Voyageurs National Park

Special History:
The Environment and the Fur Trade Experience in
Voyageurs National Park, 1730-1870

Chapter One
The Rainy Lake Region in the Fur Trade

Historical Overview of the fur trade in the Rainy Lake Region

French Trade and Exploration, 1688-1763

The first French trader to reach the Rainy Lake Region was probably Jacques de Noyon, a native of Three Rivers in the St. Lawrence Valley. An independent trader, Noyon appears to have had no official purpose for his exploration. In 1688, he ascended the Kaministikwia River to Dog Lake, then to Lac des Milles Lacs and the maze of lakes and rivers leading to Rainy Lake, where he passed the winter. At Rainy Lake he learned from Indians, probably Assiniboine, of a large lake to the west (Lake of the Woods) and a river that flowed from that lake to the fabled Western Sea. Although Noyon's account had no immediate effect with French officialdom, it steadily gained force through the subsequent travels of numerous voyageurs between Lake Superior and Lake of the Woods. Noyon's account finally surfaced nearly 30 years later in a report by the governor of New France, Philippe de Rigault, Marquis de Vaudreuil, and his intendant, Claude Michel Bégon, to Duke Philippe of Orleans, regent of France during the minority of Louis XV. They argued that the route pioneered by Noyon showed promise for establishing a way to the Western Sea. [6]

Vaudreuil and Bégon's report was timely. By the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713, France had acceded to Britain's position on Hudson Bay. There were to be no more military expeditions against the Hudson's Bay Company's forts as had occurred in the 1600s. If France were to gain the upper hand in the fur trade of the Canadian Northwest, it would have to get there by way of the Great Lakes or the Mississippi Valley. Thus, the search for the Western Sea offered the inviting prospect of loosening Britain's ties with the Indians who inhabited the interior and who traveled great distances to trade with the British at their forts on Hudson Bay. [7]

The Council of Marine gave Governor Vaudreuil orders to proceed. A chain of posts would be established to support the exploration. About 50 men in seven or eight canoes would proceed to Lake Superior, build the first fort on the Kaministikwia, and perhaps a second at Rainy Lake. Half of the party would occupy the posts; the other half would search for the route to the Western Sea. The posts themselves would be financed by the fur trade, while the government of France would pay for the actual expedition of discovery. "This arrangement was an important one," writes one historian, "and shows better than anything else how the fur trade and the work of exploration were inextricably interwoven." [8]

The leader of this expedition was an officer named Zacharie Robutel de la Nouë. He set out from Montreal in 1717 and erected a fort near the mouth of the Kaministikwia. [9] Apparently he did not succeed in establishing a post at Rainy Lake owing, it seems, to hostilities in the area between the Sioux and the Cree. [10] After four years of fruitless efforts at diplomacy, Nouë resigned his post. For the next decade and a half, interest in the postes du nord and the search for the Western Sea languished.

La Vérendrye reports on the Grand Portage and Kaministiquia routes

I had the honour, Monsieur, of sending you that map as it was traced for me by Auchagah, showing the three rivers which flow into Lake Superior, namely the one called Fond du Lac river, the Nantouagan and the Kaminstikwia. The two latter are those on which everything is marked with exactness on the map, lakes, rapids, portages, the side on which the portage must be made, and the heights of land; all this is represented or indicated. Comparing these two routes, the river Nantouagan, which is two days' journey from the river Kaministikwia going towards the extremity of the lake, is, it seems to me, the one to be preferred. It has, it is true, forty-two portages, while the Kaministikwia has only twenty-two; but, on the other hand, it has no rapids, while the other has twelve, two of which are long and very shallow. Besides, the road is straight and one third shorter. The height of land for this route is not over fifty leagues distant, and after seventy leagues at most there is a steady descent. Finally, in spite of all the portages, the savage assures me that, with easy travelling, we shall get from Lake Superior to Lake Tecamamiouen [Rainy Lake] in twenty days at most, and from there in four days to the Lake of the Woods, and in ten to Lake Winnipeg.

Journals and Letters of Pierre Gaultier de la Vérendrye and his Sons, pp. 53-54.

The project was renewed due largely to the efforts and enthusiasm of one man, Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, Sieur de la Vérendrye. Driven by a thirst for discovery more than a desire to obtain riches in the fur trade, La Vérendrye shrewdly blended the two in order to gain the support of the governor of New France, the Marquis de Beauharnois. The two aims were less compatible than La Vérendrye supposed, however, and his explorations would be increasingly subordinated to the demands of returning a profit to his creditors in Montreal.

