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History -Joseph N. Nicollet Tower and Interpretive Center - Back to History
A book about 19th-century explorer Joseph N. Nicollet,
published in 1976 by the Minnesota Historical Society
Press sparked a dream that was fulfilled Oct.5, 1991,
with the dedication of the Nicollet Tower and
adjacent interpretive center on the Coteau des Prairies
near Sisseton, South Dakota.
Harold L. Torness, a banker and lifelong resident of the
northeastern South Dakota town of Sisseton, was so fascinated
by the book Joseph N. Nicollet on the Plains and Prairies:
The Expeditions of 1838-39 with Journals, Letters, and
Notes on the Dakota Indians that he spearheaded a $335,000
fund-raising campaign to build a monument to the explorer.
In a breathtaking view from the top of the tower, visitors
can see the states of South Dakota, North Dakota, and
Minnesota, six counties, 11 communities and the Continental
Divide. An adjacent 2,400-square-foot interpretive center
has displays and classroom space.
In the 1960s and '70s Martha C. Bray and Edmund C. Bray
of St. Paul, MN translated and edited the detailed journals
of Nicollet, which were written in French. In 1976 the
Minnesota Historical Society Press published their book
Joseph N. Nicollet on the Plains and Prairies.
Upon readingthe book,
Torness became captivated by Nicollet, previously unknown
to him, who in the 1830s mapped and named the regions
that Torness knew so well. Torness was particularly struck
that Nicollet referred to the Coteau des Prairies hills
area near Sisseton as the highlight of his exploration
and proclaimed the valley as viewed from the hills ''magnificent
and indescribably beautiful.”
Alan Woolworth, a Minnesota Historical Society research
fellow and Indian history scholar, advised Torness on
the project. ''I’m just amazed with the speed at
which this moved ahead and how all the community groups
that shared an interest in it really pulled together,''
he said during an interview. ''This project became a focal
point for Indians and whites to work together and continue
to do so. In addition to honoring Nicollet's work and
interpreting Indian history, the tower provides a tremendous
view of the Coteau des Prairies.''
The French-born Nicollet, educated as a cartographer,
scientist, and astronomer, led expeditions for the U.S.
government in the 1830s to study and map the area between
the Mississippi and the Missouri rivers. In the early
1840s he published the first accurate map of the U.S.
interior, which became the basis for all subsequent maps
of this area until the era of modern surveys. Nicollet
named many of the places he identified on the map with
the names used by Dakota Indians in recognition of their
invaluable assistance during the explorations.
''Nicollet had an overwhelming human appeal to him, and
he had a great empathy for the Indian and their culture,”
Woolworth said. ''He had a great interest in Indian place
names and in preserving them on his map. In 1964 Woolworth
found the original engraved copper plates for the 1843
version of Nicollet's famous map at the Lakes Survey in
Detroit, Mich. The Minnesota Historical Society Press
then published the map, titled Hydrographical Basin of
the Upper Mississippi River.
With the help of Andre Fertey, who translated Nicollet's
1836-37 journals, Martha Bray edited The Journals of Joseph
N. Nicollet: A Scientist on the Mississippi Headwaters
With Notes on Indian Life, 1836-37 Published in 1970
by the Minnesota Historical Society press.
Nicollet visited the Coteau des Prairies in 1838 and
1839, and expressed appreciation of his friendship with
the Dakota Indians. He wished to return to the site
of the present tower and museum to build a home overlooking
the “magnificent and indescribable beautiful valley”.
We invite you to see the Nicollet Tower and Interpretive
Center which contains the Great Nicollet Map, 10 murals
by John S. Wilson, and the film “Dakota Encounters”.
From the tower you can see the spectacular view of the
Continental Divide, the Coteau des Prairies and the
ancient glacial valley.