The Military Empire

Discovery Of The "Western Sea"

The La Verendrye Expeditions

Map of La Vérendrye’s western explorations, 1730s and 1740s

Caption: Map of La Vérendrye’s western explorations, 1730s and 1740s

While the French were finally overwhelming the Foxes and establishing their hegemony on the central plains, another phase in the creation of a vast French empire was being played out in the Northwest. Its principal hero was an obscure Canadian officer rather lacking in means despite his brilliant service record: Pierre Gaultier de La Vérendrye. This phase began toward the end of the 1720s when La Vérendrye was commanding a post at the outer limit of the known world, Kaministigoyan (now Thunder Bay, Ontario), and heard the Amerindians speak of vast plains stretching far into the distance and the sun setting into a western sea. These tales fired his imagination, and in 1730 he proposed an exploratory expedition, which was approved both in Canada by Governor General Beauharnois and in France by the Minister of the Navy, the Count de Maurepas. After two centuries of expeditions to both the north and south, European explorers still had not found the renowned northwest passage and a huge section of the continent remained uncharted. The French still had not ventured much beyond Lake Superior, despite a few attempts that were abandoned due to fears of Amerindian attacks. La Vérendrye's plan to discover the answer to one of the great enigmas of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries met with interest in Versailles, this time on the part of Philippe d'Orléans, who had acted as regent during the minority of Louis XV. The next year, Lieutenant La Vérendrye set out at the head of an expedition that included a few cadets, three of whom were his own sons, and a missionary. This type of organization was subsequently employed for all explorations of the west. Although missionaries and voyageurs went along, the command and support systems for these expeditions of discovery were all military, an aspect that is rarely pointed out.

Thus began 15 years of remarkable discoveries. The expedition was organized very carefully, because the La Vérendryes would have to trade with the Amerindians in order to finance their expedition. As they progressed, they left a string of forts in their wake: Fort Saint-Pierre (Fort Francis, Ontario) in 1731; Fort Saint-Charles (Magnussen Island, Manitoba) the following year, and Fort Maurepas, south of Lake Winnipeg, in 1734. The few coureurs de bois who were already in the region had to accept the arrival of royal authority, and the Amerindian nations through whose territories the expedition passed were generally hospitable. However, the Sioux laid a trap, killing 21 Frenchmen, including one of La Vérendrye's sons and the missionary on the expedition. Rather than risking a military confrontation, La Vérendrye played the alliance game. He would be revenged eight years later when the Crees and Assiniboines crushed the Sioux.

Though the vast rolling prairies on which the La Vérendryes erected their small forts might bear some resemblance to a "western sea," the Minister of the Navy would be content with no less than the real thing. La Vérendrye pushed still further, building Fort La Reine (Portage la Prairie, Manitoba) and then reaching Mandan country near the present city of Spanish, North Dakota. But still no western sea! Exhausted, La Vérendrye returned to Fort La Reine, leaving his two sons to continue the explorations alone.