Nicollet Expedition (1838, 1839)

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French explorer, Joseph N. Nicollet, led expeditions in 1838 and 1839 with the backing of the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers to explore the triangle of land bordered by Canada and the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. He was assisted by John C. Frémont. The most historically significant achievement of the expeditions was the publication of a hydrographical map of the Upper Mississippi River Basin, but botanical collecting was also a priority for Nicollet. There were also small collections of geological specimens made throughout Minnesota. Both trips originated in St. Louis, Missouri, and headed west. In the spring of 1838, the exploring party advanced upriver to Fort Snelling. On June 18, 1838, the caravan had reached Traverse des Sioux, and began heading west. From there they investigated more of the Minnesota River region and the Pipestone Quarry. The exploration in 1839 voyaged up the Missouri river to Fort Pierre. Nicollet and his group then set out for Devil's Lake. They crossed eastern South Dakota, including the Coteau des Prairies, before reaching the American Fur Company post in the upper Minnesota River region. Nicollet hired, at his own expense botanist, Mr. Charles Geyer. Geyer collected hundreds of plants throughout both expeditions. Nicollet was joined by a number of people for various parts of the two outings including Joseph Renville Jr., Joseph LaFromboise from the American Fur Company, Louison Freniere, and Jesuit missionary Pierre-Jean De Smet for part of the 1839 trip. Much to Nicollet and Geyer’s disappointment, many of the 1838 specimens were lost while being shipped from Fort Snelling to St. Louis.


  • Bray, Martha Coleman. “Joseph Nicolas Nicollet, Geologist.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 114 (February 1975): 37-59.
  • Bray, Edmund C. and Martha C Bray. Joseph N. Nicollet on the plains and prairies: the expeditions of 1838-39, with journals, notes, and letters/translated from the French. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1976.
  • McKelvey, Susan Delano. Botanical Exploration of the Trans-Mississippi West, 1790-1850.” Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts: The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, 1955.

Date Range

1838 - 1839


  • Geology
  • Plants
  • Botany


  • United States
  • Traverse des Sioux
  • South Dakota
  • Minnesota
  • Pipestone
  • Coteau des Prairies


Expedition name