When you hold a picnic and invite the neighbors, you want to serve food the guests like. That didn’t go so well for the first recorded picnic in the region.
The year is 1939 and the United States government ordered a group of men to explore and map a segment of the territory between the Mississippi River and the Missouri River. Specifically, the party started from Fort Pierre in present-day South Dakota and then travel east to the present-day James River, called the Riviere Aux Jacques back then. The men followed the Jacques north before crossing over to the Sheyenne River and following it north to Devils Lake, the object of the expedition.
The expedition included John C. Fremont and Joseph Nicollet as leaders and William Dixon and Louison Freniere as guides. There was also a botanist to record the plants discovered along the way and a few men mostly hired to pack and move the equipment.
In mid-July, the expedition reached Bone Hill Creek, a tributary of the James River in northern LaMoure County in the vicinity of Adrian. From there, they traveled east with the intention of following the Sheyenne River north.
But that area was already occupied. A native camp of 300 lodges was hunting buffalo to provide provisions for the winter. The leaders of the expedition felt it would have been dangerous to get in the middle of the Natives' hunt so they made contact with the leaders of the hunt who invited them to camp with them.
Freniere said the expedition decided to treat their hosts to a meal. They cooked up “pot-au-feu,” a French beef stew that translates to “pot on the fire.” It is typically served at the Christmas holiday in France.
The travelers on the Plains of the Dakotas substituted “fat buffalo meat and rice” for the more traditional beef and root vegetables. They also added a little Swiss cheese the expedition had along.
Not having ever encountered cheese before, the Native leaders felt they were being poisoned.
Freniere said the expedition did convince the Natives that they weren’t being poisoned and added molasses and water to the pot-au-feu allowing the meal to end in “good humor.”
The next day, the Natives continued their buffalo hunt with great success and the white explorers noted “feasting and dancing which was prolonged through the night.”
Through the summer, the expedition explored the Devils Lake area and then traveled east to the Red River before turning south.
The map created by the expedition includes many references to places with names from that period. It is fortunate they didn’t name any hill or creek Swiss cheese in response to the problems it created when served to the Native leaders.
Author Keith Norman can be reached at www.KeithNormanBooks.com