Joseph N. Nicollet
1786 - 1843
By Martha Coleman Bray
author of "Joseph N. Nicollet and His Map"
Joseph Nicolas Nicollet was born on July 29, 1786, in the mountain village of Cluses in the alpine province of Savoy, France. His family was well established but had lost much when the French Revolutionary troops invaded Savoy in 1792. Young Joseph, described as having ''lively eyes," was a promising student whose gift for mathematics earned him a scholarship at the Jesuit college in Chambery. During the era of Napoleon, Nicollet was appointed professor and astronomer at the Royal Observatory in Paris where he soon made his reputation both in astronomy and what was then called ''physical geography." He discovered a comet and was involved not only in mapping, but in all the studies of the planet earth.
His promising career, however, was cruelly blocked by the turbulent politics of France before the revolution of 1830 and by another revolution in science - the introduction of the new laboratory science of physics which would dominate the next century. In 1832, disappointed by the loss of honors he deserved and hurt by financial reverses beyond his control (a sadness of which he never spoke of again), he sailed, alone and penniless, from the port of Brest for the United States where his talents and knowledge were needed. He came with the bold, but unformed, plan of mapping the great valley of the Mississippi River.
Although thirty years had passed since Lewis and Clark had reached the Pacific Ocean, the vast country beyond the Mississippi was still waiting to be mapped. The coastal waters had not been surveyed and even the location of Washington, D.C. had not yet been accurately determined.
When Nicollet arrived in Washington, he was 46 year- old. Far from the stereotype of a frontier explorer, he was slightly built, a lively and sociable man, fond of music and a welcome guest wherever he went. Although he had no money, his reputation brought him help from many scientists, who, like himself, had come to the New World to seek a challenge and a future denied to them in the old.
Because of cholera on the steam boats, he could not reach St. Louis. The next four years were spent traveling from Baltimore to New Orleans, where he was received by hospitable French citizens who had fled the recent slave uprising in present-day Haiti. These years were an integral part of his work on the plains and prairies and an interesting chapter of American history, but now we must follow him at last to St. Louis, the ''Queen City'' of the West.
In St. Louis, the "Queen City" of the West, he gained the support for his plan from the American Fur Company and set off, finally, up the big river to Fort Snelling in Minnesota. The fort's commandant, Major Taliaferro, became his friend but was persuaded, it seems, by his wife to set this determined Frenchman on his way to the headwaters of the Mississippi River.
On July 29, 1836, he set out in a canoe, accompanied only by an Ojibway chief named Chagobay, his nine-year-old son and a half-French guide named Brunia. While making difficult computations at night, he wrote with poetic feeling and often humor of his adventures and his fondness for the Ojibway families. His enduring friendship with Chagobay marked the beginning of his unique rapport with Native Americans.
He spent the winter at Fort Snelling where, through Chagobay, he was able to observe and record ceremonies to which no other white man had been admitted. He completed his map which corrected a very serious error made by Zebulon Pike in 1805. That error placed the mouth of the Crow Wing River too far to the west, making all western maps inaccurate. Thus, on his return to Washington, he was appointed to lead the newly formed Corps of Topographical Engineers in an expedition to map the land between the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. All western maps would depend on this.
Nicollet was offered a military escort for this expedition, but he refused, accepting only 23-year-old John Charles Fremont
, later of Rocky Mountain fame, as his assistant. The party set out on July 9, 1838, from Traverse des Sioux escorted by Joseph Renville, Jr. This was significant as Nicollet's whole enterprise depended upon the hospitality of the senior Renville, who might dictate its success or failure from his trading post at Lac qui Parle. Many descendants of Renville still live in the land around the Nicollet Tower. The guide was Joseph LaFromboise, a half French, half Native American agent for the American Fur Company. On the Fourth of July, Nicollet and his party carved their initials on a rock at the Pipestone Quarry, now a national park. Here he pursued his interest in Native myths by listening to ''the old ones”.
