Sunday, March 18, 2018

First White Explorer of Wyoming by Sarah J. McNeal

I always wondered who the first white explorers were to step into the country we now call Wyoming. I was quite surprised to find it was the French who first explored Wyoming.

From 1742 to 1743 the Verendrye brothers were the first European men to explore the land from the Great Plains to the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming. Not much would have been know about their exploration if a journal had been found in the French archives in 1851. The journal was difficult to interpret, but a lead plate was also discovered buried near Pierre, South Dakota. I find it amazing that, in all that big, wild country, someone found a lead plate. The journal states the journey was made by the Chevalier Vérendrye and his brother who was not identified. It is assumed the Chevalier was Louis-Joseph Gaultier and his brother, Francois de La Verendrye.

The Verendrye Family Map of their operations

Previous to the Verendrye brothers exploration, the French founded Quebec City in 1608 and quickly built a fur-trade empire throughout the Saint Lawrence River basin. They expanded southwest into the Mississippi River from 1690 to prevent the English from going beyond the Atlantic Coast. The Spanish Villasur expedition left Santa Fe to contact the French in 1690, but they were stopped by the Pawnee in Nebraska. The first European crossing of the Great Plains was accomplished by Pierre Antoine and Paul Mallet who traveled from the Mississippi River to Santa Fe in 1739.
The elder Verendrye and his four sons began their French trading business and exploration west from Lake Superior on the Canadian Prairies in 1730. Eight years later, the elder Verendrye and two of his sons left Fort La Reine from the south of Lake Manitoba into Mandan country in North Dakota on the upper Mississippi River. He had heard rumors of “River of the West” believed to flow into the Pacific Ocean. According to what he was told, it would take an entire summer to reach the lower part of the river where he would find armored Frenchmen who rode horses. He left two of his men to learn the language and report back to him in 1738. The following year, September 1739, his men reported that every summer the Horse People went to the Mandans to trade. The Horse People spoke of a bearded white man to the west who lived in a house of stone and prayed to the “great master of life” while he held what appeared to be husks of corn. In 1741 the younger Pierre, the younger son, visited Mandans, but there is no record of what occurred on that visit. In 1743 the elder Verendrye sent two of his sons to find the “Sea of the West.”
The two Verendrye brothers headed west to the Rocky Mountains, but the journal they wrote is difficult to decipher because of modern geographic and tribal names. Because their astrolabe was broken, there are no latitudes noted in the journal.

Relief Map of Wyoming

Later, others interpreted their journal as best as they could and determined the Verendrye brothers reached either the Big Horn Mountains, the Laramie Mountains, or the Black Hills.
On this map, the Big Horn Mountains are in the north center. To the west is the Big Horn Basin and, beyond that is the Yellowstone Country. The Laramie Mountains are actually a projection of the Laramie Mountains. The North Platte is just north of the Laramie Mountain. The Black Hills are just east of the map.

The Chevalier Verendrye, his brother, and two more Frenchman left Fort La Reine on April 29, 1742 and reached the Mandan village on May 19. They waited there for two months for the Horse People who didn’t show up, so they found two Mandan guides and headed west southwest on July 23. They traveled for twenty days through a land they described as having multicolored soils and plenty of animals, but no people.
Finally, on August 11, they reached the the mountain of the Horse People. Their guides would go no further, so they built a camp and lit signal fires. On September 14, a month later, they saw smoke on the horizon in apparent answer to their signals and met the Handsome People and stayed with them for 21 days. On October 9 they headed south southwest with a Beau Homme (Handsome Man) guide. They met the Petits Renards (Little Foxes) on October 11, and the ‘Pioya’ on October 15.
At last, on October 19, they reached the Horse People who were in dire circumstances because all their villages had been destroyed by the Gens du Serpent (Snake People.) Two years prior, the Snake People had destroyed seventeen villages, killed the men and old women, and took the young women to be sold at the seacoast. The Horse People said they had never made it to the sea because the Snake People blocked their route. The Horse People suggested the Verendrye brothers seek the Gens de l’Arc (Bow People) who were said to be the only tribe courageous enough to fight the Snake People. I have to say here that I like all these descriptive names given to the different tribes of what I am assuming are the Indigenous Americans. The brothers stayed with the Horse People for a while before they headed southwest to meet the Gens de la Belle Riviere on November 18.
On November 21, the brothers met up with the Bow People. Their chief told the brothers he knew about the “French on the sea coast” and said they had many slaves that were so happy they didn’t run away. He also said they had officers and priests and used horses to work the land. When the chief spoke some words of these people, Verendrye recognized the language as Spanish. The Bow People were also familiar with the annihilation of the Villasur expedition twenty years before.
The Verendrye brothers joined the Bow People who were making their way to “the great mountains near the sea” planning to fight the Snake People. They zigzagged their way west gathering more warriors as they traveled until they had more than 2,000 warriors plus their families. By January 1, 1743 they came within sight of the mountains and journeyed through the great prairies filled with many wild animals.
On January 9, the warriors left the women, children, and the Verendrye’s baggage behind in the camp. The Chevalier’s brother stayed behind in the camp to guard their belongings. The warriors reached the very high mountains which were heavily wooded on the “twelfth day.” Their scouts discovered the Snake People had hastily abandoned their village. Some of the warriors feared the Snake People were headed to their camp to attack while the warriors were gone and left the party to return to camp to protect their families in spite of the chief’s efforts to stop them. The Chevalier had no choice to go back with them, but there was no further sign of the Snake People after that. So much for those fearsome Snake People.

