The Men of Nicollet Rock

3 Portraits of men
Clockwise from the top: Joseph Nicollet, Joseph Renville, John C. Fremont (no images of Charles A. Geyer, Joseph LaFramboise, and J. Eugene Flandin)

NPS/Public Domain

In 1838, Joseph Nicollet brought his mapping expedition to the pipestone quarries. A few of the men carved their initials into one of the rocks. Below are snapshots of who each of these men were.

Joseph Nicollet (1786-1843)
Born in 1786 in France, Joseph Nicollet excelled in astronomy, mathematics, and geography. Economic and political unrest in the 1830s convinced him to try to make a name for himself in the United States instead.

Between 1836 and 1839, Nicollet led three scientific expeditions to accurately map the area surrounding the upper Mississippi River. In 1838, he traveled from Fort Snelling to the Pipestone Quarries, where he met Indigenous people quarrying pipestone.

While at the quarries, he and members of his expedition (John C. Fremont, Charles Geyer, Joseph Renville Jr., J. Eugene Flandin, and Joseph LaFramboise) carved their names into a rock near the top of the Winnewissa Falls. Twenty years later, that same rock was used as the center marker inside of the 1-square mile boundary of Pipestone Reservation. The rock and the inscriptions of their initials can still be seen today on the Circle Trail.

Nicollet’s journeys resulted in the influential book, Map of the Hydrographical Basin of the Upper Mississippi, which was a remarkably accurate record of an area more than half the size of Europe. His journals tell us that he learned much from the inhabitants of this region, particularly the Dakota and Ojibwe people. Unlike other maps created at the time, Nicollet's maps recorded Indigenous place names of locations throughout the region.

Joseph Nicollet died in 1843 in Washington D.C. after a long battle with illness. His tombstone reads "He will triumph who understands how to conciliate and combine with the greatest skill the benefits of the past and the demands of the future."
John C. Fremont (1813-1890)

Fremont was born in 1813 in Georgia with a mind for the sciences and taught math in the Navy before surveying for the railroads. Surveying lit a fire in Fremont to become an explorer.

Around this time, Joseph Nicollet was about to lead a mapping expedition between the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. He needed someone to run the daily routines of the expedition and offered the 25-year-old Fremont $4 a day to take on the task. During this pivotal trip, Fremont learned crucial skills from Nicollet in cartography and pathfinding that served him his entire life.

In reference to carving his initials in the rock, Fremont wrote "This was a famous place of the country, and nearly all of us, as is the custom in famous places the world over, carved our names in the stone." He also made the jump onto Leaping Rock and placed an American Flag into the cracks where warriors traditionally placed arrows.

Fremont went on to make a name for himself at a dizzying pace, leading five expeditions into the American West - one with Kit Carson - using skills learned from Nicollet and earned the name 'The Pathfinder'. He also served as a Civil War general, senator, governor for two states, and presidential candidate.
Charles A. Geyer (1809-1853)

Charles ('Karl') Andreas Geyer was born in 1809 in Germany. As a teenager, he served as an apprentice-gardener and in his early 20's honed his skills as an assistant in Dresden's botanical gardens.

When Joseph Nicollet was assembling the team for his famous expeditions, he asked Geyer to join them and paid the talented botanist out of his own pocket. Geyer participated in the 1838 and 1839 expeditions, collecting over 400 plants. That was just the beginning of his adventures.

Geyer, sometimes joining other explorers and botanists, traveled to Illinois, Missouri, the Iowa Territory, Nebraska, Wyoming, and the Oregon Territory. He collected over 10,000 specimens throughout his career that are currently cared for by the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in the United Kingdom.

Upon returning to Germany, Geyer opened his own plant nursery in Meissen and now has a variety of plant species named after him.
Joseph LaFramboise (1805-1856)

Joseph LaFramboise was born in 1805 on Michigan's Mackinac Island to Louis Joseph LaFramboise (a French fur trader) and Marguerite-Magdelaine Marcot LaFramboise (granddaughter of Odawa Chief Kewinaquot). He followed his parents into fur trading on Dakota lands in Minnesota and married at least one - possibly two - of Sisseton Dakota Chief Sleepy Eye's daughters (notably Magdeleine "Sleepy Eyes").

