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The Discovery of the Rocky Mountains

La Vérendrye had expected the return in the spring of 1739 of the two men whom he had left in the Mandan villages, but it was well into the autumn before they reached Fort La Reine. They brought good news, however. During the winter they had lost no opportunity of picking up Mandan words and phrases, until at last they were able to make themselves fairly well understood in that tongue. In the early summer a number of strange Indians had arrived from the West at the Mandan villages. They were on horseback, and brought with them many additional horses to carry their provisions and supplies. They came in order to trade embroidered buffalo hides and other skins with the Mandans for corn and beans, which they did not grow in their own country.

The young Frenchmen learned from the Mandans that a band of these Indians had their home in the extreme West, towards the setting sun. The Mandans also reported that in this country there were white men, who lived in brick and stone houses. In order to make further inquiries the two Frenchmen visited these Indians, and were fortunate enough to find among them a chief who spoke the language of the Mandans. He professed to speak also the language of the white men who dwelt in the West, but when the French heard this language they could make nothing of it. The chief declared that the strangers in his country wore beards and that in many other respects they resembled the white men. He declared that they prayed to the Master of Life in great buildings, where the Indians had seen them holding in their hands what, from their description, must have been books, the leaves like 'husks of Indian corn.' Their houses were described as standing near the shores of the great lake, whose waters rise and fall, and are unfit to drink. This would mean tides and salt water. If this Indian story was true, and there did not seem to be any reason for doubting it, La Vérendrye at last had something definite to guide him in his search for the Western Sea. He had but to find his way to the homes of these mysterious white strangers on its shores; and he hoped that the Indian band who had visited the Mandans, and from whom his men had obtained these particulars, would be able and willing to provide him with competent guides.

For some reason La Vérendrye was unable himself to return to the country of the Mandans or to go still farther west. But in the spring of 1740 he sent his eldest son Pierre into that country in order to make further inquiries, and to obtain guides if possible for the projected journey to the Western Sea. Pierre spent the following winter with the Mandans, but he could not find the men he needed as guides, and so he returned to Fort La Reine in the summer of 1741.

In the spring of 1742, not discouraged by the failure of the previous year, Pierre set out again for the Mandans, accompanied this time by his brother François, who was known as the Chevalier, and by two men from the fort. The journey was to prove momentous, but at first the outlook was dark. When they arrived in the Mandan country they could find no sign of the Horse Indians, as the mounted Indians from the West were called. Pierre and his brother waited long at the Mandan village with what patience they could summon. The month of May went by, then June, then most of July, with still no sign of the missing band. Finally the brothers decided that, if they were to go farther west, they could wait no longer, for the season was advancing and it would soon be too late to do anything. At last they found among the Mandans two young men who agreed to lead them to the country of the Horse People. This would bring them to their hoped-for guides. Without a moment's delay they set out towards the south-west in search of the missing Indians.

They travelled for twenty days in a south-westerly direction, through what were afterwards known as the Bad Lands of the Little Missouri, a country unlike anything they had ever seen before. On every side they could see mounds and pillars of brilliantly-colored earth, blue and crimson and green and yellow. So much were they struck with the singular spectacle that they would have liked to carry some of the colored earth with them to show to their father on their return. But a long journey lay before them. They had to carry everything they needed on their backs, and it would have been folly to add to the load something that was useless for their immediate needs, something that they could neither eat nor wear.

About the beginning of August the party reached a mountain where the Mandans expected to find the Horse Indians so eagerly sought. But the Horse Indians had gone on a hunting expedition and had not yet returned; so Pierre and his brother decided to wait for them. On the summit of the mountain they made a signal fire, and every day one of the explorers climbed up to the lookout to see if there were any signs of the Indians. At the foot of the mountain they built a small house in which they lived. Some of their time they spent in hunting to provision the camp, while waiting as patiently as they could for the Horse Indians to return from their hunting.

At last, on September 14, a smoke was seen rising in the south-western sky. One of the men was sent to investigate, and he found not the Horse Indians but a band known to the Mandans as the Good-looking Indians. Difficulties multiplied. One of the Mandan guides had already deserted them to go back to the Missouri, and the other now told the brothers that he must leave them. He was prompted by fear. The Good-looking Indians were not on friendly terms with the Mandans, and, although they had not offered to do him any harm, he was afraid to remain near these enemies.

