Joseph Nicollet – The Careful Mapmaker

Once upon a time, there was a man named Joseph who liked to make maps. Joseph was born and educated in France. He was a talented young man who was good at math and science. When he finished his schooling, he became an astronomer in Paris. Joseph’s life was a fine one, full of prestige and friends.

All did not remain well, however. Joseph tried using mathematical probability to play the stock market. This cost him and his friends a lot of money. Joseph’s friends shunned him. With his life in ruins, he decided to move to a new land for a fresh start. This land was the United States of America and he arrived on its shores in 1832.

Joseph needed employment. As an astronomer, he thought he could get work with the government, so he paid a visit to Washington, D.C. There he made contact with officials who wanted maps and surveys of America’s little-known lands. Using his astronomical and scientific background, Joseph could become a mapmaker. But with a land the size of America, what area should he map? He decided to make a map of the Mississippi River valley. The government wasn’t much help to Joseph. With no money or authorization, he was sent on his way with a letter of introduction.

Undaunted, Joseph studied the notes and maps made by previous explorers. While he was unable to get notes from Lt. Zebulon Pike’s 1805-06 expedition up the Mississippi River, he did have access to information on Gov. Lewis Cass’ 1820 expedition, as well as Lt. James Allen’s maps made on Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s 1832 expedition.

Joseph set out to survey the Mississippi River in December 1832. Traveling lightly, he made his home with whoever would take him in. Throughout his journey, Joseph used various instruments, such as a sextant, a chronometer, and a barometer, to map his location on the earth. The accuracy of his map depended upon his astronomical readings.

Joseph wandered the southern regions of the Mississippi River valley for years. The life of the mapmaker was not an easy one. Joseph was frequently ill due to his weak constitution and exposure to the elements. He was nothing if not determined and, after studying the southern portion of the river, he turned his attention to the location of the source of the river.

In the summer of 1836, he arrived at Fort Snelling, where he was taken in by Indian Agent Lawrence Taliaferro’s family. Taliaferro gave Joseph all the supplies he needed for his visit to the source of the river.

As Joseph traveled north on the river with a few companions, he continued making notes on his geographical position and drawing the landscape. He also met with Indian inhabitants and carefully recorded their names for geographical features. When he reached Lake Itasca at the end of August 1836, he spent several days investigating this source of the great Mississippi River. He then made the return trip, which brought him back to Fort Snelling at the end of September of that year. Joseph spent the winter at the fort creating his map of the Upper Mississippi River valley. Mrs. Elizabeth Taliaferro was particularly kind to Joseph during his stay, making him a special porridge to ease his upset stomach.

Within the next seven years, Joseph’s fortunes improved somewhat. The government was impressed with his map and paid him for it. He was also appointed to lead an expedition by the Bureau of Topical Engineers. Eventually, Joseph wound up back in Washington, D.C., where he compiled his information. With the assistance of John C. Fremont, Joseph created a version of his map for engraving called the “Hydrographical Basin of the Upper Mississippi River from Astronomical and Barometrical Observations, Surveys and Information”. This map was the most accurate and complete map made to date of the Upper Mississippi River valley. It corrected Lt. Zebulon Pike’s map and introduced map-making procedures that continue to the current day.

Joseph, the careful mapmaker, is none other than Joseph N. Nicollet. He died on July 17, 1843 at 57 years of age. He never completely recovered from the ruined reputation he had earned in France, but, through his map, he gained a prestige far greater.

By Mary Warner
Copyright 2004, Morrison County Historical Society

Article sources: The Journals of Joseph N. Nicollet, translated by Andre Fertey, edited by Martha Coleman Bray, 1970, Minnesota Historical Society.

David Rumsey Map Collection website at http://www.davidrumsey.com/maps1840.html.

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