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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.