After the Mandan had gone back, the brothers La Vérendrye managed to explain to the Good-looking Indians by signs that they were seeking the Horse Indians and asked for guides to one of the camps of these Indians. One of the Good-looking Indians said he knew the way, and they set out under his guidance; but they became anxious on finding that they were still travelling in the same direction as before, for this did not seem to be a very direct road to the Western Sea. Still, they had fixed their hopes on the Horse Indians as the people able to lead them there, and the most urgent thing to do was to find some members of that tribe, even though they had to go a long way out of their course to do so.

On the second day after they left the camp of the Good-looking Indians, they met a party of another tribe known as the Little Foxes, who were very friendly. The explorers gave them some small presents, and made them understand that they were seeking the Horse Indians, who had promised to show them the way to the sea. 'We will take you to the Horse Indians,' they said, and their whole party turned about and joined the French. But these new guides also, to the disgust of François La Vérendrye, still marched towards the south-west. 'I felt sure,' he said, 'that in this direction we should never find the Western Sea.' However, there was nothing to do but to go forward, and to trust to better luck after they reached the Horse Indians.

After tramping on for many days they came at last to an encampment of the Horse Indians. These people, just then, were in great trouble. They had been attacked not long before by a war party of the Snake Indians; many of their bravest warriors had been killed, and many of their women had been carried into captivity. When asked the way to the sea these Indians now declared that none of them had ever been there, for the very good reason that the country of the fierce Snake Indians must be crossed to reach it. They said that a neighboring tribe, the Bow Indians, might be able to give some information, as they either themselves traded with the white men of the sea-coast, or were on friendly terms with other tribes who had been down to the sea. These Bow Indians, they added, were the only tribe who dared to fight against the Snake Indians, for they were under the leadership of a wise and skilful chief, who had more than once led his tribe to victory against these dangerous enemies. A guide was found to lead the explorers to the Bow Indians, and they went off once more, still travelling south-westerly, until at length, on November 21, they came in sight of the camp of the Bows. It was a huge camp, much larger than any the explorers had yet visited. Everywhere they could see numbers of horses, asses, and mules—animals unknown among the northern tribes.

When they reached the camp the chief of the Bows met them and at once took them to his own lodge. Nothing could be more friendly or polite than his treatment of the white travelers. In fact, as François said, he did not seem to have the manners of a savage. 'Up to that time we had always been very well received in the villages we had visited, but what we had before experienced in that way was nothing in comparison with the gracious manners of the head chief of the Bows. He took as much care of all our belongings as if they had been his own.' With him François and his brother remained for some time; and, very soon, through the kindness of the chief, they learnt enough of the language to make themselves understood.

The explorers had many interesting talks with this friendly chief. They asked him if he knew anything about the white people who lived on the sea-coast. 'We know them,' he replied, 'through what has been told us by prisoners of the Snake tribe. We have never been to the sea ourselves.' 'Do not be surprised,' he continued, 'to see so many Indians camped round us. Word has been sent in all directions to our people to join us here. In a few days we shall march against the Snakes; and if you will come with us, we will take you to the high mountains that are near the sea. From their summits you will be able to look upon it.' The brothers La Vérendrye were overjoyed to hear such encouraging news, and agreed that one of them should accompany the Bow Indians on their expedition against the Snakes. It seemed almost too good to be true that they might be actually within reach of the sea, the goal towards which they and their father had been struggling for so many years. In fact, it proved too good to be true. Whether they had misunderstood the chief, or whether he was merely speaking from hearsay, certainly the view was far from correct that the mountains which they were approaching lay near the sea. These mountains, not far off, were the Rocky Mountains. Even if the explorers should succeed in reaching and in crossing them at this point, there would still be hundreds of miles of mountain forest and plain to traverse before their eyes could rest on the waters of the Pacific ocean. Pierre and his brother never knew this, however, for they were not destined to see the western side of the mountains.

