Joseph Nicollet

Portrait of Joseph Nicollet
Joseph Nicollet

Public Domain

Quick Facts

He accurately mapped an area more than half the size of Europe and visited the pipestone quarries during his travels, documenting the experience.
Place of Birth:
Cluses, Savoy, France
Date of Birth:
July 24, 1786
Place of Death:
Washington D.C.
Date of Death:
September 11, 1843
Place of Burial:
Washington D.C.
Cemetery Name:
Congressional Cemetery

". . . a prodigious quantity of blood-red stone . . . mixed with the fragments of the old red sandstone that are sliding from the hill, gives to the prairie an extraordinary aspect almost impossible to describe." -Joseph Nicollet, July 5th 1838 journal entry

Born in 1786 in France, Joseph Nicollet excelled in astronomy, mathematics, and geography. He found employment at the Paris Observatory and built a strong reputation for his expertise. However, the economic and political unrest of 1830s France convinced him to try to make a name for himself in the United States instead.   

Once in America, Nicollet was determined to embark on a scientific expedition to accurately map the area surrounding the upper Mississippi River. He secured financial support from the wealthy Chouteau family in St. Louis and went on to lead three expeditions between 1836 and 1839. In 1836-1837, he went up the Mississippi to Lake Itasca and then along the St. Croix River. Next in 1838, he traveled from Fort Snelling to the Pipestone Quarries, where he documented Indians quarrying pipestone.

On July 1st, he wrote of camping near American Indian families on their way to the quarries, and that "It is at this time that the nations of the Missouri make their pilgrimage to the red stone, and were it not for the fear of smallpox, we would probably already have encountered many of their bands." He also noted that the pipestone had typically been exposed at the surface, but by the time of his writing in 1838, ". . . the Indians have regretted that the red stone is exhausted at all the places where it can be extracted without difficulty. To reach it now, it is necessary to remove a layer of old red sandstone [Sioux quartzite] 4 1/2 feet thick."

While at the quarries, he and members of his expedition (John C. Fremont, Joseph Renville Jr., and Joseph LaFromboise) carved their names into a rock near the top of the falls. Twenty years later, that same rock would be used as the center marker inside the 1-square mile boundary of Pipestone Reservation. 

Finally in 1839, Nicollet led an expedition across the breadth of land between the Missouri and upper Mississippi rivers. His 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.

**All quotes from Joseph N. Nicollet on the Plains and Prairies: The Expeditions of 1838-39 with Journals, Letters, and Notes on the Dakota Indians, Translated from the French and edited by Edmund C. Bray and Martha Coleman Bray.


Last updated: December 16, 2018