The First to Explore the Northwest
Catholics: The First to Explore the Great Northwest
Not Lewis and Clark



       Americans have been taught that the famous explorers, Meriwether Lewis and George Rogers Clark, were the first to explore the great Northwest wilderness on their way to reach the Pacific. Though in 1805 they did make it to the Pacific Ocean from inland, they were not the first to explore the Great Northwest, nor the first to cross the Rocky Mountains; and they neither discovered the Columbia River, nor were the first of European descent to travel upon it. These are some of the many myths put forth by establishment history texts and the media (for example, the "History" Channel). It was Catholic explorers who accomplished these things first.

1738-43: Verendrye Expedition

       In 1742, a large French expedition led by Francois and Pierre De la Verendrye went deep into the Montana territory. They had obtained a fur trading grant from the French government for the western regions of "unexplored French territories," as the grant stated. With them was the Jesuit missionary-priest, Father Cloquart, S.J.

       The Verendrye expedition started out from Minnesota in 1736 (specifically, from Fort St. Charles on Lake of the Woods), walked west along the Canadian border, entered into present-day North Dakota along the Mouse River, and reached the Missouri River in 1738. (Long before the Protestant -English arrived, Minnesota had first been explored by Catholics from the 1660s to the 1680s. There had been missions/settlements/ forts established in the following years and places: 1686 on the west side of today's Lake Pepin; 1695 near Leech Lake; 1700 at Mankato; 1732 at Lake of the Woods -Fort St.Charles.) Between Lake Superior and the Missouri River they had built a chain of forts for trading. In what is now North Dakota they encountered the Mandan Indians, many of whom, unlike the Dakota Sioux, were open to the Gospel of Christ. With Indian guides they entered present-day Montana and traveled as far as the southwestern part of the state. Ironically, they stopped at the foot of the mountain range known as the 'Lewis and Clark Range' (about 50 miles southwest of present-day Great Falls, Montana). However, the hostility of the Crow Indians from the region convinced the explorers not to establish a trading post that far west. Nevertheless, this expedition was the first to reach from inland the northwest region of the Rocky Mountains.

       They headed back and in late 1742 established a trading post-fort along the Missouri River in central North Dakota nearby an Arikara village (near today's Knife River Indian villages, just south of what is now Lake Sakakawea). Here they met an Indian man who had been raised among the Spanish, had converted, and also spoke French. They learned that he had been baptized, still knew his prayers and practiced the Faith as best he could. This Christian Indian spoke of a Frenchman who had lived among the Indians who were only three days journey away. Verendrye sent word for the man to come to the new French post. To their disappointment, he never came. Surprised that they were not the first Frenchmen to this area, the Verendryes carved then buried a lead plate on a bluff near the river to record this event. It is dated March 30, 1743. This plate lay undiscovered for almost two centuries until some school children discovered it while on a Sunday hike in 1913. It was from the growth of this and other trading posts built by the Verendryes brothers that the diocese of Bismarck in western North Dakota would eventually be established.


1774: Spanish Expeditions

       A few decades after the Verendrye expedition ended, some Catholic Spanish expeditions from the coast arrived and explored and claimed the Northwest lands for Christ and Spain. In 1774 and 1775, these expeditions explored the Northwest coast of America all the way to the 60th parallel/latitude along Alaska. Juan Perez, leader of the first of these expeditions and under orders from the Viceroy Burcarelli of Mexico, departed from Monterey, California, in June of 1774. He explored the coasts of what eventually became Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, arriving finally at today's Prince of Wales Island, at the 55th parallel. While on the island, Perez traded with the local natives. After going north to the 60th parallel, he turned back south. Perez then entered the Bay of Nootka at Vancouver Island, again headed south and entered Seattle Bay going all the way into Puget Sound. He then headed back to Monterey to report of his findings. Perez drew a detailed map of the areas, claimed these northern regions for Christ the King, and took possession of them for the Spanish Crown. (California had already been claimed back in 1542 by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, and again, more formally, by Sebastian Vizcaino in 1602.)

       On the second expedition, in 1775, Franciscan missionaries were included. With Bruno de Heceta in command, and Juan Perez accompanying them, the expedition party landed on the coast of Oregon in July. With local natives looking on, they planted a cross and took possession of the land for Spain. Father Miguel Campa, O.F.M., offered Holy Mass and preached. After exchanges with the local Indians, they set sail and headed farther north. In August they arrived at what is now called the Columbia River. They gave it its original name, Rio San Rogue (River of Saint Rogue), and sailed more than thirty miles up stream, turning around before it became too narrow and shallow. (This proves that Lewis and Clark did not discover the Columbia River as is taught.) They surveyed the area, then proceeded north to Grayes Harbor and anchored there. Some of the sailors went ashore to find water. While there, they were attacked by Indians and seven of them were killed. The expedition left and landed on Vancouver Island and, with local natives looking on, planted a cross. They then sailed back to Monterey to report their findings and events.

1795: James Mackey Expedition

       Ten years before the Lewis and Clark expedition there was another one accomplished by Catholics that would explore the Northwest region. In 1795, James Mackey, a Spanish citizen of Scottish origin, was appointed lieutenant governor of St. Louis. That same year, with a missionary priest and four boats carrying plenty of supplies, along with gifts and commodities to trade with Indians, Mackey departed from St. Louis and traveled up the Missouri River. He encountered the Oto Indians of Nebraska, traded with them, and befriended them. With their permission, he then built a trading post and fort among the Oto Tribe, leaving some men from the expedition to attend it. He proceeded up the river and traveled well into South Dakota. There he initiated friendly relations with Indians from both the Arikara and Cheyenne tribes and traded with them.

