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The Story of Manitoba
Chapter VIII Great French Explorers


For a hundred years after tile Hudson's Pay Company had received its charter from Charles II, it was content to transact its business at seven or eight forts along the coast of the bay and a few posts not far inland; but it neglected the vast interior and the enormous quantity of furs to be obtained there. It was far otherwise with the enterprising traders and the adventurous coureurs des hois of Quebec; for they had penetrated into the most distant parts of the territory claimed by the English company and were drawing away a large part of its trade.

Between the years 1659 and 1663 Radisson and Groseilliers had found their way west to the border of the prairies and north to Hudson Bay: and when the chartered companies and the government of Canada compelled these daring men to discontinue their trading trips into the uncharted wilderness, their trails were taken up by others. We know that Duluth had a fort on the Nepigon Lake in 1684, and it is quite likely that he reached the site of the city which bears his name about the same time. We are told that de Noyen, a Canadian from Three Rivers, spent the winter of 1688 with Indians on an island in the Lake of the Woods and that he left a detailed description of the route to it. De la Noue, who had charge of a fort at Kaministiquia from 1717 to 1721, suggested that a fort should be built on Rainy Lake. Such facts make it more than probable that some of these early traders found their way to the prairie country west of the posts which they occupied; and we know that a French half-breed, named Joseph la France, went from Lake Superior to Hudson Bay between the years 1739 and 1742, following the route which nature seems to have designed for canoemen. He traversed that chain of rivers and small lakes which connects Lake Superior with Rainy Lake, crossed it, and descended Rainy River to the Lake of tha Woods; traversed this beautiful sheet of water and went down the Winnipeg River; paddled down the length of Lake Winnipeg; followed the connected waters which lead from it to the Hayes River; and then followed that stream to the hay. But there was no organized attempt to explore the great plains of the west until it was made by a high-minded, intrepid citizen of Three Rivers, whose name is one of the most illustrious in Canadian history.

The small town of Three Rivers in Quebec is connected with the early history of Manitoba and the west in many ways. It was the home of Groseilliers and Radisson, the adventurers who were probably the first white men to find their way from the Great Lakes, to the western plains and the northern sea; it was the home of Duluth and De Noyen; and it was the birth-place of one greater than any of these. In the latter part of the seventeenth century the governor of this little walled town beside the St. Lawrence was Rene Gaulthier de Varennes. and on the 17th of November, 1685, a son was born to him who received the name of Pierre. The l>oy received such education as could be obtained in the colony at the time, and when only twelve .years of age became, a cadet in the army. In 1701 he was a member of the force which de Rouville led on a winter raid' against the New England settlements, and in the next year he went with Subercase to attack St. John's, Newfoundland. In 1706 he received an ensign's commission in a Brittany regiment then serving in Planders and fought with it for three years in the "War of the Spanish Succession. At Malqaquot he distinguished himself by many acts of bravery, was wounded nine times, and left for dead on the field. He recovered, however, and soon after quit the service to return to Canada and engage in the fur trade. In a year or two he was married to the daughter of a Canadian gentleman named Dandonneau, and made his home on the island of Dupas in the St. Lawrence not far from Three. Rivers. Pour sons were born to him, and all of them were to play a part in the history of the west.

For several years the father managed a trading post on the St. Maurice River called La Gabelle; but in 1726 he was sent to take charge of a fort on Lake Nepigon, where Duluth had been stationed forty-four years earlier, and where Radisson had traded thirty years before that. This Pierre Gaulthier de la Verendrye, to give him his full title, was a man of high purpose, and for years he had brooded over the possibility of finding that elusive water route to the western sea, which hail lured so many dauntless explorers into the West and north; and perhaps the hope of a chain* to engage in the search led him west to the Nepigon.

Among the Indians who came west to trade at la Verendrye's fort was a man named Ochagach, who lived on the Kaministiquia about a hundred miles away. He gave the commandant of the post very interesting accounts of a journey which he had once made to the west, of a great lake there, and of a large river flowing out of it to the westward. He said that he had paddled down this river until he reached a point where the tide rose and fell, and that he had been told of a great salt lake or sea into which it emptied. He had also heard that large ships came from some land across this sea, and that on its shores were strange men who wore armor and rode upon horses.

