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Hydrographical Basin of the Upper Mississippi River, 1843

Hydrographical Basin of the Upper Mississippi River, 1843

Joseph N. Nicollet's great cartographic work depicts the hydrographical basin of the upper Mississippi River. It is known as the "mother map" of Minnesota. It preserves a legacy of American Indian place names, stemming from the intense interest Nicollet in the linguistics and ethnography of the peoples with whom he came in contact.

Joseph N. Nicollet (1786-1843) arrived in the United States from France in 1832 with the intention of "contributing to the progressive increase of knowledge in the physical geography of North America." His emigration was probably also due in part to some unfortunate financial speculations, for his career in Europe had been one of distinction. He showed rare mathematical ability as a child, and by the age of nineteen he was teaching -- first Chambery, France and later in the College Louis-le-Grand. While still in his thirties he was decorated with the medal of the Legion of Honor. One of his mentors was the renowned astronomer and mathematician Pierre Simon Laplace. After moving to the United States, Nicollet devoted the rest of his life to the mapping of the Mississippi River valley.

Without official support, Nicollet began in 1832 a "scientific tour" through the South and the lower valley of the Mississippi, reaching St. Louis in 1835. In 1836-37, still at his own expense, he traveled up the Minnesota and St. Croix rivers, working with telescope, chronometer, and barometer to determine for the first time accurate longitudes, latitudes and altitudes. He wintered at Fort Snelling with Major Lawrence Taliaferro, longtime Indian agent at the post, and there he drew the first of the manuscript maps that became the foundation of the 1843 published map.

Late in 1837, possibly due to the influence of Taliaferro, the United States government indicated an interest in the geographical information that the Frenchman had assembled with painstaking care. Nicollet accepted an appointment to lead a government-sponsored expedition to complete the scientific mapping fo the Mississippi watershed on which he had already labored for six years. With John C. Fremont as his chief assistant, Nicollet traveled in 1838 westward from Fort Snelling to the Pipestone Quarry, through the Coteau des Prairies of present-day southwestern Minnesota and eastern South Dakota, and back down the Minnesota River to the fort. The following year he headed an expedition up the Missouri River to Fort Pierre (South Dakota) and overland across the James and Sheyenne rivers northward to Devils Lake in what is now North Dakota.

Nicollet returned to Washington, D.C., in 1840 to compile his Report Intended to Illustrate a Map of the Hydrographical Basin of the Upper Mississippi River and to complete the thousands of calculations that enable him to create its accompanying map. In 1841, the U.S. Senate authorized the printing of a large-scale version of his map, which was published in 1842. To Nicollet's dismay, however, this version did not include the hachuring denoting barometrically determined land heights. Some of the was restored in the reduced-size, 1843 version of the map here reproduced. The clear identification of the Coteau des Prairies in both versions of the invaluable map was a major addition to North American geography.

Little more than a decade after his death, the map was already recognized by Lt. Gouverneur K. Warren of the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers as "one of the greatest contributions ever made to American geography." Notable for accuracy, it served as the basis for subsequent maps of the Midwest until the era of modern surveys, fully justifying Nicollet's hope that it would expand geographic knowledge.

For more information, see Joseph N. Nicollet, The Journals of Joseph N. Nicollet: A Scientist on the Mississippi Headwaters with Notes on Indian Life, 1836-1837 (MHS, 1970)and Joseph N. Nicollet on the Plains and Prairies: The Expeditions of 1838039 with Journals, Letters and Notes on the Dakota Indians (MHS Press, 1976).

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