Dedicated explorers or opportunistic businessmen? History has assigned both reputations to the illustrious La Vérendrye family, founders of the first fur trading fort on Lake Winnipeg.
Unlike the youthful adventurers of early Canada, Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, Sieur de La Vérendrye, was middle-aged when he began his exploration career. In 1726, at the age of 41, the Canadian-born Trois Rivières farmer, trade post operator and family partriarch replaced his brother as commander of the "postes du nord," a chain of fur trading posts in the area north of Lake Superior. From his frontier vantage points of Kaministiquia, Nipigon and Michipicoton, La Vérendrye began to gather evidence of the "mer du couchant," a gulf-like western sea that led to the Pacific Ocean. The stories of First Nations traders and Jesuit missionaries who passed through the forts convinced La Vérendrye that the Great Western Sea lay somewhere in the region of Lake Winnipeg, and that the westward route to the sea was the Winnipeg River.
The stories also fed La Vérendrye's fierce fur-trading ambitions. The shrewd entrepreneur visualized a chain of western trading posts that would circumvent the Hudson's Bay Company's northwestern monopoly. In 1731, in a cleverly orchestrated deputation to government representatives in New France, La Vérendrye convinced French authorities that he should head west in pursuit of the legendary Western Sea. At the same time, he negotiated a deal that granted him a three-year monopoly on all fur trade that resulted from his mission. With the help of New France's ambitious Governor, Charles de Beauharnois, La Vérendrye parlayed the exploration fever of the French regime into a scheme to advance his personal business aspirations. In the guise of the frontier explorer, dedicated to the imperial cause, La Vérendrye set up a well-funded private investment group to finance his journey to the west. Officially, La Vérendrye was under orders to find Lake Winnipeg and establish a post that would be the basis for further western exploration. Unofficially, Governor Beauharnois, 9 partners and several more sub-partners were depending on La Vérendrye to found a new and lucrative western fur-trading empire.
Father and Sons
As he set off from Montreal in June of 1731, La Vérendrye was accompanied by his 3 sons, Jean-Baptiste, Françoise and Pierre Jr., as well as his nephew, Francois-Christophe La Jemerais. His other son, Louis-Joseph was to join later expeditions. Adventurers all, these young men proved to be La Vérendrye's best assets, multiplying his influence and extending his family's reach far into the heart of the North American continent. Over the next 10 years, the Gaultier family fanned out in every direction, setting up 7 forts between Rainy Lake and the Saskatchewan River and detouring south to the Missouri River, South Dakota and the land of the mysterious light-skinned Mandans. Louis-Joseph and François eventually reached the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming, just east of Yellowstone National Park.