To la Verendrye it seemed that, if these tales were true, the sea could be no other than the long-sought western ocean and that if it were so near, there should be little difficulty in finding a route to it. Inspired with the desire to discover it. la Verendrye went to the governor of Canada, the Marquis de Beau-harnois. in 1730 and outlined a plan for an exploring expedition into the far west. He showed a rough map of the route to be taken, which Ochagach had drawn on birch bark. His arguments were seconded by the reports made by Father Gonor, who had established a mission among the Sioux in 1727. FinallV la Verendrye was permitted to leave his fort in order to take an expedition into the interior, but the government could give him no money for the purpose. However, it gave him a monopoly of the fur trade in the regions he might explore, and this concession induced the merchants of Montreal to form a company to promote the enterprise. La Verendrye put all his own money into it

Early in the summer of 1731 la Verendrye set out. He was accompanied by three of his sons, Jean Baptiste, Pierre, and Francois, and by his nephew, Christopher Dufrost de la Jemerayeir and Father Mesaiger joined them on the way. They followed the usual route hy the Ottawa, Lake Nipissing, French River. Lake Huron, and Lake Superior to the Grand Portage of the Pigeon River. The long journey which they had made and the unknown difficulties before them so discouraged some of la Verendrye's men that they would not go further; he therefore camped for the winter at Kaministiquia with these men and sent Jemeraye and one of his sons forward with the remainder of the party. They penetrated the forest for a hundred leagues, and having reached the outlet of Rainy Lake, they built Fort St. Pierre near the present town of Fort Francis and wintered there.

In May, 1732, Jemeraye went back to Grand Portage with a good supply of furs, and la Verendrye sent them to Michilimackmac in charge of one of his sons; then he took the rest of his men westward. They set out on June 8 and reached Fort St. Pierre on July 11. After a short stay at the fort, la Verendrye and his men descended the Rainy River, accompanied by about fifty Indian canoes. Some time was spent in exploring the island-studded Lake of the "Woods, and then a site for Fort St. Charles was selected about three miles up a stream near the Northwest Angle. The fort was from an inclosure 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. Here the party spent the winter.

In the spring of 1733 Jemeraye was sent back to Montreal to make a report to the merchants who had fitted out the expedition and to secure supplies for the coming year. Father Mesaiger accompanied him. La Verendrye spent a part of the summer exploring the Winnipeg River, preparatory to building a fort on it, if Jemeraye's success in Montreal would warrant the expense. But the merchants there gave the expedition rather meagre support, and the government still declined to aid it with money; so a scanty supply of goods reached Fort St. Charles in the autumn and only a small stock of furs could be purchased from the Indians. In the spring of 1734 la Verendrye decided that he must go to Montreal himself, if his enterprise was to be saved from ruin. Sending his eldest son, Jean-Baptiste, to build Fort Maurepas at the mouth of the Winnipeg River, and leaving Fort St. Charles in charge of Jemeraye, he set out on his long journey and reached Montreal on the 25th of August.

La Verendrye was more than a mere trader. His was the vision of the explorer and the imperialist. lie saw the vast western plains added to the empire of France, its great rivers as her highways, and, beyond them all. the western sea over which her ships would carry the commerce of the Indies; but to his Montreal partners he must talk of the profits to be made from the. trade in furs, else the money and goods to continue his explorations would not be secured. His arguments prevailed, and he received orders to continue his work and returned to the west with new supplies.

Leaving Montreal on June fi, 1735, la Verendrye reached Fort St. Charles on September 6. He found the place in sore straits. Provisions were exhausted, and the men had taken to hunting to supply themselves with food. He spent the winter there, doing the best he could under the circumstances, but unable to extend explorations into the west. In the spring the party was without goods or provisions. La Verendrye sent two of his sons to Fort Maurepas, and on June -4 they returned with sad news, for la Jemeraye was dead, worn out with the labors ami hardships which he had undergone. Ilis death was a great blow to la Verendrye, for no one could have given him more loyal and enthusiastic support than his nephew had done.

Another blow soon followed. It was necessary to send a party to Michili mackinac to hurry forward supplies, if the explorers were to be saved from starvation during the approaching winter. Led by Jean-Baptiste and accompanied by Father Aulneau, the party set out on June 8 in three canoes. That night they camped on an island about twenty miles from Fort St. Charles. In the early morning a band of Sioux, intent on avenging an injury done them by the Chippewas, crept up to the French party and poured a shower of arrows upon it. The leader, the priest, and others fell, and the remainder seized their guns and attempted to defend themselves in a retreat to their canoes. Bui the Indians were too strong for them, and those who were not shot down were driven into the lake and drowned.

La Verendrye. remained at Fort St. Charles during the autumn and winter, but when spring came, he had not even the necessities of life, and was compelled to go to Montreal again. The journey took most of the summer, and he spent the winter in Canada, On June 18, 1738, he turned his face westward once more, carry ing what was necessary to continue his enterprise, and reached Fort, St. Charles on September 2. During his absence his two sons had managed affairs there and had maintained very friendly relations with the natives.

