The surprising French history of Fort Pierre

Photo South Dakota Tourism

The town of Fort Pierre (South Dakota) lies on the west bank of the Missouri River at the confluence of the Bad River, across the Missouri from the city of Pierre, the state capital. In 1832, the French-American fur trader Pierre Chouteau, Jr. had a fortified trading post built near the mouth of the Bad River and he gave it his name. The activities of this fort were the real starting point of a developing Euro-American colonization of the place where today’s city of Fort Pierre took its name.

However, Pierre Chouteau could not have known that in the 18th century, French-speaking explorers, the very first Europeans in America, had already stayed in this exact same place and buried an astonishing object that remained undiscovered until 1913. So what happened? What is this surprising French history of Fort Pierre?

The French history of Fort Pierre

Photo South Dakota State Historical Society

For this we have to go back to the explorations conducted by French-Canadian Pierre Gaultier de Varennes and the La Verendrye father and 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 in Canada), where they met with various Native American tribes (Mandan, Crow, Arikara, to name a few). In March 1743, they stayed in an Arikara village on the banks of the Missouri River, in present-day South Dakota. While making their return journey, unbeknown to the Arikara, Louis-Joseph then buried a lead plate to mark their stay. It had a Latin inscription 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“.

Photo South Dakota State Historical Society

The two brothers could never see materialize the tremendous business opportunities created by their friendship with these new Native American allies, hitherto unknown. The Arikara village was located on the site of Fort Pierre and the lead plate remained buried on a hillside of the site until 1913 when a group of schoolchildren stumbled upon the object. It is the first concrete evidence of the European presence in South Dakota and one of the most valuable monuments to the history of the American West.