy as it exists in this country is no half envy; its principle is to calumniate furiously in the hope that if even half of what is said finds favour, it will be enough to injure. In point of fact, my father, thus opposed, had to his sorrow been obliged more than once to return and to make us return because of the lack of help and protection. He has even been reproached by the court [for not giving adequate reports upon his work]; he was, indeed, more intent on making progress than on telling what he was doing until he could give definite statements. He was running into debt, he failed to receive promotions. Yet his zeal for his project never slackened, persuaded as he was that sooner or later his labors would be crowned with success and recompense.

At the time when he was most eager in the good work, envy won the day, and he saw the posts he had established and his own work pass into other hands. While he was thus checked in his operations, the reward of a plentiful harvest of beaver skins [which he had made possible] went to another rather than himself. Yet [in spite of this profitable trade the good work slackened]; the posts, instead of multiplying, fell into decay, and no progress was made in exploration; it was this, indeed, which grieved him the most.

Meanwhile the Marquis de la Galissonière arrived in the country [to act as governor]. In the hubbub of contradictory opinions that prevailed, he came to the conclusion that the man who had pursued such discoveries at his own charge and expense, without any cost to the king, and who had gone into debt to establish useful posts, merited better fortune. Apart from advancing the project of discovery, practical services had been rendered. There was [the marquis reported] a large increase of beaver in the colony, and four or five posts had been well-established, and defended by forts as good as could be made in countries so distant; a multitude of savages had been turned into subjects of the king; some of them, in a party which I commanded, showed an example to our own domiciled savages by striking at the Anniers Indians, who are devoted to England. Progress (the marquis concluded) could be hastened and rendered more efficacious only by allowing the work to remain in the same hands.

Thus it was that the Marquis de la Galissonière was good enough to explain his position. No doubt he expressed himself to the court to a similar effect, for in the following year, that is to say last year, my father was honored with the Cross of St Louis, and was invited to continue with his sons the work which he had begun. He made arrangements with great earnestness for starting on his expedition; he spared nothing that might make for success; he had already bought and prepared all the goods to be used in trade; he inspired me and my brothers with his own ardor. Then in the month of December last death carried him off.

Great as was my grief at the time, I could never have imagined or foreseen all that I lost in losing him. When I succeeded to his engagements and his responsibilities, I ventured to hope that I should succeed to the same advantages. I had the honor to write on the subject to the Marquis de la Jonquière [then governor], informing him that I had recovered from an indisposition from which I had been suffering, and which might serve as a pretext to some one seeking to supplant me. His reply was that he had chosen Monsieur de Saint-Pierre to go to the Western Sea.

I started at once for Quebec from Montreal, where I then was; I represented the situation in which I was left by my father; I declared that there was more than one post in the direction of the Western Sea and that I and my brothers would be delighted to be under the orders of Monsieur de Saint-Pierre, and that we could content ourselves, if necessary, with a single post, and that the most distant one; I stated that we even asked no more than leave to go on in advance [of the new leader], so that while we were pushing the work of exploration, we might be able to help ourselves by disposing of my father's latest purchases and of what remained to us in the posts. We should in this have the consolation of making our utmost efforts to meet the wishes of the court.

The Marquis de la Jonquière, though he felt the force of my representations, and, as it seemed to me, was touched by them, told me at last that Monsieur de Saint-Pierre did not wish for either me or my brothers. I asked what would become of the debts we had incurred. Monsieur de Saint-Pierre, however, had spoken, and I could not obtain anything. I returned to Montreal with this not too consoling information. There I offered for sale a small piece of property, all that I had inherited from my father. The proceeds of this sale served to satisfy my most urgent creditors.

Meanwhile the season was advancing. There was now the question of my going as usual to the rendezvous arranged with my hired men, so as to save their lives (by bringing provisions), and to secure the stores which, without this precaution, would probably be pillaged and abandoned. In spite of Monsieur de Saint-Pierre, I obtained permission to make this trip, and I was subject to conditions and restrictions such as might be imposed on the commonest voyageur. Nevertheless, scarcely had I left when Monsieur de Saint-Pierre complained of my action and alleged that this start of mine before him injured him to the amount of more than ten thousand francs. He also accused me, without the slightest reserve, of having loaded my canoe beyond the permission accorded me.

The accusation was considered and my canoe was pursued; had I been overtaken at once, Monsieur de Saint-Pierre would have been promptly reassured. He overtook me at Michilimackinac, and if I can believe what he said, he now saw that he had been in the wrong in acting as he did, and was vexed with himself for not having taken me and my brothers with him. He expressed much regret to me and paid me many compliments. It may be that this is his usual mode of acting; but it is difficult for me to recognize in it either good faith or humanity.