The autumn was unusually line, and la Verendrye determined to push his explorations further into the west. Leaving his second son, Pierre, in charge of Fort St. Charles, and taking the third, Francois, and the fourth, Louis, who had just joined the expedition as its cartographer, he went down the "Winnipeg River to Fort Maurepas, paused there a day, and crossed Lake "Winnipeg to the mouth of the Red River. He ascended the river to its junction with the Assiniboine, and it was probably on September 26, 1738, that the intrepid French explorer landed on the site of the future capital of Manitoba to select a place for a trading post. Two bands of Crees were camped at the junction of the rivers, and after a conference with their chiefs, la Verendrye secured their promise to trade with the French rather than the English. When these Crees learned that la Verendrye intended to ascend the Assiniboine, they attempted to dissuade him. "You will find yourself among the Assiniboines," said one of the chiefs, "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."

La Verendrye went forward, and on October 3 he landed and began the construction of a fort in which to pass the winter. In his journal he says, "My fourth fort is Fort de la Reine, on the north bank of the Assiniboine River;" and he adds, "From Fort de la Reine there is a nine mile portage leading to Lac des Prairies." Lac des Prairies is now Lake Manitoba and Fort de la Reine, named in honor of the queen of France, stood on or close to the present site of Portage la Prairie. Before the fort was completed a band of Assiniboines came to visit la Verendrye, who found them not less ready to trade than the Crees. The knives, awls, and other steel tools which he gave them were very highly prized.

As soon as Port de la Reine had been started, la Verendrye. sent some of his men under de Louviere hack to the mouth of the Assiniboine to build a fort there to retain the trade of the Crees in the neighborhood. The post was erected 011 the south bank of the Assiniboine close to its mouth and was named Port Rouge, an appellation which survives in the name still given to that portion of the city of "Winnipeg. Port Rouge was abandoned after a year or two, as it was found more convenient to conduct trade with the Crees from Port Maurepas. It seems to have been more than sixty years before another trading post was established on the site of the present commercial centre of Manitoba.

For a long time the French explorer had been receiving from the natives who came to trade with him accounts of a great Indian nation that occupied the country through which the upper Missouri flows. These Indians were called the Mandans, and la Verendrye was very anxious to visit them; so, although it. was late in the autumn when Fort de la Reine was completed, he started on the long journey to the Missouri country. He took one of his sons, de la Marque, who had come west to serve as his lieutenant, twenty Frenchmen, and four Indian guides. They had travelled a day or two when they received an urgent invitation to visit a band of Assiniboines some distance of? the line of march. Unwilling to lose so much time but anxious to secure the friendship of the Indians, la Verendrye finally consented to go to their village. The party was well received, the usual presents were made, and the Indians promised to trade with the French.

The next evidence of the Indian's friendship proved rather embarrassing to la Verendrye, for he was assured that the band would accompany him to the country of the Mandans and that word of their coming bad already been sent forward. He could not prevent this migration, and so the whole band, about six hundred in number, began the march next morning. Progress was slow, because the Indians often halted to hunt buffaloes, and it was late in November before la Verendrye met the first party of Mandans and exchanged presents with them in token of friendship. After some, delay he went forward to one of their fortified villages and was well received. These people did not appreciate the visit of such a large band of Assiniboines, and contrived to scare them back to their own country by stories of the approach of a large force of hostile Sioux. The Assiniboines managed to carry off a large part of the presents which la Verendrye had brought for the Mandans, and so honors might be considered even between the unwilling hosts and their self-invited guests.

La Verendrye noted many interesting facts about the Mandans and their customs, and he tried to obtain from them information about the country west of theirs and the possibility of crossing it to the western ocean; but he was unable to gain much knowledge about these matters, as his interpreter had deserted him. So he left two Frenchmen to learn the Mandan language and gain all the information possible; then, with the rest of his men, he set out on the return journey. The mid-winter trip proved very trying, and Fort de la Reine was not reached until the 11th of February, 1739.

In May la Verendrye sent his men from Fort de la Reine to Grand Portage to bring up the season's supply of goods. Nothing had been sent to that point, however, and the men went on to Miehilimackinac. No goods had been sent there for them, and their furs were seized for an alleged debt due by la Verendrye.

Under the circumstances his men carried a very small amount of supplies when they came hack to Fort de la Reine in October. During the summer Indians from the northern shore of Lake Manitoba had asked that trading posts be established in their district, and two of his sons had been sent to find suitable sites; but when the father found that he would have no goods to stock these posts, he was obliged to postpone their erection.