On July 11, 1839, Nicollet and Fremont set out on a second expedition from Fort Pierre (South Dakota) to Devils Lake (North Dakota) and back along the Coteau des Prairies to the spot very near where the Nicollet Tower stands today. One of the murals on the wall of the Interpretive Center depicts a significant meeting between Nicollet and the chief of the Yanktons, Wanatan. The guide of this expedition was Louison Freniere, who also has many descendants still living in this area.
On September 11, 1839, Nicollet left the prairies with regret. Already an ill man, he died before his report to the Senate was published in 1843. His interest in the watersheds of this district was far ahead of his time and his map was among the first in the world to depict by hachuring the heights of land, measured painstakingly with the barometer. His map is also our only source for many of the original Native American placenames we cherish today. This tower was built with the cooperation of the Dakota people.
Joseph N. Nicollet Tower and Interpretive Center
A book about 19th-century explorer Joseph N. Nicollet, published in 1976 by the Minnesota Historical Society Press, sparked a dream that was fulfilled Oct.5, 1991, with the dedication of the Nicollet Tower and adjacent interpretive center on the Coteau des Prairies, near Sisseton.
Harold L. Torness, a banker and lifelong resident of the northeastern South Dakota town of Sisseton, was so fascinated by the book Joseph N. Nicollet on the Plains and Prairies: The Expeditions of 1838-39 with Journals, Letters, and Notes on the Dakota Indians that he spearheaded a $335-thousand fund-raising campaign to build a monument to the explorer. In a breathtaking view from the top of the tower, visitors can see the states of South Dakota, North Dakota, and Minnesota, six counties, 11 communities and the Continental Divide. An adjacent 2,400-square-foot interpretive center has displays and classroom space.
In the 1960's and '70's Martha C. Bray and Edmund C. Bray of St. Paul, MN translated and edited the detailed journals of Nicollet, which were written in French. In 1976, the Minnesota Historical Society Press published their book Joseph N. Nicollet on the Plains and Prairies.
Upon readingthe book, Torness became captivated by the man who mapped and named the regions he knew so well. Torness was particularly struck that Nicollet referred to the Coteau des Prairies hills area as the highlight of his exploration and proclaimed the valley as viewed from the hills: ''magnificent and indescribably beautiful.”
Alan Woolworth, a Minnesota Historical Society research fellow and Indian history scholar, advised Torness on the project. ''I’m just amazed with the speed at which this moved ahead and how all the community groups that shared an interest in it really pulled together,'' he said during an interview. ''This project became a focal point for Indians and whites to work together and continue to do so. In addition to honoring Nicollet's work and interpreting Indian history, the tower provides a tremendous view of the Coteau des Prairies.''
In the early 1840s, Nicollet published the first accurate map of the U.S. interior, which became the basis for all subsequent maps of this area until the era of modern surveys. Nicollet named many of the places he identified on the map with the names used by Dakota Indians in recognition of their invaluable assistance during the explorations.
''Nicollet had an overwhelming human appeal to him, and he had a great empathy for the Indian and their culture,” Woolworth said. ''He had a great interest in Indian place names and in preserving them on his map. In 1964, Woolworth found the original engraved copper plates for the 1843 version of Nicollet's famous map at the Lakes Survey in Detroit, Mich. The Minnesota Historical Society Press then published the map, titled Hydrographical Basin of the Upper Mississippi River.
With the help of Andre Fertey, who translated Nicollet's 1836-37 journals, Martha Bray edited The Journals of Joseph N. Nicollet: A Scientist on the Mississippi Headwaters With Notes on Indian Life, 1836-37 Published in 1970 by the Minnesota Historical Society Press.
We invite you to see the Nicollet Tower and Interpretive Center which contains the Great Nicollet Map, 10 murals by John S. Wilson, and the film “Dakota Encounters”. From the tower you can see the spectacular view of the Continental Divide, the Coteau des Prairies and the ancient glacial valley.