Joseph Nicholas Nicollet 1786-1843 (Wikipedia)  *Not to be confused with Jean Nicolet, the explorer who visited Green Bay 200 years before this.

By Leo

Joseph Nicollet* is a name familiar to many in the Upper Midwest.  The French-born geographer is remembered in numerous place names, particularly in Minnesota.  For followers of Chequamegon History, though, he is best known for his 1843 Map of the Hydrographical Basin of the Upper Mississippi.  The map remains very popular for its largely-accurate geography and its retention of original Ojibwe and French placenames for rivers, lakes and other land features.  I’ve always found it an attractive map, and use the Chequamegon portion of it to decorate the side panels of the blog.

So, one can imagine the excitement when Brian Finstad emailed and told me there was another version of the map, and that it was available online from St. Olaf College.  This version, covering the country between the St. Croix and Wisconsin rivers (what is now the northwestern half of Wisconsin) is handwritten and contains information and names that never made it onto the published map.  For those unfamiliar with Brian Finstad’s work, he is a long-time correspondent of Chequamegon History and has a keen and detailed understanding of the Gordon/Upper St. Croix region and the history of the St. Croix-La Pointe trail.

The manuscript is also differs from the published map in that the placement of lakes, rivers, and portages.  At first glance, to those of us used to Google and the modern highway system, to be less accurate in terms of actual fixed latitude and longitude.  Instead, it seems more reflective of how Wisconsin’s geography would have been perceived at the time–as chains of water routes and portages.  I need to look into it further, but my current understanding is that Nicollet did not travel extensively in Wisconsin.  Therefore, one can assume that he got most of this information from his hired Ojibwe and Metis guides and voyageurs.


Zhagobe (Shakopee, Chagobai, Little Six), a Snake River chief worked with Nicollet and may have been an informant for the map.  (Painting by Charles Bird King from James Otto Lewis portrait 1825 or 1826)

The handwritten map is challenging to read.  Parts of it are ripped and faded, and the labels are oriented in all directions, including upside-down.  Perhaps most difficult for me, as a monolingual English speaker, the map is in no fewer than four languages.  French predominates, but there is a great deal of Ojibwe (especially in place names) and some English in descriptions.  Near the mouth of the Chippewa River, there is another language, probably Dakota, but I don’t know Siouan languages well enough to say it is not Ho-Chunk.

After spending a few minutes with the map, I knew that the only way I would be able to engage with it fully would be to make it a project.  So, I set out to reproduce the map, as faithfully as possible to the original, but with more legible text oriented according to more-modern cartographic conventions.  Here is the result:


My hope is that the reproduction will make comparisons with the published map easier for scholars, or at the very least, provide a guide for working with the manuscript.  However, this is where I’ll need help from readers, especially those who are good with Ojibwe and French grammar.

Here are some of the challenges we’re up against:

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Familiarity of Locations

Being most familiar with the parts of Wisconsin within the Lake Superior basin, a map that focuses on the Mississippi watershed is not necessarily in my wheelhouse.  Unfortunately, that’s what this truly is a map.  Locations on the lakeshore are barely shown on the manuscript.  There is far better detail in Nicollet’s published map showing that he must have used different sources to fill in that section of his finished product.  However, because the Chequamegon area is the most ripped, faded, and difficult part to read on the entire map, familiarity was an asset.  In the snippet on the left, I am fairly confident that the ripped part under “Chagwamigon” should read Long Ile ou Lapoint or something very similar.  Whereas, the snippet on the right, showing the Eau Galle River area west of Eau Claire, has much clearer script, but I am far less confident in my transcription because I have not been able to locate any online references to Jolie Butte or Rhewash. Waga online.  So, if there are any French or Dakota speakers out there who live near the mouth of the Chippewa let me know if there is a place called “Pretty Mound” or something similar and if I got my letters correct.

Colloquial Nouns in Poor Handwriting 

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Readers of the blog know that I am a big fan of Google Translate.  Compared with the early days of online translation, it is amazing how close one can to reading text in an unfamiliar language these days.  No online translation is ever perfect, especially with grammar, but Google usually steers me in the right direction for nouns.  That said, there are some problems.  The French language, as translated by Google, is more or less the 20th-century version of what Nicollet was educated in.  However, neither of those is the French that was spoken in this area.  What European visitors called Patois and what Manitobans call Michif or Metis French is truly a language of its own and a product of the fur trade.  The “French” of 19th-century La Pointe contained a great deal of Ojibwe and numerous archaic words from colonial Quebec.  This can create challenges in translation, especially when the handwriting is ambiguous.  The snippet on the left, for example, appears to be the Poplar River in Douglas County.  However, the label doesn’t appear to say anything like peuplier or tremble (aspen).  I played around with “frondes” or considered other river names entirely, until I stumbled across the word liard.  Liard does not seem to have the meaning in modern French, but in colloquial Quebecois, it is regionally used to describe several different species of popple tree.  Riv. aux Soles (right), however, has proved much more difficult.  I initially saw the French name of the Totagatic as Riv. aux Lobes, but after some emails with Brian Finstad, Soles seems like the best guess.  But, what is a Sole?  Is it the sun?  The bottom of a foot?  A flounder?  The same fish name can often be applied to different species in different regions.  Is a sculpin a sole?  Is a bullhead?  Do we need to talk to old fishermen in Quebec to find out?

Lack of Grammatical Knowledge


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If Google Translate is my go-to place for French, the Ojibwe People’s Dictionary is where I go to try to confirm words in Ojibwe.  Again, it’s great for nouns and verb-parts, but unless you speak these languages better than I do, knowing the gist of what the word means doesn’t mean you’ll get the translation right.  In the snippet on the left, I transcribed the Ojibwe name for Cross Lake on the Snake River as Kapemijigonian.  This word has elements of the meaning “flows through” in Ojibwe, but the word is nonsensical grammatically.  Charles Lippert, who works for the Mille Lacs Band and has a wealth of information about Ojibwe linguistics, knew the real name, and was kind enough to offer Kapemijigoman as the correct transcription.  Who knows how many similar errors could have been made? French can be tricky too.  Mistaking ou for on, which is very possible with Nicollet’s handwriting, might not alter the meaning of a large chunk of text on Google Translate, but it sure can make you sound like a two-year old.  Check out the snippet of French on the right.  How can a non-Francophone read that?


I used the Inkscape vector graphics illustration program to trace the reproduction from the original.


As always, thanks for reading and please send feedback.