Molly P. Rozum is associate professor and Ronald R. Nelson Chair of Great Plains and South Dakota History at the University of South Dakota. She is the coeditor of Equality at the Ballot Box: Votes for Women on the Northern Great Plains and editor of Small-Town Boy, Small-Town Girl: Growing Up in South Dakota, 1920–1950. Her new book, Grasslands Grown: Creating Place on the U.S. Northern Plains and Canadian Prairies (Nebraska, 2021), was published this month.
Looking Northwest from La Vérendrye Hill
On a “balmy” February afternoon in 1913, Hattie May Foster and several other girls amused themselves on the undulating grasslands surrounding the village of Fort Pierre, South Dakota. “We girls were out walking, and went up on the hill,” Hattie recalled. Nature delivered a spectacular view from this river-bluff hilltop: the twinned towns of Fort Pierre and Pierre lay tucked in the valley below, while the Missouri and Bad Rivers arched in different directions, shooting gray timbered bands into sepia-colored winter grasslands. The wide Missouri would soon flow in freshets from local snowmelt and distant spring thaws in the Rocky Mountains. A group of boys also made their way to the hill after a day of hunting. They often played war in a large earthen fortress shaped from the sticky gumbo soil. These young people called the rise Harney Hill, after the highest peak in South Dakota’s Black Hills, at the time named for the U.S. general William S. Harney and in 2016 renamed for the Lakota knowledge keeper Black Elk. But on 16 February 1913, Hattie Foster made a discovery that changed the hill’s name for a new generation of northern grasslands residents.
Years of walking on the earth and grass of this hill created the chance for Hattie Foster to rescue from oblivion a small, Latin-inscribed, lead plate. Telling the story of the day’s events over and again, she later explained, “We were standing there talking, and I was scraping in the dirt with my foot. . . . When I saw it I kicked it out and picked it up.” Buried with the intent of conquest in 1743 by François and Louis-Joseph La Vérendrye, North American–born colonial agents of France’s North American empire, this lead artifact gave the hill a new identity. Harney Hill, a name memorializing U.S. conquest, became forevermore La Vérendrye Hill, a monument to eighteenth-century French colonialism.
The lightness of a day full of youthful rambling contrasts with the weightiness of the complex international colonial era in North America during which the La Vérendryes stood on a hill near an Arikara earth lodge village. No doubt, Hattie and her school friends were aware of the early French presence in North America, as their townlet took its name from French Missouri Fur Company traders. But it is unlikely they knew much about the La Vérendrye family’s journeys into North America’s grasslands nearly 170 years earlier, from territory by then located in Canada. Searching for the fabled Northwest Passage or—as the French called it, the Sea of the West—these French Canadians sought to secure a trade route to India for France. King Louis XV hoped the La Vérendryes would lure the Assiniboine, Cree, Mandan, Arikara, and other Indigenous nations away from established trading patterns with the English at Hudson Bay to the north.
Most locals probably did not know of the 1743 report François La Vérendrye made to the governor-general of North America’s New France, which explained, “On an eminence near the fort [an earth lodge] I deposited a lead tablet bearing the arms and inscription of the king and placed some stones in a pyramid. . . . I told the Indians [Arikaras led by Little Cherry], who had no knowledge of the lead tablet I had put in the ground, that I was setting up these stones in memory of the fact that we had been in their country.” The French imperial intent was clear. La Vérendrye told the Arikaras “the Great Chief of the French wished all his children to live peaceably.” With a base in the Saint Lawrence River Valley and footholds in Illinois Country and Louisiana, acquisition of this vast northwestern interior territory might have wedged a French North American empire securely between those of England and Spain. By 1763, however, Great Britain had ousted France from the continent, thus burying, along with the lead plate, dreams of a French North American inland empire.
In 1913 Fort Pierre’s village residents found themselves in a “fever of excitement” over the discovery. Pioneers were trotted out to the site, their memories of Fort Pierre and “the hill” in the early days interrogated. Supposedly, the “oldest surviving inhabitant” remembered seeing a stone cairn on the hill. What happened to the pile of rocks marking the place where the La Vérendrye brothers buried the lead plate? A telephone call to the state historical society, conveniently located across the river at Pierre, finally revealed, in the words of local authority Charles DeLand, “to a moral certainty, the famous tablet of the La Vérendrye journal had at last been unearthed.”
For a moment North America’s northern grasslands resonated nationally and internationally—in the United States, Canada, England, and France. Few had known of the exploits of the La Vérendrye family well. Hattie Foster’s discovery meant that part of the La Vérendrye route and the brothers’ cultural exchange with an Arikara village now could be precisely placed. The director of the South Dakota State Historical Society, Doane Robinson, described the discovery in the pages of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association’s Proceedings of 1914. Soon scholars began to conjecture the specific terrains traveled by the La Vérendryes and the probable Indigenous peoples they encountered. Local historians debated heatedly as they sought to place various routes in respective states; local experts wrote and debunked articles and erected and dismantled monuments as interpretations changed. The popular U.S. magazine the Nation emphasized the “romantic interest” of Hattie Foster’s find and noted the route had “long vexed historians.”