A conjectural Map of the possible route of the Verendrye expedition, 1742-1743

The Bow People assembled warriors broke up into smaller groups to hunt for meat. The brothers stayed with the Bow People until March 1 who traveled east by southeast until one of the Frenchmen with them and a guide went ahead to contact the Gens de la Petite Cerise (Little Cherry People). On March 15, the Frenchman and the guide returned with an invitation to join the Chokecherry People who were returning to their fort on the Missouri River. They met a man at the fort who had been raised by the Spanish who told them it would take twenty days by horseback, but it would be dangerous because of the Snake People. He also told them of a Frenchman who lived three days’ journey away. On March 30, the Verendrye brothers buried the lead plate on which their journey was recorded.
They left Pierre on April 2 and, on the 9th, met with twenty-five families of the Gens de la Flêch Collée (Glued Arrow People) also called the “Sioux of the Prairies.” The party reached the Mandans on May 18. They joined a party of 100 Assiniboines who were going to Fort La Reine on May 27th. They were ambushed a few days later by a Sioux war party, but the Sioux withdrew because of the number of Assiniboines and French guns they faced. They rested their horses at a “village near the mountains” on June 2 and, on July 2, 1943, they reached Fort La Reine completing their journey. 

The La Verendrye brothers’ Historical Marker at Fort Pierre, South Dakota

The lead plate the brothers buried was found in Pierre, South Dakota in 1913 and now resides in the South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre. The dimensions of the plate are six by eight inches. The front has a die-stamped Latin inscription referring to Louis XV, Pierre La Verendrye and the year 1741. On the back is scratched “Placed by Chevalyet de Lave, Louis la Londette, A Miotte, March 30, 1743. Londette and Miotte are most likely the two Frenchmen who traveled with Francoise and Louis-Joseph Verendrye.
Francois returned east to serve in the army during the Seven Years’ War. He died July 31, 1794 in Montreal, Canada. He was one of two brothers to use the title “Chevalier”, the other being his brother Louis-Joseph. With his death, the name La Vérendrye disappeared.

I am always so impressed to read about these early explorers for their dedication and perseverance to accomplish their task. I would have quit the expedition at the mention of those Snake People. Later on there would many other explorers to this rugged country, but the Verendrye brothers were the first white men recorded to lead the way deep into the west.

Sarah J. McNeal is a multi-published author who writes diverse stories filled with heart. She is a retired ER and Critical Care nurse who lives in North Carolina with her four-legged children, Lily, the Golden Retriever and Liberty, the cat. Besides her devotion to writing, she also has a great love of music and plays several instruments including violin, bagpipes, guitar and harmonica. Her books and short stories may be found at Prairie Rose Publications and its imprints Painted Pony Books, and Fire Star Press and Sundown Press. She welcomes you to her website and social media:


  1. Sarah, thank you for an extensive report on the first whites to explore the territories of Wyoming and beyond. Their perseverance was amazing as well as their bravery! Also their ability to communicate and get along with all those different tribes.

    1. Cheri, I was amazed at the endurance and risk these early explorers endured, too. Shoot, I don't even think I would have been able to endure the winter weather in the places these explorers went, let alone all the other hardships and dangers.
      Thank you for coming, Cheri.


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