Sieur de La Verendrye First European Visitor to Mandan
La Verendrye met the Mandan near the Missouri River and entered their fort on December 3, 1738. The French fur trader hopes to exchange trade goods for many beaver pelts. The first contact has been very friendly. His major goal is to find a water route to the western ocean.
Sieur de La Verendrye, otherwise known as Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, has been granted a monopoly on the fur trade in the area west of Lake Superior by the King of France. With the help of his three sons he has built a network of trading forts from Lake Superior to Lake Winnipeg and the Red River of the North. His newest venture carries trade goods to the Mandan.
La Verendrye wants the Mandan to trade only with him. He fears that the English fur traders from Hudson Bay will attempt to capture new trade areas. He is satisfied that he is the first white explorer to reach the Mandan territory.
The explorer and his party of some 50 Frenchmen and 25 Assiniboin guides took a detour to an Assiniboin encampment before coming south. By the time they met a group of Mandan some distance from their village, the visitors numbered over 600. All the Assiniboin—men, women, and children—wanted to come along!
While the Mandan warmly welcomed the French visitors, they were not eager to entertain the large group of Assiniboin. In fact, they tried to get them to leave by spreading a rumor that the Sioux, a mortal enemy of the Assiniboin, were in the vicinity.
As the visitors approached the Mandan fort, the people came out to meet the marching group. Some sources report that the Mandan put La Verendrye on their shoulders and carried him to their village.
La Verendrye has been given the use of one of the largest of the 130 earthlodges in the Mandan village. The Mandan have given him more than twenty dishes of food. The entire community is feasting in honor of his arrival.
However, the Mandan are concerned about the large amount of food being consumed by the Assiniboin, who serve as the explorer’s interpreters. They speak to the Mandan in Cree.
Most of the Assiniboin, afraid of the Sioux, left by December 6. Among them was the chief interpreter, who would not stay even though La Verendrye paid him well. “He was a young man of the Cree nation who spoke excellent Assiniboin, but he was in love with an Assiniboin woman who didn’t want to stay,” said the explorer.
Since one of La Verendrye’s sons also spoke Cree, communication went smoothly. But after the interpreter left, La Verendrye says, talk has been reduced to “signs and gestures.”
La Verendrye believes that he is the first white explorer to reach the Mandan in recent times, although he is so impressed with their advanced culture that he believes they must have had an encounter with Europeans sometime before.
He has asked the Mandan about a water route to the West—the Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean. They know the Missouri River better than any other tribe and may have information about another way across North America.
The tribal leaders have spoken to the Frenchman about a river that becomes so wide that a person cannot see across it, a body of water which is not good to drink. Although this river is south of the villages, La Verendrye believes they may know of another river that leads to the west.
The explorer and his party came from the east to the Turtle Mountains and traveled south about 150 miles before finding the Mandan forts.
The French party is expected to stay on the Missouri for about ten days. La Verendrye and his men believe that the trade contacts look very promising. La Verendrye says that he will leave behind two of his party who learn languages with ease to insure future communication with the Mandan people.
By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton
Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.