TWO HUNDRED AND SEVENTY YEARS AGO, French explorers named Verendrye buried a lead plate on a hill. They were among the first white men to set foot in a land that would later be known as South Dakota.
One hundred years ago, Ethel Parish and two friends found the plate while playing on a sunny February day on a hill over Fort Pierre. Their discovery caused historians to rethink their accounts of white man’s arrival in this region. The plate captured the imaginations of South Dakotans then, and it has remained one of the state’s most treasured museum pieces ever since.
When we visited her in 1989, Ethel Parish Hepner Roberts remembered the day well. She was enjoying an afternoon outdoors with Harriet “Hattie” Foster and George O’Reilly. “It was a Sunday and it was nice and warm, just a little snow,” she recalled. “Hattie happened to notice something sticking out of the ground. She kicked it with her toe but it wouldn’t budge.”
Their curiosity piqued, the youths dug until they unearthed a flat, rectangular plate. “George scraped off the gumbo with his knife and we saw the writing on it. If we had studied our history, we should have probably known what it was. But we just threw it down and went on playing.”
The three agreed that George would try to sell it for scrap at the local print shop, where lead was always in demand for the hungry letterpress. Fortunately, on his way home that Sunday evening, he crossed paths with two state legislators, Elmer Anderson of Willow Lake and George White of Kennebec. George told them about the unusual plate and together they returned to the hill and brought the mysterious piece to town.
Doane Robinson, superintendent of the State Historical Society, was promptly notified. Mr. Robinson, a noted historian and researcher, had studied and written of the La Verendrye expedition. Almost immediately, he recognized the origin of the dirty tablet.
“On Monday, some men came to our schoolhouse and took us to the Sylvan Hotel in Pierre, where they questioned us about what we found and how we happened to find it,” said Mrs. Roberts. She did not recall who asked the questions, but one of the men was surely the inquisitive Mr. Robinson.
Historians had long disputed the route of the famous La Verendryes. Some claimed the explorers never came as far south as present-day South Dakota, but Mr. Robinson argued that they had. Of course, he felt his version of the Verendrye route was proved by the physical evidence of the plate, which was mentioned in a journal kept during the expedition.
The journal entry states, “I placed on an eminence near the fort (their camp) a tablet of lead, with the arms and inscription of the king and a pyramid of stones for Monsieur Le General; I said to the savages, who did not know of the tablet of lead I had placed in the earth, that I was placing these stones as a memorial of those who had come to their country.”
As news of the schoolchildren’s discovery was publicized in 1913, it rekindled interest in the dramatic events that led to the settling of the West. Since the plate identified a major landmark of the Verendrye travels, historians reopened their files on the exploration. Still, controversy continued. Some said, for example, that the plate may have been discovered in the 18th or 19th century by Indians and moved to the Fort Pierre hilltop.
Mr. Robinson minced no words in responding to that theory. He wrote, "To suggest that this plate might have been planted at a distant point, recovered by Indians and carried to the mouth of the Bad River (at Fort Pierre) there to be fortuitously dropped upon this eminence (Verendrye Hill) precisely complying with the conditions of the record is a refinement of criticism approaching absurdity."