Pierre Gaultier de Varennes et de la Vrendrye|
In the early 1700's, the North American fur trade was largely concentrated around Hudson Bay where the British had established a large network of trading posts.
But the fur trade would start moving west as one man's dream of reaching the Great Western Sea drove New France and the French fur trade into Canada's interior.
|Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, Sieur de la Vrendrye was the first European to open up fur trading in the western territory. (As portrayed by Jacques Rossi in Canada: A People's History)
Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, Sieur de la Vrendrye, was the son of the Governor of Trois-Rivires. He had been both a soldier and farmer before being put in charge of a French trading post near Lake Superior in 1715. La Vrendrye listened to the Indians who said they knew of a route to the Western Sea.
The French maps of the west at the time were vague and fanciful but they showed a large body of water that led to the Pacific. If the Western Sea could be found, trade with China would be direct and profitable. La Vrendrye felt he could find the Western Sea.
"I acquainted myself with the route through different savages, who all made the same statement, that there are three routes or rivers which lead to the great river of the West.
Consequently I had a map made of these three rivers, in order that I might be able to choose the shortest and easiest road," La Vrendrye wrote.
To get the support of the governor and the French court, La Vrendrye offered a pragmatic argument. His proposed route from Lake Superior ran across the trapping grounds of the Indians who traded with the Hudson's Bay Company. He would build inland trading posts and cut off the supply to the English.
"The colony will receive a new benefit independently of the discovery of the Western Sea through the quantity of furs that will be produced which now...
go to the English."
The authorities in New France would not turn down this proposition. In June 1731, the former French soldier set off with military discipline and purpose. The party of 50 included his three sons, a nephew and more than 2,000 pounds worth of trade goods.
"I am only seeking to carry the name and arms of His Majesty into a vast stretch of countries hitherto unknown, to enlarge the colony and increase its commerce."
Moving west he encountered Cree taking their furs on the long trip to the Hudson's Bay Company posts, and persuaded them to trade with him instead, which they were happy to do. "Provided there are Frenchmen on the road they travel, the savages will not go to the English," he wrote, "whom they do not like and even despise."
By 1743 he had established eight trading posts in the territory around Lake Winnipeg and staked out an enormous western territory for New France that eventually extended to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
The French traders would still have to endure the long trip back to Montreal - but they could intercept the best furs before the native trappers went to Hudson Bay.
The various Indian nations were a checkerboard of allegiances and La Vrendrye showed a politician's skills in picking his way through the warring tribes. But he was put to a crucial test by the Cree, who demanded that La Vrendrye's son Jean-Baptiste join them in a war party.
"I was agitated, I must confess, and cruelly tormented by conflicting thoughts, but put on a brave front...
How was I to entrust my eldest son to barbarians whom I did not know... to go and fight other barbarians of whose name and of whose strength I knew nothing? Who could tell whether my son would ever return?"
In the end, La Vrendrye let his son go with them. He did return, but two years later was killed in a revenge attack.
La Vrendrye returned to Montreal a celebrated explorer but a defeated man. He faced creditors, lawsuits and crushing sorrow over the death of his son. But he saw his accomplishments in a broader, patriotic light.
"People do not know me.
Money has never been my object; I have sacrificed myself and sons for the service of His Majesty and the good of the colony; what advantages shall result from my toils the future may tell."
The future did tell. La Vrendrye had found the Achilles heel of the Hudson's Bay Company - a back door route leading to the heart of fur country. And that launched a battle for mastery of the west that would last a hundred years.
La Vrendrye was planning another voyage to find the elusive Western Sea when he died at the age of sixty-four.