January 2020-Finding the Verendrye Plate
“I think the LaVerendrye Plate has been found.”
And with those words to Bishop Thomas O’Gorman, South Dakota State Historical Society Director Doane Robinson announced one of the most important finds in the northwestern United States.
In his letter to O’Gorman dated February 17, 1913, Robinson wrote “yesterday a party of school children playing upon one of the gumbo knobs in Fort Pierre village found a lead plate.” Robinson went on to describe the dimensions of the lead plate and the inscriptions on both sides of the plate.
In an address to the South Dakota State Historical Society years earlier, O’Gorman had predicted that a lead plate buried by the Verendrye expedition on March 30, 1743, would be found somewhere between Fort Pierre and Fort Bennett, about 35 miles above Fort Pierre. The plate helped establish the route of the explorers and served as the first physical record of a visit of white men in South Dakota. The Verendryes claimed the region for France when they buried the plate.
An article in the 1914 volume of South Dakota Historical Collections states that “a party of seven young people” were strolling on the bluffs at Fort Pierre on the warm Sunday afternoon of Feb. 16, 1913, when Harriet “Hattie” Foster, saw the end of a metal plate protruding above ground and picked it up. She handed the plate to George O’Rielly, who scraped off the dirt. O’Rielly kept the plate, and they started down the hill.
In her account of finding the plate, Hattie states that before O’Rielly got to the bottom of the hill he met George Olson, a high-school boy. O’Rielly was going to throw the plate away when Olson advised O’Rielly to take the plate home.
In letters to the South Dakota State Historical Society written in the 1930s, George White and Elmer Anderson described their role in finding the plate. They were in Fort Pierre that Sunday afternoon when they were approached by William O’Rielly and his son, George. White was familiar with the story of the Verendrye plate. White wrote, “I proceeded to eliminate the mud from the plate and read the Latin inscription on the face until I came to the last part including the words ‘LaVerendrye posuiit.’ Then I pronounced it one of the Verendrye plates and remarked to the O’Rilley’s that it was one of the most valueable discoveries and markers in American History.”
Anderson wrote that they suggested taking the plate to Doane Robinson for further investigation, but the O’Riellys would not let it out of their possession.
Anderson and White returned to Pierre and phoned Robinson to tell him of the discovery.
Robinson and Charles DeLand went to Fort Pierre the next morning and took the testimony of those present when the plate was discovered. Robinson wrote in a 1931 letter to Olson that “None of them mentioned you. O’Reilly then denied that you had anything to do with it but that you did look at the plate when he was coming down the hill. He agreed with what George White told me at the time, that White identified it as soon as he set his eyes upon it and said it was ‘worth a million dollars.’ I guess that it was at that moment that O’Reilly discovered that he had found the plate.”
Robinson already found “a dispute” between George O’Rielly and Hattie Foster when he arrived in Fort Pierre that Monday morning. A notice from Hattie would soon appear in a newspaper claiming possession of the “French tablet or Government Monument” which she found in Fort Pierre.
Different versions of finding the plate surfaced throughout the years. Ethel Parish Hepner Roberts would write the State Historical Society that she, Hattie and George were the only ones present on that Sunday afternoon. Blanche Lunquist, Hattie’s sister, wrote that she was present when the plate was found, and George O’Reilly insisted in a newspaper article that he found the plate, not Hattie, and gave an account of finding the plate in which Hattie was not present.
William and George O’Rielly kept possession of the plate after its discovery. In March 1915, Pattison McClure, the president of the South Dakota State Historical Society, sent a letter to members stating that the holder of the Verendrye plate had agreed to accept $500 for it. The state senate had passed a bill to purchase the plate, but it was defeated in the House of Representatives. Members were asked to donate money to purchase the plate. Through donations and funds available to the Department of History, the plate was purchased in 1916. Adjusted for inflation, $500 in 1915 was equal to about $12,437 in 2019.
“We had come against a situation where we had to act to keep the relic within the state,” Robinson stated in a thank-you letter to a donor.
In 1916 and 1917, attorneys representing Hattie wrote Robinson requesting that the tablet be returned to Hattie as she discovered the plate, or pay her $500 if the state desired to keep custody of it. Hattie received $200.
The state retained ownership of the plate, and it is displayed in the museum of the South Dakota State Historical Society at the Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre. The site where the plate was found in Fort Pierre is a National Historic Landmark that people can visit and learn about the important plate.
This moment in South Dakota history is provided by the South Dakota Historical Society Foundation, the nonprofit fundraising partner of the South Dakota State Historical Society at the Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre. Find us on the web at www.sdhsf.org. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to submit a story idea.
Photo Note: The photo on the left is of George with the plate. The one on the right is of Leslie Stroup, Hattie and George.