It’s hard to believe that a man who likely never set foot in Lac du Bonnet could be such a legend ’round these parts. French Canadian fur trader and explorer Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, usually known simply as La Verendrye, literally put what would become Western Canada on the map during his search in the 1700s for a trade route to China.
Originally from Quebec, he and his four sons passed through Lake Winnipeg on the way to the Saskatchewan River to find that fabled path to the Orient. In the annals of Manitoba history, La Verendrye is a big name. There’s a school named after him in Portage la Prairie, and you can find a memorial plaque dedicated to him at Winnipeg’s Stephen Juba Park near The Forks. He’s become a legend in Lac du Bonnet, with local landmarks named after him.
Legend has it La Verendrye named our community. Looking over maps of the area in the 1700s, he thought a section of the Winnipeg River was shaped like a bonnet, so he named it Lake Lac du Bonnet. Or so the legend says. In reality, it was more likely his son Jean-Baptiste who was responsible (if this creation story actually holds water, no pun intended). A monument in Fort Alexander, located just north of Lac du Bonnet, commemorates the former site of Fort Maurepas, established by Jean-Baptiste between 1739 and 1749, after the abandonment of the original Fort Maurepas on the Red River.
“It’s highly unlikely La Verendrye himself was ever in what is now Lac du Bonnet,” says noted local historian and Municipal Heritage Advisory Committee chairman Gord Emberley. Indeed, it appears La Verendrye left much of his team’s exploratory work in what would become Manitoba to his sons, but like many historical figures, La Verendrye has become a larger-than-life figure who’s left an indelible mark on our community.
“He’s a huge historical figure and an important one. He was one of the most important French Canadian historical figures to ever pass through what is now Manitoba,” says Michel Loiselle, captain of La Compagnie de La Vérendrye, a Winnipeg-based historical group that illustrates the lives of travellers and soldiers who accompanied the Canadian explorer and his four boys to discover the “western sea” and a road to China between 1728 and 1749. Between 1731 and 1743, La Vérendrye supervised the construction of a series of fur trade posts west of Lake Superior.
There were two rivers believed to offer a passage to the Orient — the Saskatchewan River (which turned out to be the correct one) and the Missouri River (the wrong one). Sadly, La Verendrye picked the latter. He eventually gave up on his quest and returned to Quebec in 1740. He’d make one more attempt to find the trade route by heading up the Saskatchewan River (in the process working to consolidate his hold on the chain of lakes west of Lake Winnipeg, establishing Fort Dauphin), but headed home to Quebec in 1743. He died in 1749. Our region is now a part of Manitoba’s La Verendrye Trail, which includes Lac du Bonnet’s Hwy. 44 and Hwy. 11.