Joseph Nicollet bigraphy, stories - French geographer

Joseph Nicollet : biography

July 24, 1786 - September 11, 1843

Joseph Nicolas Nicollet (July 24, 1786 – September 11, 1843), also known as Jean-Nicolas Nicollet, was a French geographer, astronomer, and mathematician known for mapping the Upper Mississippi River basin during the 1830s. Nicollet led three expeditions in the region between the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, primarily in Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota.

Before emigrating to the United States, Nicollet was a professor of mathematics at Collège Louis-le-Grand, and a professor and astronomer at the Paris Observatory with Pierre-Simon Laplace. Political and academic changes in France led Nicollet to travel to the United States to do work that would bolster his reputation among academics in Europe.

Nicollet's maps were among the most accurate of the time, correcting errors made by Zebulon Pike, and they provided the basis for all subsequent maps of the American interior. They were also among the first to depict elevation by hachuring and the only maps to use regional Native American placenames. Nicollet's Map of the Hydrographical Basin of the Upper Mississippi was published in 1843, following his death. Nicollet Tower, located in Sisseton, South Dakota is a monument to Nicollet and his work and was constructed in 1991.

Emigration to the United States

Nicollet encountered financial and professional difficulties that were the result of political turbulence in France following the 1830 Revolution as well as the rising dominance of physics as a laboratory science. Penniless, he emigrated to the United States in 1832, sailing from the port of Brest. Nicollet hoped to boost his reputation among European academics through his work in the United States. He intended to make a "scientific tour" of the country and had a goal of using his expertise to accurately map the Mississippi River Valley. He arrived in Washington, D.C., where he met with scientists and government officials, discussing scientific surveys of the country. Nicollet traveled to New Orleans, from where he intended to proceed to St. Louis, Missouri, but due to a cholera outbreak, travel by steamboat was practically halted, and instead he spent the next three years traveling throughout the south, primarily between New Orleans and Baltimore. Nicollet finally arrived in St. Louis in 1835.

Mapping the Mississippi

Upon his arrival in St. Louis, Nicollet gained support for his plan to map the Mississippi River from the American Fur Company and the wealthy Choteau family. From St. Louis, he took a boat up the river to Fort Snelling, Minnesota. Nicollet led three expeditions exploring the Upper Mississippi, mostly in the area that is now Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.

First expedition

The first expedition took place in 1836–37 and was privately funded by American Fur and the Choteaus. Nicollet departed Fort Snelling by canoe on July 29, 1836, accompanied by Chagobay, an Ojibwe chief, his nine-year-old son, and a half-French guide named Brunia. Nicollet explored the Mississippi to its source of Lake Itasca and the nearby Mississippi tributary, the St. Croix River. The results of this expedition corrected an error in Zebulon Pike's 1805 map, which placed the mouth of the Crow Wing River too far to the west, rendering all maps of this area inaccurate.

Second expedition

Upon his return to Washington, D.C. to report his findings, Nicollet was appointed to head the newly-formed Corps of Topographical Engineers and lead a War Department-funded expedition to map the area between the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers in order to correct the western maps affected by Pike's mistake. The expedition party set out on June 18, 1838 from Traverse des Sioux. The party was composed of John C. Frémont, who was appointed by the War Department to assist on the expedition in lieu of a military escort, Joseph Renville Jr., and Joseph LaFromboise, an agent for the American Fur Company who was half French, half Native American. On July 4, the expedition arrived at Pipestone Quarry, where the party members carved their initials on a rock. From there, the party proceeded along the Minnesota and Blue Earth Rivers toward Spirit Lake, Iowa.

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