The Robinson Library
The Robinson Library >> Canada >> Northwest (General)
Sieur de La Vérendrye

[lah vA rahn' drE] explorer of western Canada

Pierre Gaultier de Varennes was born at Trois-Rivières (near Quebec), on November 17, 1685. He was the son of René Gaultier de Varennes, Governor of Trois-Rivières. La Vérendrye came from the name of the ancestral family estate back in France.

Military Service

Pierre received a cadet's commission in the French Colonial Regular troops in 1696. He saw considerable action during the War of the Spanish Succession, and took part in the French and Indian raid on the English settlement at Deerfield, Massachusetts (1704). Having only reached the rank of ensign by 1708, he decided to pursue his career in France, where he expected better chances of advacement. At the battle of Malplaquet, on September 11, 1709, he was seriously wounded by gunshot and eight sabre cuts and taken prisoner by the enemy. Following his release in 1710 he was promoted to Lieutenant.

Having finally assumed officer status, La Vérendrye soon found that a Lieutenant had costly social obligations which often consumed more than his salary. Unable to support himself financially, he asked for permission to return to Canada. His request was granted, and he returned to Canada in 1712.

Marriage and "Mid-Life" Career

On October 24, 1712, La Vérendrye married Marie-Anne, daughter of Louis Dandonneau Du Sablé. The father of the bride endowed his daughter with land on Île aux Vaches, where the couple lived for the next fifteen years. The couple had six children -- four sons and two daughters.

The marital property supported a 38-acre farm. To supplement the fairly meager income from the farm, La Vérendrye had the revenue of the Fief of Tremblay, inherited from his family, a meager military stipend, and the fur-trading post of La Gabelle, founded by his father on the Rivière Saint-Maurice. In 1715, Claude de Ramezay, Acting Governor of New France, granted La Vérendrye permission to go there to trade with the Indians a few weeks every year. Despite all these sources of revenue, La Vérendrye was barely able to make ends meet.

In 1726, Pierre's brother Jacques-René received command of the poste de Nord, a vast area north of Lake Superior. This area was comprised of a main post called Kaministiquia (Thunder Bay, Ontario) and two secondary posts at Nipigon (near the mouth of the Nipigon River) and Michipictoton, north of Sault Sainte-Marie. Over the next year Jacques-René formed a partnership to carry out the fur trade in the area, hired indentured employees, and borrowed money from various merchants for the purchase of trade goods. Pierre was taken into the partnership to act as second in command, and became commander-in-chief in 1728, when Jacques-René left the post to participate in the war against the Fox Indians.

The Search for the Western Sea

It was while working for his brother that Pierre began hearing descriptions of a sea west of the Great Lakes, and like many others became convinced that he could reach that sea. Since he had virtually no money of his own with which to fund such a venture, he created a company with several Montreal merchants. To pay the costs of the expedition, the company obtained a three-year monopoly on the furs that would come from the newly discovered territories. For their part, the merchants agreed to provide all needed supplies, so long as La Vérendrye kept sending furs back to Montreal.

On June 8, 1731, La Vérendrye left Montreal with three of his sons, Jean-Baptiste, Pierre, and François, his nephew Christophe Dufrost de La Jemerais, Jesuit missionary Charles-Michel Mésaiger, and approximately 50 hired people. On August 26, they completed the first leg of their journey to the Grand Portage, at the western extremity of Lake Superior. Having already undertaken a grueling journey and now facing an even longer journey into an advancing winter, La Vérendrye's men refused to go further. In order to keep the expedition from ending before it could start, La Vérendrye sent the braver men with Jean-Baptiste and La Jemerais on to Rainy Lake to construct a post (Fort Saint-Pierre), while the rest remained for the winter at Kaministiquia.

La Verendrye and his company set out in search of the western sea.
La Verendrye and his company set out in search of the western sea

In the spring of 1732, La Vérendrye and the rest of his party joined the "advance team" at Saint-Pierre. From there the expedition went on to the Lake of the Woods, from which a great river to the west was said to spring. Here, they constructed Fort Saint-Charles, which was serve as La Vérendrye's headquarters for the next several years. With the two forts already constructed, La Vérendrye now controlled all fur trade in the border lake country.

In the early spring of 1733, La Vérendrye sent La Jemerais, Jean-Baptiste, and a few men on to Lake Winnipeg. Unfortunately, they set out too early and were stopped by ice on the river. La Jemerais returned to Fort Saint-Charles, leaving Jean-Baptiste somewhere on the Winnipeg River. He was then sent on back to Quebec to report to the government (and the merchant sponsors) on the expedition's accomplishments to date. Meanwhile, Jean-Baptiste, Pierre the younger, and other men constructed Fort Barrière at the junction of the Whiteshell and Winnipeg rivers. In 1734, they built Fort Maurepas at the mouth of the Red River on Lake Winnipeg, about five miles north of present-day Selkirk.

