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Saturday, July 22, 2017


It was December 6, 1738. A blue cloudless sky arched above the frigid day. A young Frenchman and several Hidatsa Indians trudged south on the bluffs overlooking the big river in search of an Indian village above the Old Crossing.

With help from Hidatsa guides, Louis Joseph La Verendrye expected to find a second village south of the first village where he and his father camped. He heeded his father’s words. “If you are well received, stay over night.” First, he must find the village.

The Verendryes were the first white men to explore North Dakota.

Pierre Gaultier de Varennes de La Verendrye was born in 1685, son of the French governor of the Three Rivers area on the St. Lawrence River. By 1726, Verendrye turned to the lucrative fur trade in the remote western reaches of New France (Manitoba and Western Canada). Indian accounts of a great river in the far western country sparked his dream of finding the fabled Northwest Passage leading to the great western sea.

In 1738, Verendrye marched westward from Ft. La Reine near what is now Winnipeg, Manitoba. His records indicate he proceeded southwest to the edge of the Turtle Mountains and then continued southwest across the plains. On December 3 he reached the first of two Indian villages a few miles from the big river. From this village Pierre sent his son, Louis Joseph, south with a group of Indians in search of the second village.

On December 7 Louis Joseph returned to his father. Surely the second village had received the party favorably or else they would have returned on December 6.

A dispute swirls around the question of exactly where the French explorer and his son encountered the Indian villages. Did the Verendryes visit Mandan Indian villages near present day Bismarck? Or did they visit Hidatsa villages over a hundred miles farther up the Missouri River? This is an open question.

The prevailing view maintains that the Verendryes visited Mandan villages in the Bismarck area. This view conjectures that the Mandan villages visited by Lewis and Clark over eighty years later were the same villages visited by Verendrye. To accept this view, however, is to ignore more substantial evidence to the contrary.

A strong case is made for identifying the Indian villages visited by Verendrye as Hidatsa villages located both north and immediately west of the current site of New Town, ND.

First, the southern most village, situated on the east side of the river at a place known as the Old Crossing, overlooked a known crossing point long used by the Indians in fording the Missouri River. Verendrye cites this point in his notes.

Second, Louis Joseph identified the river as flowing “southwest by south” just below the Old Crossing. This does not conform to the general track of the river in the Bismarck area where the river flows south.  Such a description, however, does identify the course of the river in the vicinity of the Old Crossing.

Third, Pierre requested that his son, a trained mathematician and map maker, observe the elevation of the sun on December 8, 1738. The reading at Bismarck would have been 46o 50’ 12” latitude. Verendrye records an astrolabe observation of 48o 12’ latitude in his notes. This placed the northern village much farther north than Bismarck.

Fourth, the Mandan villages visited by Lewis and Clark near present-day Bismarck is almost due south of the Turtle Mountains. Verendrye’s notes state he proceeded southwest of the Turtle Mountains.

On a cool autumn day in 1940, about a half day’s walk north of New Town, ND, rancher Wayne H. Evans dug post holes for a feed corral. His ranch occupied land along the Little Knife River and the high ground to the south of the valley. A few inches below the surface Wayne uncovered bone, ashes, flint, and other signs of an old Indian encampment. Could this be the remains of the Hidatsa village visited by the Verendryes?

In 1973, Dr. Fred Schneider from the University of North Dakota visited the site. Although the site produced no contact material, artifacts and other signs of centuries-old habitation continually emerged. The latitude of the excavation is 48o 6’ 38”, a slight variance of only 5’ 22” from Louis Joseph’s astrolabe reading.

Whether or not this was the first inhabited site in North Dakota visited by the Verendryes, as recorded in their notes, may remain a mystery. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that a substantial Indian settlement existed a half day’s journey or about nine miles north of the Old Crossing on the Missouri River.


Dennis M. Patrick can be contacted at P. O. Box 337, Stanley, ND 58784 or (JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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