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The Prairie Provinces
Chapter IV. Exploration


As has been previously noted, the French traders had become familiar with the land north and immediately west of Lake Superior. Trading-stations had been founded at Michilimackinae and on Lake Nepigon. The struggle carried on by d’Iberville with the English on Hudson Bay had for many years drawn the attention of New France from the Lake Superior district. The Peace of Utrecht removed this counter attraction, and both the government and traders of French Canada again became interested in the western country.

In 1728, there was in charge of the fort on Lake Nepigon an obscure trader, Sieur de la Verendrye, who is now well known as the pioneer of western explorers. Verendrye, who had heard from the neighboring Indians of the lakes and rivers to the west, was sure that he could discover the "north-west passage” to the “Western Sea,” which had been the dream of so many of his country men from the time of Cartier. He accordingly made application for aid to the governor, at Quebec, but the latter, although he favored the project, gave no assistance other than a license to trade with the Indians. Verendrye gained some financial support from private merchants, and, in August, 1731, his party was ready to set out from Pigeon River (Grand Portage), about forty miles south-west of the Kaministiquia River.

The journey west was a slow one, occupying several years, because the explorers were forced to stop frequently and trade with the Indians. During the first season they reached Rainy Lake, where, at the head of Rainy River, they built their first fort, St. Pierre, near the site of Fort Francis. The following year, they descended Rainy River to the Lake of the Woods, on the west side of which a second fort, St. Charles, was erected. Another year found them at Lake Ouinipegon (Winnipeg), which they readied by a river they called the Maurepas (the Winnipeg). Near the mouth of this river a fort was built, where Fort Alexander now stands. This for several years marked the western limit of Yerendrye’s explorations, lack of funds forcing him to return east. In 1738, this persevering Frenchman, leaving Fort Maurepas, crossed the southern expanse of Lake Winnipeg and entered the Red River. This he followed to its junction with the Assiniboine, where the city ot Winnipeg now stands. In the next stage of the journey he reached the portage used in crossing from the Assiniboine to Lake Manitoba, a spot now occupied by the thriving city of Portage la Prairie.

During a long stay here, Verendrye built Fort de la Reine; and in the same season members of his party constructed Fort Rouge at the mouth of the Assiniboine. At this point Verendrye was summoned to Montreal to answer false charges brought against him by private enemies who had grown jealous of his successes. Although some slight justice was done him later, and his achievements were recognized by the French court, yet this faithful servant of France died with his dream of a journey to the “Western Sea” unrealized.

Verendrye had worthy successors in his sons, who carried on the work from where their father left off. Crossing the portage to Lake Manitoba, they made their way to the Saskatchewan River, which they ascended. Their route was marked by the erection of Forts Dauphin and Bourbon. A few years later a relative of Verendrye built a fort on the upper waters of the Saskatchewan, near the Rocky Mountains. In 1763, by the Peace of Paris, Canada was given to England. Thus France, by failing to support the brave Verendrye, lost the honor of discovering the route to the Pacific coast.

With the passing of Canada to the English, French trade in the west quickly declined; and, save for a few daring spirits, no traders were to be found beyond the Kaministiquia. But the French were to have successors, if not more daring, yet more persevering and shrewd. The breaking up of the regiments of Wolfe and Amherst gave to Montreal and Quebec a large increase in population, made up mainly of Scotch.

Many of these new settlers entered into the fur trade. Foremost among them was Alexander Henry, who, engaging the services of a French-Canadian guide, succeeded in opening up the old traders’ route to the western shore of Lake Superior. Following Henry came another Scotchman, Thomas Curry. Curry, in 1766, pushed west along the Verendrye route until he reached Fort Bourbon, on Cedar Lake, an expansion of the lower Saskatchewan. Two years later a third Scotchman, James Finlay, of Montreal, started out from Fort Bourbon and pressed on to the limit of the Verendrye expedition.

There now appeared on the scene two Englishmen, Benjamin and James Frobisher, who introduced a trading policy which had an important effect upon the interests of the Hudson’s Bay Company. In order to divert the fur trade from the Company’s forts to Lake Superior, these clever traders built a post on Sturgeon Lake, an expansion of the Saskatchewan. From this they could easily make expeditions to intercept the Indians on the way to the bay. The Company, however, was not to be outdone by its enterprising rivals, for Samuel Hearne was immediately stationed at Sturgeon Lake. Here lie built Fort Cumberland, about two miles below the Frobishers’ post. The Montreal merchants in turn pushed north to the Churchill, or English River, constructing by the way a trading-post on Beaver Lake. Thus the two bodies of traders met in rivalry. Their rivalry resulted in evil and in good. in their desire to get furs the traders sometimes harmed the Indians by giving them “fire-water.” On the other hand, in their search for new tribes the traders soon became familiar with the great prairie country in which we now live.


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