A Chance Meeting

In the fall of 1804, twenty-year-old François Larocque went to work for the North West Company at Fort Assiniboine, which had been built in 1795 at the confluence of the Assiniboine and Mouse (Souris) Rivers, about 20 miles southeast of today's Brandon, Manitoba. As a clerk, Larocque occupied the second rank in the structure of the fur-trading business. At the direction of the manager of the trading post—the bourgeois, or partisan—Larocque's job was to take a supply of merchandise to the Mandan and Hidatsa villages at the mouth of the Knife River and remain there until his goods were all traded away for furs.

On November 11, 1804, Larocque and six companions, with nine horses, five of which were loaded with trade goods, set out for the Mandan settlements at the mouth of the Knife River on the Missouri.1 The trade goods included tools such as axes, knives, awls, flints and steels for fire-starting, and a quantity of powder and ball. There was tobacco, too, and personal items such as combs and beads. Fourteen days later, on November 24, the party arrived at the middle Minitari (Hidatsa) village, known as Metaharta, where Larocque was to look up an interpreter named Toussaint Charbonneau—the very same Charbonneau who would be hired by Lewis and Clark the following March 18.2 Charbonneau was not at home.

The next day, however, on the road to the nearby Mandan villages, young Larocque chanced to meet Charbonneau, the free trader René Jusseaume, and Meriwether Lewis. For about a quarter of an hour he chatted with Lewis, who invited him to Fort Mandan, "& appeared very friendly."

But one of Larocque's party, the interpreter Baptiste Lafrance, immediately spread rumors about the expedition's purpose, and the captains issued a stern warning, through Larocque, of "the Consiquinces if they did not put a Stop to unfavourable & ill founded assursions &c. &c."3 Three weeks later the traders were still under suspicion, as Gass reported: "The object of the visits we received from the N. W., Company," he says, "was to ascertain our motives for visiting that country, and to gain information with respect to the change of government." What Larocque really wanted, as he would inform them toward the end of January, was to join the expedition and be a part of the adventure. But the captains were unwilling to share their geographical discoveries and information about Indian tribes that the North West Company or the British government could use against the United States, and they declined his offer.

Nevertheless, after a sour start, Lewis and Clark proceeded to provide Larocque with ample, if sometimes contradictory, details about their history and their aims.

1. One of Larocque's companions was a free trader named Charles McKenzie, who also kept a journal that contained many ethnographic details about the Mandan and Hidatsa people. W. Raymond Wood and Thomas D. Thiessen, Early Fur Trade on the Northern Plains (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), 221–96.

2. Concerning the five Mandan and Hidatsa communities at the mouth of the Knife River, see Gary E. Moulton, ed., The Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition (13 vols., Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983-2001), 3:206n.

3. Clark, November 26, 1804.