LaFramboise served as an interpreter for the Dakota at two treaty signings with the U.S. government. He also knew the pipestone quarries well and hosted the artist George Catlin for 2 days on his expedition through the prairies. Catlin referred to LaFramboise as a "good friend" and "jolly companionable man" who had a "great relish for songs and stories, of which he gives us many."

In 1838, Joseph Nicollet employed LaFramboise as a guide and interpreter for his expedition. Nicollet wrote that at the pipestone quarries, LaFramboise was "tranquilly engraving his name" on a rock when a man from the Wahpekute Tribe approached him. It turned out the two men knew each other and the Wahpekute man was there with three other families to quarry. The three families camped with the expedition during their stay, sharing stories and quarrying together.

When LaFramboise's Sisseton wife died, he remarried Jane Dickson (Ojibwe and Mdewakanton) and established the Little Rock Trading Post. It ended up being near Fort Ridgely and the town of New Ulm, MN, providing lucrative trade opportunities. When LaFramboise died in 1856, he was the largest land owner in Nicollet County. He was buried just outside of his trading post.
Joseph Renville, Jr. (1779-1846)

Joseph Renville, Jr. was born in 1799 near present-day St. Paul, Minnesota. His father was a French fur trader (Joseph Renville or Rainville, Sr.) and his mother (Miniyehe) was a member of the Kaposia band of Mdewakanton Dakota. The young Renville spent his first 10 years with the Dakota people before his father sent him to be educated by a Catholic priest. Following the death of his father 6 years later, Renville returned to the Dakota people.

Renville's life was an adventurous one. He married into the family of Dakota leader Little Crow (Tonkanne "Marie” Renville) and had numerous children, became a fur trader, worked as a guide for famous explorers ike Zebulon Pike, led Dakota warriors as an officer for the British in the War of 1812, and created the Columbia Fur Company when the war ended (which he later sold to the American Fur Company).

In Lac qui Parle, Minnesota, Renville established a trading post where he lived with his growing family and a band of Dakota warriors. He became renowned throughout the region for his extraordinary hospitality and the protection he provided for travelers passing through.

In 1838, Renville and his wife accompanied Nicollet on his mapping expedition. Renville generously shared knowledge of Dakota customs and plant uses and provided his family's personal wagon along with one of his best horses to help the expedition. It was during this trip that he carved his initials into the quartzite at the quarries with the other men.

Renville befriended several missionaries at Lac qui Parle, notably Thomas Williamson and Stephen Riggs along with Samuel and Gideon Pond. These men were behind the creation of the Dakota alphabet in 1834. Renville spent months helping them translate the Bible and several hymns into Dakota for the first time. In 1846, Joseph Renville, Jr. died from influenza.
J. Eugene Flandin (~1821-unknown)

J. Eugene Flandin was in his late teens when he accompanied the 1838 Nicollet expedition. The French consul in New York requested that Nicollet let Flandin join the team as a favor. As thanks, the Flandin family sent along an 18-month-old hunting dog and luxury food items, such as 10 lbs. of chocolate. Flandin’s hard work impressed Nicollet and he seemed genuinely liked by the other men on the expedition.

John C. Fremont referred to him as a “pleasant” traveling companion. Nicollet wrote that “Flandin…still so young, shows the most extraordinary and the quickest faculty that I have ever seen for astronomical calculations, matters so important for us who will have so many astronomical results to present and publish as the basis of our geographical work.”

Flandin had planned to go on Nicollet’s 1839 trip as well, but only made it as far as St. Louis. He apparently jumped at a chance to go to Europe with the Scottish explorer William Drummond Stewart. By 1843, Flandin was back in the U.S. working with his father and providing supplies for John C. Fremont’s expeditions into the west, and even engineered the sale of Fremont’s estate in the 1850s.

Not much more is known about Flandin, but his presence on the expedition is a snapshot into a 19th century trend: using the “frontier” to redefine oneself. Perhaps more impressive than this is the fact that Flandin seems to have succeeded in earning the respect of rough laborers and fur traders as well as elite scientists and gentlemen. It's unfortunate to not have more information about an individual so universally liked in trying circumstances.

Pipestone National Monument

Last updated: June 11, 2020