Joseph Nicollet's discovery


Joseph Nicollet rode in the middle of a trading canoe taking notes.

            Lost in tall reeds, his Ojibwe guides couldn’t find the channel of the Mississippi River south of Leech Lake.  Pushing over the reeds lifted the bow high into the air, eliciting “wild shrieks of joy,” the explorer noted.

            Chagobay stood in front with his ten-year-old son, Nankanbitauk, on his shoulders, singing to the river to reveal itself.

            They found the channel filled with yellow-hearted lilies in full bloom. Chagobay motioned them to lift their paddles, letting the current carry them along to protect the flowers.

            Chagobay and his son, Nicollet noted, enjoyed these “cheerful adventures” with an “innocent and astonishing delight that were enough to draw a man from the grave.”

            Their relationship intrigued him.  “An Indian and his son must be treated as one, so close is their relationship, the son copying the father and the father taking the boy always with him.”

            Joseph Nicollet mapped people as well as land.

            The French astronomer and mathematician made the first extensive map of the region between Lake Superior and the Missouri River.  He headed five expeditions between 1836 to 1839 along the Mississippi, St. Croix, and Minnesota Rivers, across the Cannon, Blue Earth and Des Moines Rivers, and the Coteau des Prairies plateau rising from the prairie flatlands east of the Missouri River.

            “Although he was a devout Catholic and a European, Nicollet didn’t try to convert or change the people he met.  Instead he respected them, participating in their ceremonies and tried to help whenever he could,” says Shawn Hoffman, who portrays Nicollet for the Minnesota History Center.

            “The government wanted to send 500 soldiers along to protect his expeditions from the savage Indians. Instead, Nicollet said, ‘Give me $500 in mirrors, beads, combs and sugar to make sugar water. Soldiers will only cause unrest; gifts will make friends.’” added Hoffman.

            Out of his five expeditions, Nicollet created one large map, complete with hachures to denote contours of the land, a supplemental report on the peoples he encountered and detailed scientific calculations. The federal government didn’t want the report or the data, but he said they had to take all three or nothing.

            “This is what makes Nicollet’s expedition so important. It’s the best real, insightful report we have on the native people of this region before white settlement, and his scientific data was invaluable,” concludes Hoffman.

            Nicollet’s first expedition was a private venture to map the Mississippi from Fort Snelling to the headwaters. Just minutes after leaving St. Anthony Falls on July 2, 1836, he encountered over 30 Dakota canoes hurrying home to Lake Calhoun. They told Nicollet’s guides the Ojibwe were chasing them down the river to revenge a murder. Rumors of murder and revenge would follow the expedition all summer, but they glided on unscathed.

            Besides an abundance of rivers and lakes, the 50-year-old Nicollet’s Mississippi journals report bogs and muskegs mixed with deciduous and evergreen forests, silent and deeply shaded. He said the “waters were clear and sweet to the taste.”

            “Chagobay has been overloading our canoe with gorgeous fish. It is odd that he should not miss a single one when spearing from a moving canoe,” wrote Nicollet.

            At a rapids near Little Falls, they came across a brilliant, fine, blue sand oozing out of the rocks.

            He reflected, “This simple circumstance brings with it the opportunity of reflecting upon the relative value attached by the human species to objects supplied by nature for its needs. The discovery of this sand causes me, the scientist, to reflect on the progress of the sciences and arts which are useful to society. William, the trader, the merchant, saw in it a veritable gold mine, and among the natives it awakened ideas of pleasure and vanity, inciting them to knead the sand, thus creating colors with which they daubed their faces, arms, and hair and smeared their foreheads, their clothing, and their canoes. Chagobay, in particular, drew on his cheeks a series of strokes equal to the number of illustrious deeds he had accomplished and decorated his chest with symbols of the medals of honor that had successively been granted to his ancestors and himself by the kings of France and England and the presidents of the United States.”

            Nicollet the scientist brought a sexton and a chronometer, ultimately making over 90,000 calculations for his map.

            While camping on Gull Lake, he ran through the woods to get a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis against the northern sky. He got winded and chilled; on the spot, his malaria flared up.  Trembling and convulsing, he had to be carried to his tent, where he considered canceling the expedition. Instead, he took a “minimum of treatment so that I could save time and continue the voyage.”

            A few nights later under clear skies near the mouth of the Rum River, he cut short taking his readings to listen to Chagobay give an astronomy lesson.  He pointed out the Four Cardinal Points, the Great Bear, Dragon, Eagle, and “the star that doesn’t move as the others do.”

            Once at Leech Lake, Nicollet rested, gathered his notes and learned more about the people. Chagobay allowed him to see the sacred Great Medicine Dances, which got him into trouble with the elders, but he argued that Nicollet and he were fellow savants.

            The trip to the headwaters was the most difficult for Nicollet. It was rainy, hot and humid. The Ojibwe always took the shortest route between two points, making for difficult portages. While the natives and the voyageurs trotted, the sickly scientist trailed behind carrying his sextant, barometer, chronometer, portfolio and thermometer, compass, artificial horizon, tape line, spy-glass, powder flask and shot bag, gun and umbrella in a basket. He refused to put bear grease on his face to protect against mosquitoes, instead covering his head with his cloak.           

            During morning prayers at Lake Itasca, Nicollet thought he heard angels calling to him only to learn they were actually wolves howling.

            Chief Flat Mouth was at the Boutwell Mission on Leech Lake when Nicollet returned. Flat Mouth had many grievances with the British and Americans and wanted Nicollet to tell the President the Ojibwe would prefer to have the French.

            Nicollet took notes.

             “We would prefer to have the French from France again. They who discovered this land and who were the first to be good to us. We prefer to have them back that they may prevent our young ones from extermination. As we look at you, we have the impression, we see all those who cared for our ancestors. Who lit for them a great fire. Do all that is in your power to send here the traders that wear a floppy hat and place their hands upon their hips. The Americans say they are going to help us but they leave us to the mercy of merchants,” said Flat Mouth.

            Nicollet returned to Fort Snelling to record his calculations and organize his notes. He did take a brief trip up the St. Croix River to Lake Superior and the St. Louis River in August of 1837.

            Original mapmakers name things. An avenue, a town, a lake, a river and even a tower has been named after Nicollet, but he took particular caution to find the original native names of places whenever possible.

            He wrote, “…it is of great interest to the history of geography to preserve the relationship of these names to retain their etymology and recall their origin.”

            Ironically, since he wrote those original Indian names in French, the state of Minnesota and the Dakotas have many French place names.


United States
44° 52' 0.9876" N, 93° 10' 59.2212" W


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