He spent the winter of 1739 in his fort on the Assiniboine, and m the spring he set out once more for Montreal, hoping to induce the merchants to forward the supplies which he needed so much. He had sunk his own fortune <n the wester . enterprise, had spent nine strenuous years in the work, and had lost a son and a nephew in its prosecution: and now he found himself involved in lawsuits over his management of the business. He had the sympathy and aid of the governor, however, and finally succeeded in getting a new stock of goods. In the spring of 1741 he left Montreal, accompanied by Father Coquart. La Verendrye reached Fort de la Reine on October 13th, but the^priest did not arrive at that point until 1743.

The two men whom la Verendrye had left with the Mandans returned to Fort de la Reine late in the autumn if 1739 with tales of a race of Indians living by a western sea, among whom bearded white men dwelt. They had heard these stories from a band of western Indians which had visited the Mandans and from which guides to the sea might be obtained. Pierre had gone to the Mandans in the summer of 1740, hoping to secure these guides; but he was not successful, and returned the next summer.

The arrival of his stores enabled la Verendrye to carry out his plan of building new forts in the north, and in the autumn of 1741 he sent his son to build a fort on the shore of Lake Manitoba and another on Cedar Lake near the mouth of the Saskatchewan. The former was called Fort Dauphin, the latter Fort Bourbon. La Verendrye himself says, "From Fort de la Reine there is a nine mile portage to the northeast, reaching to the Lake of the Prairies. The south side of the lake is followed to the outlet of a river that comes from the great prairies, at the foot of which is Fort Dauphin, the fifth establishment, built at the request of the prairie Crees and the canoe Assiniboines. There is a trail from there to Fort Bourbon, which is the sixth establishment. But the road is not advantageous. The custom is, on leaving Fort Maurepas, to pass along the north of Lake Winnipigon to its first strait, where a crossing is made to the south, from island to island, then the land is coasted along to the river aux Biches, where Fort Bourbon stands near a lake of the same name. From Fort Bourbon to the Paskoyac (Pasquia) river is thirty leagues." A fort was built on the Paskoyac not long after, and one of la Verendrye's sons followed the Saskatchewan River to its forks. A small post was built on the Red River not far from the present town of Selkirk about this time, but it was soon abandoned.

In the summer of 1742 la Verendrye sent his sons, Pierre and Francois, with two men from Fort de la Reine, to make another visit to the Mandans. They set out on April 29. and on reaching the Missouri, crossed it and kept on to the southwest until they; found themselves close to the Bighorn Mountains. They were most anxious to cross the range, believing that the sea which they sought must lie closc beyond; but the Indian tribes in that region were at war and the Frenchmen were compelled to turn back. They spent some time in exploring the country now included in the states of Wyoming and Montana, taking possession of it for France. At length they turned their steps eastward and reached Fort de la Reine on July 2, 1741

In spite of the noble achievements of la Verendrye and his sons their enemies in Canada made the prosecution of their discoveries more and more difficult. Pierre was recalled from the west in 1745 and given a commission in the army under Legardeur de Saint-Pierre; Francois seems to have been recalled to serve under the same officer; and in 1746 la Verendrye himself was summoned to Montreal to answer charges made against him. The brave and energetic man, who had spent fifteen years of his life in unselfish service to his country, was deprived of his position, and de Noyelles was appointed to direct the work of exploration and trade, no one of the Verendrye family being left to take part in it except young Louis who had charge of Fort St. Charles. De Noyelles does not seem to have gone further west than Kaministiquia and to have given little attention to the business committed to his charge. The forts fell into ruins, and the Indians began to take their furs to the English posts in the far north.

In 1747 la Verendrye's son, Francois, seems to have returned to his work in the west. lie repaired Fort Maurepas and Fort de la Reine, and in 1749 he began preparations to ascend the Saskatchewan to its sources. The Indians assured him that it rose in very lofty mountains, and that beyond them was a great lake whose water could not be drunk; but it was necessary to await supplies from Montreal before making the ascent of the river. The year 1749 seemed to promise a change in the fortunes of la Verendrye, for his sons had received promotions, he himself had been decorated with the cross of St. Louis, and had been appointed once more to conduct the exploration of the west. But in the midst of preparation for resuming his work death overtook him, and he passed away on December 6, 1749.