Monsieur de Saint-Pierre might have obtained all that he has obtained; he might have made sure of his interests and have gained surprising advantages; and have taken [as he desired] some relative with him while not shutting us out entirely. Monsieur de Saint-Pierre is an officer of merit, and I am only the more to be pitied to find him thus turned against me. Yet in spite of the favorable impressions he has created on different occasions, he will find it difficult to show that in this matter he kept the main interest [that of discovery] in view, and that he conformed to the intentions of the court and respected the kindly disposition with which the Marquis de la Galissonière honors us. Before such a wrong could be done to us, he must have injured us seriously in the opinion of Monsieur de la Jonquière, who himself is always disposed to be kind.

None the less am I ruined. My returns for this year were only half collected, and a thousand subsequent difficulties make the disaster complete; with credit gone in relation both to my father and to myself, I am in debt for over twenty thousand francs; I remain without funds and without patrimony. Moreover, I am a simple ensign of the second grade; my elder brother has only the same rank as myself, while my younger brother is only a junior cadet.

Such is the net result of all that my father, my brothers, and I have done. The one who was murdered some years ago was not the most unfortunate of us. His blood does not count in our behalf. Unless Monsieur de Saint-Pierre becomes imbued with better sentiments and communicates them to the Marquis de la Jonquière, all my father's toils and ours fail to serve us, and we must abandon what has cost us so much. We certainly should not have been and should not be useless to Monsieur de Saint-Pierre. I explained to him fully how I believed I could serve him; clever as he may be, and inspired with the best intentions, I venture to say that by keeping us away he is in danger of making many mistakes and of getting often on the wrong track. It is something gained to have gone astray, but to have found out your error; we think that now we should be sure of the right road to reach the goal, whatever it may be. It is our greatest cause of distress to find ourselves thus snatched away from a sphere of action in which we were proposing to use every effort to reach a definite result.

Deign therefore, Monseigneur, to judge the cause of three orphans. Our misfortune is great, but is it without remedy? There are in the hands of your Lordship resources of compensation and of consolation, and I venture to hope for some benefit from them. To find ourselves thus excluded from the West would be to find ourselves robbed in the most cruel manner of our heritage. We should have had all that was bitter and others all that was sweet.

This eloquent appeal of François fell upon unheeding ears; the appointment of his rival was confirmed. The only grace he could obtain was leave to take to the West a small portion of the supplies for which he and his brothers had already paid, and to return with the furs his men had collected and brought down to Michilimackinac. Thus ended, sadly enough, the devoted efforts of this remarkable family of explorers to complete the long search for a route overland to the Pacific ocean. The brothers La Vérendrye, ruined in purse and denied opportunity, fell into obscurity and were forgotten.

It remains only to tell briefly of the attempts of Saint-Pierre and his men to carry out the same great project. In obedience to the governor's instructions, Saint-Pierre left Montreal in the spring of 1750. He paddled up the Ottawa, and then through Lake Nipissing, and down the French river to Georgian Bay. He crossed Lake Huron to Michilimackinac, where he remained for a short time to give his men a rest. Then he pushed on to Grand Portage, where he spent some time in talking to the Indians. In spite of his ungenerous treatment of the sons of La Vérendrye, Saint-Pierre was a brave and capable soldier; but he knew very little of the hardships of western exploration, or of the patience needed in dealing with Indians. He grumbled bitterly about the difficulties and hardships of the portages, which La Vérendrye had taken as a matter of course; and, instead of treating the Indians with patience and forbearance, he lost no opportunity to harangue and scold them. We need not wonder, therefore, that the natives, who had looked up to La Vérendrye as a superior being, soon learned to dislike the overbearing Saint-Pierre, and would do nothing to help him in his attempts at exploration.

Saint-Pierre visited Fort St Charles; he spent the winter at Fort Maurepas; in the spring of 1751 he went on to Fort La Reine. Meanwhile he had sent Niverville, a young officer of his party, to the Saskatchewan river, with instructions to push his discoveries westward beyond the farthest point reached by La Vérendrye. Winter had set in before Niverville set out on his long journey, and he travelled over the snow and ice with snowshoes, dragging his provisions on toboggans. He knew nothing of the Indian method of harnessing dogs to their toboggans, and he and his men dragged the toboggans themselves. He travelled slowly across Lake Winnipeg, over rough ice and through deep snowdrifts, with no protection from the bitter winds. So great were the hardships that, in the end, he was compelled to abandon some of the heavier supplies and provisions. Before he and his men reached Fort Paskoyac they were at the point of starvation. During the last few days they had nothing to eat but a few small fish caught through holes in the ice.