The great war party of the Bows, consisting of more than two thousand fighting men, with their families, started out towards the Snake country in December, the comparatively mild December of the south-western plains. The scene must have been singularly animated as this horde of Indians, with their wives and children, their horses and dogs, and the innumerable odds and ends that made up their camp equipage, moved slowly across the plains. François was too full of his own affairs to describe the odd appearance of this native army in the journal which he wrote of the expedition, but fortunately the historian Francis Parkman lived for some time among these tribes of the western plains, and he has given us a good idea of what such an Indian army must have looked like on the march. 'The spectacle,' he says, 'was such as men still young have seen in these western lands, but which no man will see again. The vast plain swarmed with the moving multitude. The tribes of the Missouri and the Yellowstone had by this time abundance of horses, the best of which were used for war and hunting, and the others as beasts of burden. These last were equipped in a peculiar manner. Several of the long poles used to frame the teepees, or lodges, were secured by one end to each side of a rude saddle, while the other end trailed on the ground. Crossbars lashed to the poles, just behind the horse, kept them three or four feet apart, and formed a firm support, on which was laid, compactly folded, the buffalo-skin covering of the lodge. On this, again, sat a mother with her young family, sometimes stowed for safety in a large, open, willow basket, with the occasional addition of some domestic pet—such as a tame raven, a puppy, or even a small bear cub. Other horses were laden in the same manner with wooden bowls, stone hammers, and other utensils, along with stores of dried buffalo meat packed in cases of raw hide whitened and painted. Many of the innumerable dogs—whose manners and appearance strongly suggested their relatives the wolves, to whom, however, they bore a mortal grudge—were equipped in a similar way, with shorter poles and lighter loads. Bands of naked boys, noisy and restless, roamed the prairie, practicing their bows and arrows on any small animal they might find. Gay young squaws—adorned on each cheek with a spot of ochre or red clay and arrayed in tunics of fringed buckskin embroidered with porcupine quills—were mounted on ponies, astride like men; while lean and tattered hags—the drudges of the tribe, unkempt and hideous—scolded the lagging horses or screeched at the disorderly dogs, with voices not unlike the yell of the great horned owl. Most of the warriors were on horseback, armed with round white shields of bull hide, feathered lances, war clubs, bows, and quivers filled with stone-headed arrows; while a few of the elders, wrapped in robes of buffalo hide, stalked along in groups with a stately air, chatting, laughing, and exchanging unseemly jokes.'

On the first day of January 1743, the Indians, accompanied by the brothers La Vérendrye and their Frenchmen, came within sight of the mountains. Rising mysteriously in the distance were those massive crags, those silent, snow-capped peaks, upon which, as far as we know, Europeans had never looked before. The party of Frenchmen and Indians pressed on, for eight days, towards the foot of the mountains. Then, when they had come within a few days' journey of the place where they expected to find the Snakes, they altered their mode of advance. It was now decided to leave the women and children in camp under a small guard, while the warriors pushed on in the hope of surprising the Snakes in their winter camp near the mountains. Pierre remained in camp to look after the baggage of the party, which the Indians would probably pillage if left unguarded. François and his two Frenchmen went forward with the war party, and four days later they arrived at the foot of the mountains, the first Europeans who had ever put foot on those majestic slopes. François gazed with the keenest interest at the lofty summits, and longed to climb them to see what lay beyond.

Meanwhile he was obliged to share in a vivid human drama. The chief of the Bows had sent scouts forward to search for the camp of the Snakes, and these scouts now reappeared. They had found the camp, but the enemy had fled; and had, indeed, gone off in such a hurry that they had abandoned their lodges and most of their belongings. The effect produced by this news was singular. Instead of rejoicing because the dreaded Snakes had fled before them, which was evidently the case, the Bow warriors at once fell into a panic. The Snakes, they cried, had discovered the approach of their enemies, and must have gone back to attack the Bow camp and capture the women and children. The great chief tried to reason with his warriors; he pointed out that the Snakes could not know anything about the camp, that quite evidently they had been afraid to meet the Bows and had fled before them. But it was all to no purpose. The Bows would not listen to reason; they were sure that the Snakes had played them a cunning trick and that they should hasten back as speedily as possible to save their families. The result was characteristic of savage warfare. The Indian army that had marched a few days earlier in good order to attack the enemy now fled back along the trail in a panic, each man for himself.

It was in these ignominious circumstances that François La Vérendrye, having reached the foot of the Rocky Mountains, was obliged to turn back without going farther, leaving the mystery of the Great Sea still unsolved. François rode by the side of the disgusted chief and the two Frenchmen followed behind. Presently François noticed that his men had disappeared. He galloped back for some miles, and found them resting their horses on the banks of a river. While he talked with them, his quick eye detected the approach of a party of Snake Indians from a neighboring wood. They were covering themselves with their shields, and were evidently bent on an attack. François and his men loaded their guns and waited until the Indians were well within range. Then they took aim and fired. The Snakes knew little or nothing about firearms, and when one or two of their number fell before this volley, they fled in disorder.

There was still danger of an attack by a larger band of the enemy, and the Frenchmen remained on guard where they were until nightfall. Then, under cover of darkness, they attempted to follow the trail of the Bows. But the ground was so dry and hard at that season of the year that they found it impossible to pick up the trail of their friends. For two days they wandered about. Skill or good fortune, however, aided them, and at last they arrived at the camp of the Bows, tired and half starved. The chief had been anxious at the disappearance of his white guests, and was overjoyed at their safe return. It is almost needless to say that the panic-stricken warriors had found their camp just as they had left it; no one had heard or seen anything of the Snakes; and the warriors were forced to submit to the jeers of the squaws for their failure to come even within sight of the enemy.