While Jean-Baptiste and company were occupied around Lake Winnipeg, the elder La Vérendrye was at Fort Saint-Charles supervising native affairs and organizing the fur trade. In mid-1734 he set forth for Montreal in order to obtain more credit. Although his merchant partners were unhappy with the profits they had failed to realize to date, they and La Vérendrye were able to reach an agreement that enabled him to continue his explorations.

When La Vérendrye returned west in 1735, he was accompanied by his youngest son, Louis-Joseph, and Jesuit priest Jean-Pierre Aulneau, who was to replace Father Mésaiger. He arrived at Fort Saint-Charles on September 6, only to find the fort nearly destitute of provisions.

During the winter La Jemerais became ill and at the first signs of spring he and two of La Vérendrye's sons started out for Fort Saint-Charles in hopes of receiving medical care. But by the time the little group had reached the junction of the Red and Roseau rivers La Jemerais's condition had become too bad for him to continue. He died on May 10, 1736, and was buried on the banks of the Red River. The remainder of the group continued on to Fort Saint-Charles, and arrived there on June 4.

On June 8, Jean-Baptiste, Father Aulneau, and seventeen men were sent out from Fort Saint-Charles on an emergency expedition to Michilimackinac to bring back much-needed supplies. Only fifteen miles away from the fort, however, the party was overtaken by a band of River Sioux, who cornered them on an island in the river. The men were subsequently killed and beheaded.

Although the death of his son dealt La Vérendrye a heavy blow, it did not end his desire to find the western sea. In early 1737 he went to Fort Maurepas, from where he intended to set out for the land of Mandans, which was said to lie very near the western sea. But when his men again refused to accompany him, he was forced to go back to Montreal to complain about the lack of support from his merchant partners. Meanwhile, his remaining sons set out to draw a new map of the many river systems in Manitoba. They discovered the Saskatchewan River and determined that it might well be an alternative route to the western sea if the journey to the Mandans failed to yield the desired result.

Once again La Vérendrye had to make several appeasements to his merchant partners, but he was finally able to convince them to send him back with the desperately needed supplies. The most important appeasement he had to make was that he would either reach the Mandans by 1738 or be recalled.

La Vérendrye arrived back at Fort Maurepas on September 22, 1738, and set out almost immediately thereafter. By the end of the month the party had reached the Portage of the Prairie, where they built Fort de la Reine. By mid-November they had reached the heights between the Assiniboine and Missouri rivers. On December 3, the French explorers, along with some 600 Assiniboine Indians and 30 Mandans, reached the main Mandan town in North Dakota, about twenty miles from present-day Sanish. Unfortunately for La Vérendrye, the people of the area knew nothing of a great sea, nor of any great river that might flow there. Five days after its arrival, La Vérendrye's party left for Fort de la Reine. Two Frenchmen and one of his sons stayed behind to learn the languages and to gather more information from other Indians who might know where the river to the sea could be found. The elder La Vérendrye and his exhausted and very disappointed party arrived back at Fort de la Reine on February 11, 1739.

On April 16, 1739, La Vérendrye sent Louis-Joseph to explore the rivers to find another location for Fort Maurepas. Sometime in May Louis-Joseph discovered the Missouri River which, he learned, flowed to the west. Pierre spent the rest of the summer traveling back to Fort Saint-Charles and moving the original Fort Maurepas to a spot on the Winnipeg River, across from present-day Pine Falls.

In the spring of 1740, La Vérendrye's creditors seized all his forts, goods and properties and he was forced once again to go to Montreal. Although he had failed to provide any profits for his merchant partners, the Governor at Quebec was able to help him gain the necessary financing by granting him the fur trading monopoly of all the posts he had founded, starting in June 1741.

Once La Vérendrye returned to Fort La Reine in 1741, he immediately sent Pierre to explore Manitoba, while he himself undertook a journey back to the Mandans to once again seek a route to the western sea. Between 1741 and 1743, Pierre built forts Dauphin, Bourbon, and Paskoya.

Meanwhile, Louis-Joseph and François sought other Indian nations that might lead them to the sea. Their final expedition set out on April 29, 1742. They made it as far as the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming before Indian wars forced them to turn back. They buried a lead plaque at the junction of the Missouri and Bad rivers, site of present-day Pierre, South Dakota, before starting back.

Mounting criticism over his not reaching the western sea, combined with continuing financial troubles, forced La Vérendrye to resign his position in 1743. He returned to Montreal to face his creditors in 1744.

Map of La Verendrye's explorations.
map of La Verendrye's explorations

In 1749, the King of France recognized La Vérendrye's work by awarding him the Cross of Sainte-Louis, the highest civilian honor available. The award came with permission to carry on further exploration west of the Saskatchewan River, but La Vérendrye died before he could set out again, on December 5, 1749.

La Vérendrye's sons continued their explorations, but never did make it all the way to the Pacific Ocean

Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online

Questions or comments about this page?

The Robinson Library >> Canada >> Northwest (General)

This page was last updated on 07/20/2018.