Niverville was taken seriously ill, and had to remain at Fort Paskoyac, while some of his men in the spring of 1751 ascended the Saskatchewan in canoes. These men, we are told, paddled up the river to the foot of the Rocky Mountains, where they built a fort, named Fort La Jonquière, in honor of the governor. Later in the year Niverville followed his men up the river. At Fort La Jonquière he met a party of Western Indians, who told him that in the course of a war expedition they had encountered a number of Indians of a strange tribe carrying loads of beaver skins. These strange Indians told the Frenchmen that they were on their way over the Rocky Mountains to trade their furs with white men on the sea-coast. For some reason, either through lack of supplies or because he did not possess the courage and enthusiasm which had carried the La Vérendryes through so many difficulties, Niverville made no effort to cross the mountains. This attempt to reach the Western Sea ended, so far as French explorers were concerned, at Fort La Jonquière. All the toils and hardships of the French explorers ended in failure to achieve the great end at which they aimed. Members of another race reaped the coveted reward. Many years later a Scottish-Canadian explorer, Alexander Mackenzie, realized La Vérendrye's dream by successfully crossing the Rocky Mountains and forcing his way through the difficult country that lay beyond, until at last he stood upon the shores of the Pacific ocean.

Meanwhile Saint-Pierre had remained at Fort La Reine, leaving the work of exploration to his young lieutenant, Niverville. One incident of his life there remains to be described before we close this story of the search for the Western Sea. It cannot be better told than in Saint-Pierre's own narrative:

On February 22, 1752 [he says], about nine o'clock in the morning, I was at this post with five Frenchmen. I had sent the rest of my people, consisting of fourteen persons, to look for provisions, of which I had been in need for several days. I was sitting quietly in my room, when two hundred Assiniboines entered the fort, all of them armed. These Indians scattered immediately all through the place; several of them even entered my room, but unarmed; others remained in adjacent parts of the fort. My people came to warn me of the behavior of these Indians. I ran to them and told them sharply that they were very impudent to come in a crowd to my house, and armed. One of them answered in the Cree language that they came to smoke. I told them that they were not behaving properly, and that they must leave the fort at once. I believe that the firmness with which I spoke somewhat frightened them, especially as I put four of the most resolute out of the door, without their saying a word.

I went at once to my room. At that very moment, however, a soldier came to tell me that the guard-house was full of Indians, who had taken possession of the arms. I ran to the guard-house and demanded, through a Cree interpreter, what they meant by such behavior. During all this time I was preparing to fight them with my weak force. My interpreter, who proved a traitor, said that these Indians had no bad intentions. Yet, a moment before, an Assiniboine orator, who had been constantly making fine speeches to me, had told the interpreter that, in spite of him, the Indians would kill and rob me.

When I had barely made out their intentions I failed to realize that I ought to have taken their arms from them. (To frighten them) I seized hold of a blazing brand, broke in the door of the powder magazine, and knocked down a barrel of gunpowder. Over this I held the brand, and I told the Indians in an assured tone [through the interpreter] that I expected nothing at their hands, and that even if I was killed I should have the glory of subjecting them to the same fate. No sooner had the Indians seen the lighted brand, and the barrel of gunpowder with its head staved in, and heard my interpreter, than they all fled out of the gate of the fort. They damaged the gate considerably in their hurried flight. I soon laid down my brand, and then I had nothing more exciting to do than to close the gate of the fort.

Soon after this incident with the Assiniboines, Saint-Pierre gave up his half-hearted attempt to find a route to the Western Sea, and returned to Montreal. He had proved himself a brave man enough. He did not, however, understand, and made no attempt to understand, the character of the Indians, and, as an explorer, he was a complete failure. In a couple of years he managed to undo all the work which La Vérendrye had accomplished. After he abandoned the West, the forts which had been built there with such difficulty and at such great expense soon fell into decay. The only men who had the knowledge and the enthusiasm to make real La Vérendrye's dream of exploration, his own sons, were denied the privilege of doing so; and no one else seemed anxious even to attempt such a difficult task.

The period of French rule in Canada was now rapidly drawing to a close. Instead of adding to the territories of France in North America, her sons were preparing to make their last stand in defense of what they already possessed. Half a dozen years later their dream of western exploration, and of a great North American empire reaching from the Atlantic to the Pacific, came to an end on the Plains of Abraham. It was left for those of another race who came after them to turn the dream of their rivals into tangible achievements. It must never be forgotten, however, that, although Pierre de La Vérendrye failed to complete the great object of his ambition, we owe to him and his gallant sons the discovery of a large part of what is to-day Western Canada.


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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