Pierre, François, and their two men accompanied the Bows for some days on their homeward journey. They found, however, that the Bows were travelling away from the course which they wished to follow, and so decided to leave them and to turn towards the Missouri river. The chief of the Bows seemed to feel genuine regret at bidding farewell to his French guests, and he made them promise to return and pay him another visit in the following spring, after they had seen their father at Fort La Reine. On the long journey to this point the three Frenchmen now set out across the limitless frozen prairie.

About the middle of March they came upon a party of strange Indians known as the People of the Little Cherry. They were returning from their winter's hunting, and were then only two days' journey from their village on the banks of the Missouri. Like all the other tribes, the People of the Little Cherry received the Frenchmen with perfect friendliness. The party lingered with these Indians in their village until the beginning of April, and François spent most of his time learning their language. This he found quite easy, perhaps because he had already picked up a fair knowledge of the language of some of the neighboring tribes, and it proved not unlike that of the Little Cherry Indians. François found in the village an Indian who had been brought up among the Spaniards of the Pacific Coast, and who still spoke their language as readily as he spoke his mother tongue. He questioned him eagerly about the distance to the Spanish settlements and the difficulties of the way. The man replied that the journey was long. It was also, he said, very dangerous, because it must be through the country of the Snake Indians. This Indian assured François that another Frenchman lived in the country where they were, in a village distant about three days' journey. Naturally this surprised François and his brother. They thought of going to visit him; but their horses were badly in need of a rest after the long trip from the mountains, and must be kept fresh for the journey to the Mandan villages. They therefore sent instead a letter to the Frenchman, asking him to visit them at the village of the Little Cherries, or, if that was not possible, at least to send them an answer. No answer came, and we may well doubt whether such a Frenchman existed. Before leaving the country, La Vérendrye buried on the summit of a hill a tablet of lead, with the arms and inscription of the French king. This was to take possession of the country for France. He also built a pyramid of stones in honor of the governor of Canada.1

About the beginning of April, when the horses were in good condition and all preparations had been made for the journey, the explorers said good-bye to the People of the Little Cherry and set out for the Mandan villages. Like the Bow Indians, the Little Cherries seemed sorry to lose them and begged them to come back. In return for the kindness and hospitality he had received, La Vérendrye distributed some presents and promised to visit them again when he could.

On May 18 the travelers reached the Mandan villages and were welcomed as if they had returned from the dead. Their long absence had led the Mandans to conclude that they had been killed by some unfriendly Indians, or that some fatal accident had happened on the way. They had intended to rest for some time at the Mandan villages, but they found that a party of Assiniboines was going to Fort La Reine, and they determined to travel with them. The Assiniboines had in fact already left on their journey, but the Frenchmen overtook them at their first camp.

Tablet deposited by La Vérendrye, 1743.
Obverse and reverse sides.
From photographs lent by Charles N. Bell, F.R.G.S.

President of the Manitoba Historical and Scientific Society. This latter part of the journey had its own excitements and perils. On the last day of May, as they were travelling over the prairie, they discovered a party of Sioux waiting in ambush. The Sioux had expected to meet a smaller party, and now decided not to fight. At the same time, they were too proud to run away before the despised Assiniboines, even though they numbered only thirty and the Assiniboines numbered more than a hundred. They retreated with dignified slowness, facing around on the Assiniboines from time to time, and driving them back when they ventured too near. But when they recognized the Frenchmen, mounted on horses and armed with their deadly muskets, their attitude changed; they forgot their dignity and made off as fast as they could go. Even with heavy odds against them these virile savages managed to wound several of the Assiniboines, while they lost only one man, who mistook the enemy for his friends and was captured. Pierre and François La Vérendrye finally reached Fort La Reine on July 2, to the great delight of their father, who had grown anxious on account of their long absence. They had been away from the fort for one year and eighty-four days.


1. This tablet remained buried where it was deposited for 170 years. In March 1913 it was found by a young girl on the west bank of the Missouri river opposite the city of Pierre, N. Dakota, thus bearing testimony to the trustworthiness of François La Vérendrye's journal, from which this chapter was written before the tablet was discovered. Photographs of the tablet were made by W. O'Reilly of Pierre and published in the Manitoba Free Press and are reproduced in this book by courtesy of Charles N. Bell, F.R.G.S., of Winnipeg.

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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