Sunday, March 5, 2017

Joseph Nicollet

Judging by place names, Joseph Nicollet must have been a much more popular man than George William Featherstonhaugh. (Or maybe it was just the fact that it took sixteen letters to spell George's name while only taking seven to say it that proved unappealing.) I'm not sure if anyone in Minnesota attached George's name to anything, whereas Nicollet is the namesake for such pieces of geography as Nicollet County, Nicollet Mall, and Nicollet Island. His name was even attached to a ballpark, the long-time home of the old Minneapolis Millers, although probably the adjacent Nicollet Avenue was the main inspiration.

So, who was Joseph Nicollet and what did he do to inspire the geographers? First of all, Joseph Nicollet (1786–1843) is not to be confused with Jean Nicolet (~1598–1642), who however is worthy of merit for making the most exciting arrival into Wisconsin that has ever been attempted. Joseph Nicollet was a French scientist who'd made a name for himself in astronomy, geography, and mathematics by the time he arrived in the United States in 1832, fleeing the turmoil of the July Revolution. By this time he was pushing fifty, broke, and like most people had never led an expedition into unfamiliar territory. Despite these limitations, in 1836 (and again with the support of the American Fur Company) he set out on the first of three surveying expeditions into the Upper Mississippi River basin.

Nicollet proved to be a natural at the exploring business, not only producing truly outstanding maps, but also writing a very readable and informative book about his journeys: "Report intended to illustrate a map of the hydrographical basin of the upper Mississippi river" (1843). If you've got any interest in the early territorial history of Minnesota and the Dakota, particularly the tribes, Nicollet has to be on your reading list. As noted by Dave Simpkins of Minnesota Trails, the man for whom so many things have been named was determined to record native place names, many of which are still in use today.

A crop of Nicollet's map, focused on the confluences of the Mississippi, St. Croix, and St. Peter/Minisotah rivers. For the full map, see here.

Although his book was published in 1843 (unfortunately, the same year that he died), Nicollet's activities were right on the heels of Featherstonhaugh's. His first visit to Fort Snelling was in 1836, the year after Featherstonhaugh, and he reports meeting the same people, including Henry Sibley and Lawrence Taliaferro. His initial interest was visiting the source of the Mississippi River and taking formal geographic measurements, which he did over the late summer and fall. After returning, Nicollet spent the winter of 1836–1837 in the area of Fort Snelling and St. Peter (the old St. Peter, at the confluence), studying the Dakota and Ojibwe languages and visiting the various sites, including Minnehaha Falls, the caves, and Coldwater Spring (which he knew as "Baker's spring", Baker being Benjamin F. Baker), where he took the temperature of the water several times. Nicollet was not a geologist by training, but he provided competent descriptions of what we now know as the St. Peter and Platteville. More importantly for our purposes, he collected fossils and obtained the help of an expert for identification: Timothy Abbott Conrad (1803–1877), obscure today but one of the early leaders in American invertebrate paleontology. With Conrad's assistance, Nicollet was able to provide the first formal list of fossil species from the Platteville Formation of Minnesota, from the Falls of St. Anthony to St. Peter (p. 169). Unsurprisingly, the fauna is mostly composed of brachiopods and snails, with some nautiloids, crinoids, trace fossils ("Fucoides"), and corals for variety. I suspect that at least some of the corals are actually bryozoans, particularly Favorites lycoperdon, historically mixed up with the "gumdrop" bryozoan Prasopora and similar bryos.

From Nicollet (1843); a little short compared to today. Note the "Trenton" name, which would stick to the local rocks for decades.

Even though Conrad recognized that some of the fossils represented new species and appears to have had the opportunity to name them, he broke with his usual convention and did not name a single one of the species from the St. Anthony–St. Peter collection, which left the job to the Minnesota Geological Survey fifty years hence. (Not that I mind too much; working with Conrad's species comes with an elevated level of frustration. Not only was he working before the modern system of describing species and designating type specimens was codified, but the unfortunate man also had a terrible memory, was prone to misplacing material, and even described the same thing twice on more than one occasion.) It does leave a historical question lingering: what happened to the fossils Nicollet collected, which represent the first fossils collected from the metro area for scientific purposes?

Nicollet made two more expeditions, in 1838 and 1839. The 1838 expedition ties into a site previously discussed on the blog, Pipestone National Monument. Nicollet's party arrived in late June and spent several days at the quarry site. Traces of this visit remain at Nicollet Rock, where he and several other members of the party carved their names or initials. (Among the party was a young John C. Frémont, not yet "The Pathfinder", just someone who leaped onto the Leaping Rock and planted the American flag on the Fourth of July.)

So far we've seen William Keating and George William Featherstonhaugh, who only spent a short time in the Twin Cities area, and Joseph Nicollet, who was able to spend several months here, but they were winter months and geology was not his first concern. The next time we look back on history, we'll come to the first sustained geological explorations in the Twin Cities.


Nicollet, J. N. 1843. Report intended to illustrate a map of the hydrographical basin of the upper Mississippi river. Blair and Rives, Washington, D.C.

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