Larocque's Dangerous Assignment

Larocque's Route

modern map of the lower Yellowstone River, Middle Missouri River, and Fort Assiniboin

After Wood and Thiessen2

Larocque left the Assiniboine River on June 2, 1805, arriving at the Knife River villages on June 12. In the company of a band of Crow Indians he reached the Yellowstone River near present-day Billings, Montana, on September 10. He returned to the Knife River Villages via Yellowstone and the Missouri on October 9, and was back at Fort Assiniboine at the mouth of the Souris on October 27. The entire trip, covering more than 1,300 miles, lasted over four and one-half months.

Four months after arriving back at Fort Assiniboine in February—after a five-day dash through fierce winter storms and bitter cold temperatures—Larocque walked some 65 miles up the river from Fort Assiniboine, to Fort Montagne‚ à la Bosse ("Hump Mountain"). From there he set out with five men on June 2, 1805, for "a voyage of discovery"—did he learn that turn of phrase from Lewis?—"to the Rocky Mountains." His assignment was to visit the Crows in their homeland and determine whether reports of an abundance of beaver were true, and if so, to teach the Indians to trap them and preserve the pelts for the traders to come.

It was a dangerous assignment, and his boss, Charles Chaboilez, was duly concerned for his well-being. But after running a ten-day gauntlet of risks, from intimidating Assiniboine and sioux Indians to spring storms and high rivers, he and his party reached the safety of the Mandan and Hidatsa villages on the Missouri, just five days after the Corps of Discovery had departed westward.1 Larocque immediately began making plans to proceed up the Yellowstone River to visit those "Rocky Mountain Indians," the Crows.

Some of the Mandan and Hidatsa chiefs emphatically warned him against going, assigning "the worst character possible to the Rocky Mountain Indians, saying that they were thieves and liars," and predicting he would almost certainly be killed by either Cheyennes or Arikaras. However, Chief Le Borgne, or "One Eye," who generally favored British traders over Americans, set his mind at ease:

He answered to my wish, that the Rocky Mountains were good people, that they had plenty of Beavers on their hands, and that his adopted son, one of the Chiefs of the Rocky Mountains & the greatest would take care of us, for that he would strongly recommend to him to put the white people in his heart and watch over them.

Meanwhile, a band of Crows had arrived to trade with the Mandans and Hidatsas, and on June 29 Larocque and two companions, William Morrison and a man named Souci, joined the visitors on their homeward journey. They headed up the Knife for a short distance, then southwest across the upper Heart River, struck the Little Missouri a few miles south of today's Medora, North Dakota, reached the Powder River at Powderville in southeastern Montana, followed the Powder to the vicinity of Sheridan, Wyoming, edged along the northeast flank of the Bighorn Mountains and past the Pryors, and arrived at the Yellowstone near today's Billings on September 13.

Somewhere in southeastern Montana the Crows killed and butchered two enemy Indian scouts, with even women and children taking part in inflicting post-mortem indignities upon their wretched corpses. "The sight made me shudder with horror at such cruelties," Larocque wrote, "and I returned home in quite a different frame from that in which I left it." The celebratory scalp dances continued intermittently for several days. On the whole, however, Larocque's descriptions of the landscape he traversed, and of the Crow people he traveled with, are richly detailed, and add much to our picture of that corner of the West at the beginning of the 19th century.

On September 14 Larocque took leave of his Indian hosts, promising to come back and trade with them for furs the following autumn. However, he did not, and in fact went home to Montreal in 1806, never to return to the West.

1. In their Estimate of Eastern Indians, Lewis and Clark characterized the Assiniboines as descendants of the Sioux who "partake of their turbulent and faithless disposition: they frequently plunder, and sometimes murder, their own traders." They also reportedly were "great Drunkards." They might be induced to come to a trading post at the mouth of the Yellowstone, wrote Lewis, "but I do not think that their trade promises much." Thus, although the captains never met any Assiniboines face to face, they readily accepted the judgments of the Mandans and Hidatsas. See James Ronda, Lewis and Clark Among the Indians (Lincoln: University of Nebraska press, 1984), 202–03.

2. W. Raymond Wood and Thomas D. Thiessen, eds., Early Fur Trade on the Northern Plains: Canadian Traders Among the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians, 1738–1818 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), p. 161.