From 1731 to 1744, Canadian traders and explorers Pierre Gaultier de La Varennes et de La Vérendrye (1685-1749) and his three sons, Jean-Baptiste, Pierre, and François, searched for a hypothetical “Western Sea” beyond the Great Lakes, acting on seemingly analogous reports from Indigenous informers. Descriptions of “undrinkable water” with an “ebb and flow” suggested the long-desired existence of a great “River of the West” that flowed into the “Southern Sea” (Pacific Ocean). In December 1730, La Vérendrye presented Beauharnois, the Governor of New France, with a plan to locate this waterway, based on maps provided by the Cree cartographer Ochagah.
 
In 1731, with the consent of Maurepas, the Secretary of State for the Navy, La Vérendrye obtained a monopoly to trade for furs in Sioux territory and thus finance his expeditions. That same year, La Vérendrye, his sons, and their companions explored the region from Fort Kaministiquia (north of Lake Superior) to Lakes Winnipeg and Manitoba and the White River (Saskatchewan), creating a series of trading posts (including Fort Maurepas in 1734 and Fort La Reine in 1738).
 
In 1742-43, La Vérendrye’s sons set out from Fort La Reine, shifting their route toward the southwest and upper Missouri region. In January 1743, they arrived at the foot of a majestic mountain range that remains difficult to identify to this day. Were these the Black Hills of South Dakota, the Big Horn, or perhaps the Wind River Range in Wyoming? The absence of government funding and the lack of measuring instruments explain the ambiguity, slowness, and meager scientific findings of these expeditions. Nevertheless, the La Vérendryes achieved an important goal, finding that where word-of-mouth and conjecture had led explorers to expect a sea, there were only imposing mountains.

 

Published in may 2021