       The expedition continued up the Missouri into North Dakota and arrived at the territory of the Mandan Indians. Here again they established friendly relations with the local people. It was here that the Mackey party built a trading post and raised the Spanish flag. The Indians informed them that French explorers had been to the area years earlier. This interested Mackey and his companions. They then asked the Indians if they knew of a passage to the great ocean to the west and received conflicting information on which way to go at the great fork in the river (near present-day state boundary of Montana). At this fork, where the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers meet, they built a small trading post. (Today, it is the site of Fort Union Trading Post, a national historic site.) They took the Yellowstone fork and traveled on it well into the south-western region of Montana. At another fork, where the Bighorn veers to the south, they followed the northern Yellowstone branch to a point near today's city of Billings. Around here they encountered a violent attack by Crow Indians. This convinced then not to go any farther. They went back and stayed for a while at the trading post they built at the fork of the Missouri and Yellowstone. After a total of two years of exploring and establishing friendly relations with local natives, they returned to St. Louis.

       In the years immediately after, other Catholic Spanish expeditions followed the trade route established by Mackey. Some followed the Missouri River all the way to what is now the Lewis and Clark Range of the Rocky Mountains. But it is not known whether any successfully crossed over the mountains. Nevertheless, the fact remains that, both sixty years previous to the Lewis and Clark expedition, and another ten years before it, Spanish Catholics had explored and penetrated the Great American Northwest before English-speaking Protestants. Sadly, none of these men are given any recognition, let alone proper credit, for their discoveries and accomplishments. Yet, they should be mentioned in all American history books which cover this topic.

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Some final notes:
1)    The female Indian guide for Lewis and Clark, Sacagawea, spoke both English and French (along with her native tongue). She was baptized Catholic and married to a Frenchman. Thus, it was due to the help and guidance of a Catholic that Lewis and Clark were successful.
2)   When Lewis and Clark came to the fork of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers, they found a small old trading post. Thus, to their surprise, white men had been there before them! Who they were, neither Lewis nor Clark knew. But we know that this was the trading post built by James Mackey back in 1795.
3)   With the different expeditions described above, the French from inland all the way to the mountains fifty miles west of Great Falls, Montana, and the Spanish exploring not only the Northwest coast, but heading more than thirty miles inland up the St. Rogue (Columbia) River, and all the way into the Puget Sound (which is farther inland than thirty miles up the Columbia River), there is, by way of the crow as they say, only about an 800 mile gap between the two points of farthest exploration. So, one could say that Lewis and Clark only covered 800+ miles that no other white men covered. But there is even more.
4)   These facts demonstrate that the only real credit that should be given to Lewis and Clark is the fact that they are the first to have made it to the Pacific from inland over the northwest Rockies. A great accomplishment to be acknowledged, yes, but not to the exclusion of these others which preceded theirs by many years.

5)   Contrary to what most American were and are taught, Lewis and Clark were not even the first ones to cross the Rocky Mountains. Catholic explorers had already accomplished this a few times:

       a) Back in 1739, two French explorers, Pierre and Paul Mallet, left Louisiana and sailed up the Mississippi River. Their mission: to discover the souces of both the Missouri and Platte rivers. They accomplished this amazing task and, after stopping near today's Medicine Bow Mountains in southern Wyoming for the North Platte source, they headed south and crossed over the Colorado Mountain range (another amazing feat) and came down into New Mexico. They meet the governor of New Mexico, Gaspar D. Mendoza, who questioned them on their activity. After a year stay in New Mexico they returned to Louisiana and reported their findings.

       b) In 1765, Captain Juan Rivera led an expedition which left Santa Fe and became the first to go across the Rocky Mountains from east to west. They explored all the way to the basin of the Gunnison River near today’s Blue Mesa Reservoir in west-central Colorado. The explorers engraved their names and crosses on trees at that location, thus providing proof of their journey across that huge mountain range.

       c) In early September, 1776, two Franciscan priests, with eight soldiers, a cartographer, and an Indian interpreter, left Santa Fe to find a northern pass to California (there already was one not far from where present-day Interstate 10 crosses the Colorado). They headed northwest across the San Juan mountain range (named by them) and traveled all the way through the western part of Colorado. Still heading in a northwesterly direction they entered what is now Utah, and made it all the way to and discovered Utah Lake. However, the original name given to it by these explorers was Lake of Our Lady of Mercy (of the Timpanogotzis). Heavy snows forced them to start heading southwest from that point. Making it down to Arizona, at the upward bend of the Colorado River just southeast of the Nevada border, they crossed the Grand Canyon from east to west, making them the first Europeans to do so. However, some fifty miles farther west, just past the Black Mountains range, they encountered the Colorado River again where it is very wide with a strong current (just below today's Lake Meade). They decide to head back east and, after crossing into Zuni Indian territory, they arrived back in Santa Fe. They walked over 1,800 miles in five months, and crossed the broadest portion of the Rocky Mountains. One of the priests, Father Escalente, wrote a diary full of interesting facts on the places, animals, and plants of the regions they crossed. He is the first to do so. This amazing expedition deserves to be in all American history books.

One Last Note:
       Zebulon Pike did not discover Pike's Peak as we have been taught. This peak had already been discovered, and the range named, by Spanish Explorers -the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Pike admitted in his journal that he came no nearer than 15 miles to the base of the mountain. He simply saw it from a distance in 1806 and recorded the fact.                                                                                                                                                                    - Adam S. Miller

(Taken from the soon-to-be published Journey America: Pathways to the Present, Marian Publications, Inc.)


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