December 6

This Day in History

Old West

Dec 6, 1749:

French-Canadian explorer La Verendrye dies

In the midst of planning another expedition to search for the elusive Northwest Passage, French-Canadian explorer La Verendrye dies at the age of sixty-four in Montreal, Canada.

Born in 1685 in the small frontier town of Trois-Rivieres, New France (now the Canadian province of Quebec), La Verendrye exhibited an adventurous spirit from an early age. When he was only 12 years old, he joined in the French-Indian raid on Deerfield, Massachusetts, and then sailed across the Atlantic to fight for France in the War of the Spanish Succession. After spending time as a soldier, he returned to New France, and in 1726, he became a fur trader in the frontier region north of Lake Superior.

Native Americans in the area told La Verendrye stories of a great river that flowed out of the West—they were speaking of the river we now know as the Missouri. None of the Native Americans had ever followed the river all the way to the headwaters, but they heard it led to a giant western ocean. La Verendrye realized that if the stories were true, the river could be the hoped—for Northwest Passage to the Pacific.

La Verendrye's exploration was motivated by a desire to discover the secrets of the West, and a financial interest in discovering new sources of furs. He and his sons built up a string of trading posts that probed deep into the unknown western territories. In 1738, armed with several crude maps—given to him by Indians—that supposedly showed the all-water route to the "western sea," La Verendrye reached the Mandan Indian villages along the Missouri River in present-day North Dakota, some sixty years before Lewis and Clark reached the same area. From this base, two of his sons continued westward; it is possible they may have traveled far enough into Montana and Wyoming to see the massive Rocky Mountains in the distance.

Unfortunately, La Verendrye and his sons never found the elusive Northwest Passage, and their failure earned them only scorn from the French authorities in Montreal. This derision was perhaps unfair, since Lewis and Clark discovered in 1805 that the passage for which La Verendrye had been searching did not actually exist, and La Verendrye did deserve credit for opening new areas to French fur traders. Without his exploration, those areas likely would have been claimed by British competitors. At entirely his own expense, La Verendrye pushed farther into the West than any other Frenchman, at least temporarily strengthening French political claims in North America.

Despite the poor treatment he received from French leaders, La Verendrye remained determined to find the coveted path to the western sea. He was 64 years old when he died preparing for another journey of exploration.

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