Section 1: Introduction

By the late 18th century, many American explorers and traders had made their way to the northern Great Plains. They usually came by boat or on foot. Both traders and explorers contributed to the accumulated knowledge about the rivers, lakes, hills, plants, animals, weather, villages, and people of this region.

There is, however, a difference between traders and explorers. Traders explored to make money. If they identified a river or found a better route between one point and another, they usually shared that information. However, their primary purpose in exploration was to engage in business – usually the business of trading furs for manufactured goods.

The Hudson’s Bay Company and other fur trading companies employed many men as explorers.  The job of the explorers was to add to the company’s geographical and biological knowledge. They had to complete the maps, add to the list of animals and plants, and locate important mineral resources. They also wanted to learn as much as possible about the customs and interests of their American Indian trading partners. In addition to fur company explorers, explorers worked on behalf of the United States government or the U.S. Army. Other explorers financed their expeditions with their own money.

We are all familiar with the Corps of Discovery led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark from 1804 to 1806. Lewis and Clark and the men who went with them were explorers paid by the U.S. government. They very carefully noted everything they saw and experienced on the way to the Pacific.

Once Lewis and Clark had returned with volumes of information and boxes of specimens they had collected, traders began to follow the path of the Corps of Discovery up the Missouri River. Though the Corps of Discovery had orders to gather scientific information, President Jefferson (and most everyone else) knew that the information would have great economic importance. Louisiana was full of riches, but they had to be located and identified before they could be utilized.

Lewis and Clark were not the first to explore the northern Plains. Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, sieur de La Vérendrye (1685–1749) traveled with his sons and Assiniboine guides to the Mandan villages near the Missouri River in 1738. Though Verendrye (ver RON dree) was not the first white man to travel the northern Great Plains, he was the first to write about his experiences. He came here specifically to meet and learn about the Mandans because he had been told (mistakenly) that they were white people who lived in big houses.

Verendrye, who was employed in the French fur trade, was also seeking the mythical “river of the West.” Had he found this river (it doesn’t exist), it would have served the fur trade industry very well. So, like Lewis and Clark, Verendrye’s explorations had underlying economic purposes, but he was primarily interested in acquiring knowledge of the people who “lived in big houses.” 

Many other explorers came to North Dakota before 1860. They all contributed to the body of knowledge about the northern Great Plains that would be useful to the Army, to the fur trade, and eventually to railroad companies and farmers. These men produced volumes of journals, letters, maps, reports, and images of the region. These written records remain vitally important to our understanding of the cultural and natural history of the northern Great Plains.

Why is this important? The vast interior of North America remained largely unknown to non-Indians for more than 300 years after the English and Spanish began to settle the continent. The men who explored rivers, mountains, animals, and plant life accumulated information in a form that could be categorized and analyzed by European Americans. Plants and animals were identified by Latin names, rivers were named and their routes were mapped according to the way European Americans viewed the world. In their way of knowing, they placed North at the top of the map, and all places were located in relation to the lines of latitude and longitude.

The sum of the experiences of all of the explorers created a new way of knowing the places of the northern Great Plains. The explorers made it possible for others to travel the region knowing what kind of weather they would encounter, where they would find fresh water and food supplies, and how long it would take to get from one place to another. However, exploration also meant that soon other people would come to the newly mapped lands to make money in the fur trade and other businesses. Railroads and farmers followed closely behind the fur traders. Exploration paved the way for European Americans to move into the northern Great Plains and claim it as their own.