When Joseph Nicollet came to the United States from his native France in 1832, he arrived penniless and alone. His promising scientific career had been interrupted by turbulent French politics, and he needed a new start. He came up with a bold plan to map the Mississippi River Valley. Lewis and Clark had reached the Pacific Ocean thirty years earlier, but a vast expanse of land was still waiting to be mapped.
When Nicollet reached St. Louis, he found support for his plan from the American Fur Company. From there he traveled to Fort Snelling where he obtained a canoe and a guide. He set out for the headwaters of the Mississippi in 1836. He returned to Washington with maps that were much improved over earlier efforts. Based on his work, he was appointed the chief of the newly formed Corps of Topographical Engineers. He was sent out to map the land between the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. In 1838, the party set out from Minnesota, guided by John C. Fremont. On the Fourth of July, they carved their initials on a rock at the Pipestone Quarry.
The expedition moved on to Fort Pierre in what is now South Dakota. From there they traveled north. On this date in 1839, Nicollet’s survey party reached Devil’s Lake. They then traveled south along the Coteau des Prairies plateau to a location near the site of the present-day Nicollet Tower near Sisseton, South Dakota.
Nicollet and German botanist Charles Geyer made detailed drawings and notes on the plants, lakes, and rivers. He took great pains to learn about and record the cultures of the Ojibway and Dakota. He used many of their names for geographical features. His map is the source for many original Native place names.
As fall turned to winter in 1839, Nicollet’s health was failing. He regretfully left the prairies for the last time. He died in 1843, shortly before his report to the Senate was published.
His work was a great aid to the explorers who followed. Today, his journals and maps can be found at the Library of Congress, Smithsonian Archives, and National Archives.
Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher
“Joseph Nicolas Nicollet.” Joseph N. Nicollet Tower and Interpretive Center.
St. Olaf. "http://www.stolaf.edu/academics/nicollet/nicolletjournalintro.html" http://www.stolaf.edu/academics/nicollet/nicolletjournalintro.html Accessed 3 June, 2015.