This is the third excerpt about the early explorers – an extract about The French Canadian Verendryes.
Excerpts from the Book: The Pathbreakers from River to Ocean by Grace Raymond Hebard – published 1913.
Two centuries after Coronado had made his unsuccessful attempt a French Canadian and his sons endeavored to find a northwest passage to the Mer’ de l’Ouest, or Pacific Ocean. The journey was not to be one entirely of discovery and conquest for the French nation; combined with the desire for exploration there was the purpose to grow wealthy through the finding of new and rich trapping-grounds.
The starting-point of Verendrye’s expedition was Montreal; the date, June 8, 1731; the men, Verendrye, his three sons, a nephew, La Jemeraye, and a number of Canadians; the object, the discovery of the Sea of the West, the aggrandizement of the French nation, and the winning of great wealth and fame. But fate seemed to have turned her hand against him. His youngest son, his nephew, and many of the Canadians were killed by the Indians. The financial support that he had reason to expect was not given; supplies coming to him were lost or stolen on the way; and no definite information as to the desired route could be obtained. Finally, the Assinniboines and the Cristineaux told him of a tribe of Indians living on the Missouri River “many moons” distant, who could guide him to the much coveted sea. In 1738, October it was, Verendrye began his exploration to the west, arriving at the Mandan Villages three months afterwards. Here he found six villages of Indians. (When Lewis and Clark visited these villages in 1804, they had been by that time reduced to two villages and had been moved up the river about fifty-five miles from the original location. This migration was caused by the persecutions of the Sioux, who were the Mandans’ mortal enemies, and smallpox, both of which had greatly reduced their numbers.)
On account of the desertion of his interpreter and the loss of the luggage containing the trinkets indispensable for trading with the Indians, Verendrye was obliged to retrace his steps to Fort La Reine early in 1739. Ill health combined with the trials and exposure endured in this western trail made it impossible for the elder Verendrye to make another attempt to reach the mythical sea.
In the spring of 1742, his sons, Pierre and the Chevalier, with two Canadians, again visited the Mandan Villages. From here, in July, with two Mandans in addition, the party pushed to the west-southwest between the upper Missouri and the Black Hills. Game of all kinds was encountered, including elk, mountain sheep, antelope, deer, wolves, and the ever-present prairie-dog. Far west, it may have been as far west as the Yellowstone River, the Mandan interpreter deserted the French brothers, leaving them with an unknown tribe of Indians in an equally unknown country. From here a western direction was taken, in the course of which march they met a band of Little Foxes, who with other tribes were in mortal terror of the much hated Snakes, or Shoshones, who lived some distance toward the desired sea. Finally, after a journey of a few days to the southwest, they came to the Bow Indians, who knew of the coveted sea only through information given to them by captive Snakes. East, west, and east again they journeyed, until on New Year’s day, 1743, they sighted the Big Horn Mountains, a branch of the Rockies, somewhere near the present Yellowstone National Park in the present state of Wyoming. They came within one hundred twenty miles of this museum of nature. From here they went south on Shoshone River, down to Wind River (in the central part of Wyoming), where the natives told them of Green River beyond the mountains. To the Verendryes belongs the credit of being the first white men to see the Rocky, or “Shining,” Mountains. Here ended their journey westward. Turning their faces to the east, after many long weeks of travel they reached Montreal in May, 1744, having spent eleven years seeking to find the waters that Lewis and Clark reached more than a half-century afterward.
Their journey was a failure in the same sense that Coronado’s was. They did not find that for which they sought, but they were the pioneer explorers of the northwest as was Coronado of the southwest. They left a lost trail to be remade by others of another Century. Had the Verendryes gone less than one hundred miles farther south they might have discovered South Pass, the great gateway in the path to the West at the end of which was the much desired “Sea of the West.” Like Coronado, their dream of many years was not realized, and they faced defeat, obscurity, and poverty. These are some of the rewards that come to the pathbreakers whose dreams become a reality for the next generation. Somewhere, not far from the present southern boundary of South Dakota, lies buried in the soil and rocks a leaden plate bearing the arms and inscription of the King of France. This was placed there by the Verendryes to commemorate their expedition, a monument to French enterprise.