The search began in earnest one sweltering afternoon on June 8, 1731, at the little stockaded fort on the banks of the St. Lawrence, where Montreal stands to-day. Fifty grizzled adventurers—wood runners, voyageurs, Indian interpreters—bareheaded, except for the colored handkerchief binding back the lank hair, dressed in fringed buckskin, and chattering with the exuberant nonchalance of boys out of school, had finished gumming the splits of their ninety-foot birch canoes, and now stood in line awaiting the coming of their captain, Sieur Pierre Gaultier de Varennes de la Verendrye. The French soldier with his three sons, aged respectively eighteen, seventeen, and sixteen, now essayed to discover the fabled Western Sea, whose narrow waters were supposed to be between the valley of the “Great Forked River” and the Empire of China.
[Illustration: Indians and Hunters spurring to the Fight.]
Certainly, if it were worth while for Peter the Great of Russia to send Vitus Bering coasting the bleak headlands of ice-blocked, misty shores to find the Western Sea, it would—as one of the French governors reported—“be nobler than open war” for the little colony of New France to discover this “sea of the setting sun.” The quest was invested with all the rainbow tints of “la gloire”; but the rainbow hopes were founded on the practical basis of profits. Leading merchants of Montreal had advanced goods for trade with the Indians on the way to the Western Sea. Their expectations of profits were probably the same as the man’s who buys a mining share for ten cents and looks for dividends of several thousand per cent. And the fur trade at that time was capable of yielding such profits. Traders had gone West with less than $2000 worth of goods in modern money, and returned three years later with a sheer profit of a quarter of a million. Hope of such returns added zest to De la Verendrye’s venture for the discovery of the Western Sea.
Goods done up in packets of a hundred pounds lay at the feet of the voyageurs awaiting De la Verendrye’s command. A dozen soldiers in the plumed hats, slashed buskins, the brightly colored doublets of the period, joined the motley company. Priests came out to bless the departing voyageurs. Chapel bells rang out their God-speed. To the booming of cannon, and at a word from De la Verendrye, the gates opened. Falling in line with measured tread, the soldiers marched out from Mount Royal. Behind, in the ambling gait of the moccasined woodsman, came the voyageurs and coureurs and interpreters, pack-straps across their foreheads, packets on the bent backs, the long birch canoes hoisted to the shoulders of four men, two abreast at each end, heads hidden in the inverted keel.