La Vérendrye departed Montreal with his three sons, a nephew, and about 50 soldiers and voyageurs in 1731, arriving at the mouth of the Kaministikwia later that summer. La Vérendrye stopped there with the bulk of his men, who were bordering on mutiny, and sent his nephew, Sieur de la Jémeraye, with an advance party to Rainy Lake (or Lac La Pluie, as it was known to the French). After passing the winter at Kaministikwia, La Vérendrye joined his nephew in 1732 at their new post near the outlet of Lac La Pluie. La Jémeraye named it Fort St. Pierre in honor of his uncle. [11]

In 1732, La Vérendrye established a strong post on the west shore of Lake of the Woods, called Fort St. Charles. From there he sent one of his sons to choose a site for another fort near where the Red River empties into Lake Winnipeg. In succeeding years, forts were established there and at the confluence of the Assiniboine and Red rivers. "These were indeed but slight and temporary buildings," historian E. E. Rich remarks, "but they clearly marked the fact that La Vérendrye had opened up durable communications between Montreal, Lake Superior and Lake Winnipeg." [12] If the placement of these forts seemed somewhat tentative from the standpoint of reaching the Western Sea, La Vérendrye was mindful of his ultimate source of supply to the east. The forts were located at the farthest reach of what a canoe brigade could cover by leaving Montreal in the spring and returning with their burden of furs in the fall. [13]

Another key to La Vérendrye's position was his desire to stay on friendly terms with the Sioux. This powerful nation occupied the head of the Mississippi Valley and ranged as far north as the Rainy Lake Region. Sioux neutrality was critical to the French as the latter struggled to maintain peace with the Fox in present-day Wisconsin. The Sioux, for their part, were anxious that the French traders should not aid their own enemies, the Cree and Ojibwe. [14]

The French advance into the Rainy Lake Region and the country around Lake Winnipeg met with a sad reverse in 1736. It was intended that La Jémeraye lead an expedition southwestward to the territory of the Mandan tribe, but in May he died mysteriously near Lake of the Woods. Soon thereafter, a canoe party of 21 men, led by a priest and La Vérendrye's oldest son, were massacred on an island in Lake of the Woods, probably by Sioux who mistrusted the French traders' friendly relations with the Cree and Ojibwe. Despite his severe personal loss, La Vérendrye did not give up his search for the Western Sea, but his exploits turned increasingly to improving relations with the Indians in order to keep the men in his forts supplied with food and to satisfy the merchants in Montreal. Indeed, he was accused of neglecting his promise to push westward and of concentrating too heavily on the beaver trade around Lake Winnipeg. In 1742, he mounted a final expedition southwestward under the command of his remaining two sons; possibly they reached the foot of the Rockies although it seems more likely that they got only as far as the Black Hills. La Vérendrye retired in 1744, received another appointment to his former command in 1749, and died in Montreal in December of that year while making plans to explore the upper Saskatchewan River. [15]

Historians agree that La Vérendrye did not receive the recognition from contemporaries that he deserved. His achievement was underscored by the failure of others who followed him. Nicolas-Joseph de Noyelles succeeded La Vérendrye to the command of the western forts from 1744 to 1749, and after the death of La Vérendrye in 1749, Jacques Repentiquy de Saint Pierre received the honor. The latter extended the French sphere of influence a little farther up the Saskatchewan River. [16] With the outbreak of war in 1754, the period of French activity in the Rainy Lake Region came to an end. France abandoned its chain of western forts stretching from Rainy Lake to the Saskatchewan, and by the Treaty of Paris of 1763 ending the Seven Years War, surrendered all of its claim in North America. For about thirty years, however, France had challenged England's hold on the fur trade around Hudson Bay. The western forts, the Hudson's Bay Company historian E. E. Rich has written, "made Rainy Lake and Lake of the Woods into French inland seas and diverted much of the furs of the Assiniboine and the Saskatchewan from Hudson Bay to the St. Lawrence." [17] The French thrust foreshadowed the North West Company's challenge to the Hudson's Bay Company monopoly in the period 1790-1821 (Figure 4).

French forts in the time of La Verendrye
Figure 4. French Forts in the time of La Vérendrye.
(click on map for enlargement in a new window)

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Table of Contents | Introduction | Rainy Lake Region | Fur Trade Experience | Material Culture | Natural Environment | Bibliography
Last Updated: 12-Apr-2005