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The surprising French history of Fort Pierre


Photo credit: South Dakota Tourism

October 14, 2016

The small town of Fort Pierre (2100 inhabitants) lies on the west bank of the Missouri River at the confluence of the Bad River, in South Dakota. The town's beginnings date back to the first third of the 19th century. At that time, the explorers and fur traders noted that this lovely plain, located in Sioux territory bordering the Missouri River, was perfectly suited to the fur trade.

And yes, it really was a French-American fur trader, Pierre Chouteau, Jr., who founded Fort Pierre and started Euro-American settlement there. However, he could not have known that in the 18th century, French-speaking explorers, the very first Europeans, had already stayed in that same place. So what happened? Why did the traces of this French-speaking presence remain undiscovered until a century ago, in 1913? What is this surprising French history of Fort Pierre?

In 1832, Pierre Chouteau Jr. was in charge of operations on the Upper Missouri for the powerful American Fur Company in St. Louis. The company employed several hundred men, mostly French-speaking voyageurs. They were contracted workers (engagés), paddlers and hivernants (voyageurs who lived year-round in the interior). That year, Pierre Chouteau, Jr. had a fortified trading post built about 4 km north of the mouth of the Bad River and he gave it his name. This fort was to replace Fort Tecumseh, built in 1822, which was much closer to the river's mouth, but was threatened by the Missouri River floods.  History tells us that there had been a first fort built near the mouth before, in 1817. However, due to frequent flooding, it was abandoned in 1820.

Fort Pierre Chouteau was an important and strategic trading post for the company. For 25 years it was the main trading post for the Sioux bands in the area (Tetons, Yankton, Yanktonai, Santee ...). By this time buffalo robes had replaced beaver pelts as the main product in the exchanges. The activity of this fort was the real starting point of an ongoing Euro-American colonization in this place where today's city of Fort Pierre took the name of the fort.

Much later, in 1913, on a hill overlooking the city, a group of schoolchildren from Fort Pierre stumbled upon an astonishing object. It had been buried for over a century and a half, and today is one of the most valuable monuments to the history of the American West. What is it? For this we have to go back to the explorations of the French-Canadian Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, and of de la Verendrye and his sons. They were the first known Europeans to open up trade routes northwest of Lake Superior, starting in the 1730s.

In 1742-1743, two of La Verendrye's sons, Louis-Joseph and François, embarked on a historic expedition into the south-west, starting from Fort La Reine (located south of Lake Manitoba), where they met with various Indian nations (Mandan, Crow, Arikara ...).They reached the Black Hills that lie in present-day South Dakota and in March 1743, they stayed in an Arikara village on the banks of the Missouri River, before making their return journey. Unbeknown to the Arikara, Louis-Joseph then buried a lead plate marking their stay. It had a Latin inscription on one side which can be translated as: "In the year 26 of the reign of Louis XV. For the King, our most illustrious lord. By Monsieur the Marquis de Beauharnois, 1741. Placed here by Pierre Gaultier de Laverendrie". The names of the two brothers and those of their two French companions were hastily engraved on the other side.

Were the brothers hoping to return to the site? Unfortunately, they would never see materialize the tremendous business opportunities created by their friendship with these hitherto unknown new Indian nations. The Arikara village was located on the Fort Pierre town site and the lead plate remained buried on a hillside of the site until ... 1913! It is the first written evidence of the European presence in South Dakota.

Today, the city of Fort Pierre is preparing to commemorate the bicentennial of its founding (1817-2017).The La Vérendrye site and the  Fort Pierre Chouteau site, both National Historic Landmarks, are testimony to the city's remarkable French history.

Jean-Marc Agator

Documentation:

  • Gilles Havard, Histoire des coureurs de bois, Amérique du Nord, 1600-1840, p.386 (Carte de l'Ouest des chasseurs, 1ère moitié du 19e siècle), pp.388-391 (Les engagés du haut Missouri), Les Indes savantes, Paris, April 2016.
  • South Dakota State Historical Society, Archaeological Research Center, Research Report n°3, The 1997-2001 Excavations at Fort Pierre Chouteau, volume 2 "Material Culture", pp.267-271 (Historical Background, Fur Trade Society), 2010.
  • Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Louis-Joseph Gaultier de la Vérendrye.
  • Western South Dakota, North American Forts, 1526-1956.

About the author

Jean-Marc Agator is a French public research engineer in the field of new energy technologies. He is passionate about the history of Canada and of francophone communities throughout North America in all of their cultural diversity. He is the author of the website Chemins de la francophonie where he shares his passion through articles destined to a large francophone audience.

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