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Unit 1




Lesson 4
Europeans Visit South Dakota


     We marched "over magnificent prairies where wild animals were plentiful," wrote François La Verendrye. He was a French-Canadian. He and his brother, Louis-Joseph, were on a trek across South Dakota. It was 1743. The brothers met the Arikara and Mandan peoples. They were looking for the Northwest Passage. They thought the Northwest Passage would be a river that would take them across North America to the Pacific Ocean. But the brothers turned back. A mountain range, perhaps the Black Hills, blocked their path. On their way back, they buried "a lead tablet" on a hill near Fort Pierre. They "placed some stones in a pyramid" over the top.

Verendyre plate
Verendrye plate


     The stones toppled and disappeared. No one knew where the lead tablet was buried. No one, that is, until a group of Fort Pierre high school students found it one hundred seventy years later. It was 1913. The plate claimed the area for France. It is the first record of a visit by Europeans to South Dakota.

La Verendrye Monument
Photo courtesy of South Dakota State Historical Society

Great Lakes

     The Verendrye brothers were traders. They built trading posts near Lake Superior. It is one of the Great Lakes. It was near the Northwest Territory. French-Canadian, English, and Scottish businessmen lived there. They traded guns and other goods. They wanted animal pelts in return. Fox, otter, and muskrat pelts were good, but beaver pelts were best.


     Beaver fur was soaked, pounded, and woven to make felt. Felt was ideal for hats. It was fine, warm, and beautiful. Elegant gentlemen wore beaver hats. These hats were so valuable that they were often passed down from father to son. The market for beaver pelts grew. Traders pushed west. The Verendryes and others looked for new land where beavers were still plentiful. This quest brought French-Canadian, Spanish, and English traders to South Dakota.

     Pierre Dorion was one of the first fur traders here. He was a French-Canadian. He came to South Dakota in 1785. He may have been the first permanent white settler. He married a Nakota woman. They lived along the Missouri River near what is now Yankton.

     More French-Canadians came to South Dakota. They traded with the Poncas, the Dakotas, and the Arikaras. British traders came up the Missouri River. They went as far as the Mandan villages in North Dakota. They built a trading post there. Even so, the area was still a mystery. Most white people knew little about it. The Lewis and Clark Expedition would change that. It began in 1804. It showed the potential of the region.

elegant (adj.), showing grace in style or manners

felt (n.), a fabric made from animal hair or wool

pelts (n.), animal skins with the hair or fur still on them

potential (n.), having a great deal of promise

quest (n.), a search for something important

trek (n.), a slow or difficult journey