John Cushman Abbott Exhibit Supplement

J. N. Nicollet
J. N. Nicollet (1)

iv. Report intended to illustrate a map ...

Report intended to illustrate a map of the hydrographical basin of the upper Mississippi River.

By J. N. Nicollet.
Washington: Blair and Rives, printers, 1843.
Senate document no. 237.

170 pages, [1] folded leaf of plates, map (engraving), 24 cm -- Map is a black-and-white engraving at a scale of 1:1,200,000. -- Brown leather spine and cornerpieces with marbled boards and endpapers, with gilt on spine and blue bookmark ribbon. -- Library catalog record.

Click here for the entire book.

To look at a prairie up or down; to ascend one of its undulations; to reach a small plateau, ... moving from wave to wave over alternate swells and depressions; and, finally, to reach the vast interminable low prairie that extends itself in front,-- be it for hours, days, or weeks, one never tires; ... In the summer season, especially, everything upon the prairies is cheerful, graceful, and animated. The Indians, with herds of deer, antelope, and buffalo, give life and motion to them. ... I pity the man whose soul could remain unmoved under such a scene of excitement. (2)

Joseph Nicolas Nicollet grew up in a family of modest means in the Alpine region of France. He tutored his peers in mathematics and played the violin. He eventually became a respected mathematician and astronomer in Paris. He worked at the Paris Observatory and discovered a comet when he was 35 years old. But by the time he was 45, things had changed. Friction with the director at the observatory, political turbulence after the 1830 revolution, and stock market losses impelled him to immigrate to the United States in 1831.

The refined and urbane Nicollet cultivated professional contacts in Washington, including Chief of Army Engineers Charles Gratiot and Henry Chouteau, both of French descent and both from St. Louis. The wealthy Chouteau family had a fur trading company in St. Louis. In 1836 the Chouteaus, who had helped with Duke Paul's explorations thirteen years previously, financed Nicollet's first expedition to survey the sources of the Mississippi River. Nicollet's second expedition, in 1838, was an appointment with the Corps of Topographical Engineers. Nicollet explored the regions adjacent to the St. Peter's River (now known as the Minnesota River), assisted by the young Lieutenant John C. Frémont. (By the time Nicollet's map and report were published, Frémont had led an expedition of his own exploring the West. He would go on to lead additional expeditions and continue what would become a controversial military career.)

In 1839, Nicollet embarked on his last expedition, travelling up the Missouri River to Fort Pierre and then across South Dakota to Fort Snelling in Minnesota, to define the Mississippi River basin. The map below is the result. Constructed using surveys and astronomical observations, it corrected serious misconceptions about the inclination of the Missouri River above Council Bluff and the positions of Devil's Lake and the Crow Wing River. It also includes a section titled "Sketch of the Early History of St. Louis," one of the first histories written for the city. (3) Nicollet's report includes technical geological observations as well as tales of the expedition. The report was returned to him for revisions, but he he had been suffering for some time from an unspecific illness and died before he could revise it.

---Written by Mary Z. Rose

"Hydrographical Basin of the Upper Mississippi River"
from Report Intended to Illustrate a Map of the Hydrographical Basin of the Upper Mississippi River.
Based on Nicollet's expeditions in 1836, 1838, and 1839.
Click image to enlarge. Click here for the entire book.

Footnotes to exhibition text:

1. This image of Nicollet is published in Collections of the Minnesota Historical Society. 7 (1893). Page 155.

2. See page 55. Click here to access the entire book. Page number refers to the page of the pdf file, not the page number printed in the book.

3. See pages 78-95. Click here to access the entire book. Nicollet used Auguste Chouteau's papers as a source for this history. Page numbers refer to the pages of the pdf file, not the page numbers printed in the book.

References consulted for exhibition text:

Bray, Martha Coleman. "Joseph Nicolas Nicollet, Geologist." American Philosophical Society. 114.1 (1970): 37-59. Online access is restricted to SIUE users.

Bray, Martha Coleman. Joseph Nicolas Nicollet and His Map. Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1980. (Library catalog record.)

"Joseph Nicolas Nicollet." Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Online access is restricted to SIUE users.

Nash, Gerald D. "Nicollet, Joseph Nicolas." American National Biography. Eds. John A. Garraty, Mark C. Carnes. Vol. 16. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. (Library catalog record.)