It would have been wise and just to give the position made vacant by the death of the great explorer to his soil Francois, who had spent nearly twenty years in exploring the west; but it went to de Saint-Pierre instead. The young Chevalier de la Verendrye generously offered to serve under this man, but was not allowed to do so. De Saint-Pierre seems to have owed his appointment to the notorious intendant, Bigot, and to have been more anxious to secure profit out of the fur trade for himself, his patron, and la Jonquiere, the governor, than to extend la Verendrye's explorations. lie started for the west on June 5, 1750, taking M. de Niverville with him as his lieutenant. The party reached Fort St. 1'ierre on September 29, and ma King short stays there and at Fort St. Charles, went down to Fort Maurepas. There the party was divided, some of the men going to the Saskatchewan with de Niverville, the others going to Fort de la Reine with de Saint-Pierre.

It was too late in the autumn to traverse Lake Winnipeg in canoes, and de Niverville's men were obliged to go by land to Fort Bourbon and then to follow the river bank up to Fort Paskoyac. There was no provision in the fort, and they were on the verge of starvation most of the winter. In the spring de Niverville received orders to follow the Saskatchewan to its sources and to build a fort at the foot of the mountains. He was too ill to go himself, but he sent ten men to carry out the undertaking. They were successful, and during the summer they constructed Fort la Jonquiere, which is supposed to have stood near the present city of Calgary. De Niverville remained at Fort Paskoyac until 1758, when it was abandoned and he returned to Canada.

De Saint-Pierre went from Fort Maurepas to Fort de la Reine. It had not been occupied after the sons of la Verendrye left it and was without provisions. De Saint-Pierre's party passed a hard winter there, and in the spring he went to Grand Portage for supplies. He returned in October, and five weeks later he set out for Fort Paskoyac but did not reach it. Food was scarce that winter, and the nineteen men under de Saint-Pierre, as well as the Indians in the vicinity of the fort, were often menaced by starvation. The starving Indians became desperate, and one day in February, when fourteen of the Frenchmen were out hunting, the natives made an attempt to seize the fort.

De Saint-Pierre tells the story thus: "On the 22nd of February, about nine in the forenoon, I was in the fort with five Frenchmen. I bad sent the rest of my men to get provisions, as I had been without any for some days. I was quiet in my room, when two hundred armed Assiniboines came into my Fort. These Indians were, in a moment, scattered through all the houses; several, without arms, came into my place, the others remained in the Fort. My men came to notify me of the appearance of the Indians. I hastened to them. I told them plainly that they were very daring to come in a crowd, thus armed, into my Fort. One of them made answer, in the Cree language, that they had come to smoke. I told them that such was not the manner to do things and that they would have to retire at once. I thought that the firmness with which I had spoken to them had intimidated them, especially as 1 had put four of the most insolent Indians out, without saying a word. I felt at once at home; but, in a moment, a soldier came to inform me that the guard-room was full of Indians, and that they had taken possession of the arms. 1 hastened to the guard-room. I asked those Indians, through my Cree interpreter, what were their intentions, and, at the same time, I prepared with my little troop for battle. My interpreter, who deceived me, said that the Indians had no had intentions, and, at the same moment, an Assiniboine orator, who had unceasingly delivered beautiful harangues, told my interpreter that, in spite of him, the tribe wanted to pillage and kill me. No sooner had I learned their determination than I forgot about the necessity of taking their arms. I seized hold of a burning brand. I burst in the door of the powder magazine; I smashed two barrels of powder over which I waved my burning torch, making it be told in a positive tone to the Indians, that I would not perish by their hands and that in dying I would have the glory of making them suffer the same fate. The Indians saw more of my torch than they heard of my words. They all flew in haste to the gate of the Fort, which they fairly shook in their hurry. I soon dropped my torch and was not. slow in closing the gate of my Fort. The peril which I had happily escaped, by thus placing myself in danger of destruction, caused ne a great anxiety concerning the fourteen men whom I had sent after food. I kept a good watch on my bastions; I saw no more of the enemy, and, in the evening, my fourteen men arrived without having met with any misadventure."

The remainder of the winter passed quietly, and in the spring the Indians came hack with protestations of friendship, in which de Saint-Pierre had little confidence. However, when he and his men set out for Grand Portage on July 24th, he left Fort de la Reine in charge of the Indians, who promised to guard it until his return. Four days after the commandant's departure the savages burned his fort as the most effective means of keeping intruders out of it.

On September 29, as he was coming down the "Winnipeg River on his return trip, de Saint-Pierre learned of the destruction of Fort de la Reine; and so he seems to have taken his goods and provisions to Fort Rouge and to have spent the winter there. He was recalled to Canada in 1753, and de Niverville went with him. Governor Duquesne sent out the Chevalier de la Corne to take charge of the trading posts in the west, and by his orders a fort was erected on the Saskatchewan, a little below the forks, during 1756. This post, Fort la Corne, was the last fort built by the French in the west. In a short time it and all the forts built under la Verendrye's direction were abandoned and soon fell into ruins.


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