1. When France ceded Louisiana to the United States, she committed the greatest geographical blunder in her history, excepting the cession of all New France by Louis XV., consequent on the fall of Quebec in 1759. These two events were essential to the United States eventually becoming a great and leading power; and their con summation was, as it is now seen, the very turning point of it. With a foreign and non-cognate race, as Frenchmen are, on our entire northern borders, from sea to sea, and the mouth of the Mississippi locked up, that great valley was as completely bound as Laöcoon in the folds of the serpent. Fortunately, the statesmen of that proud and luxurious court were not wise beyond their generation; and Bonaparte, when he completed the work by accepting three millions as an equivalent for Louisiana, thought a bird in the hand worth two in the bush. “Bush” indeed! Which has already given origin to a cluster of States, and by the dispute with Texas, (a Spanish blunder, by the way,) has brought along, in its magnificent train, California and New Mexico. Already the Mississippi River, if we include its eldest daughter, the Ohio, has thirteen States upon its waters, not counting Territories; and it furnishes an outlet to the commerce of several more.
“Yet, though no rhyme thy banks to fame prolong,
Beyond the warrior’s chant, the boatman s song,
More happy in thy fate than Granges tide,
No purblind millions kneel upon thy side.
Beyond the Nile, beyond the Niger blest,
No bleeding Parke, no dying Ledyard prest;
Or if one fate foredoomed the Gaul 1 to bleed,
Success o’erpaid and cancelled half the deed.
Not in hot sands, or savage deserts lost;
A healthful vigor blooms along thy coast,
And, ever blest above the orient train,
No crouching serf here clanks the feudal chain;
E’en the poor Indian, who, in nature’s pride,
Serenely scans thy long descending tide,
Turns, in his thoughts, thy course twixt sea and sea,
And shouts to think that all his tribes are free.”
Minnesota is the last legislative creation upon its waters, and bids fair, at no distant period, to make one of its noblest states. The area of territory comprised by it is computed by Mr. Darby at a fraction under 200,000 square miles; and it would be ample in area for the formation of three large states, facing respectively the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, including the residuary portion of Wisconsin, of some 20,000 square miles, which, in consequence of the ordinance of 1787, can never be incorporated into a state by itself; and comprehending also the large area lying above the mouth of the De Corbeau River, which is, in a measure, sphagneous or arid. For this we may deduct, perhaps, 50,000 square miles. This would swell the arable area to the compass of three states of 60,000, or four states of 45,000 square miles each.
Taking the distance on the Mississippi, west, from the influx of the upper Iowa River to that of the Crow Wing, it cannot be less than 500 geographical miles. The quality of the soil between these points, reaching west indefinitely, which is at present Sioux and Chippewa territory, is of the richest kind of uplands and river-bottom, containing a mixture of woodland and prairie, and is well adapted to all the cereal grains. The zea maize is raised in great perfection in the valley of Red River, and of Great Lake Winnipec, which is northwest of the Mississippi. In the settlements of Lord Selkirk the grain crops are unfailing, and are only affected by floods or other casualties.
In speaking of the agricultural advantages of the territory, and of its soil and climate, allusion is chiefly had to the area south of Crow Wing River, and also to the region on the left bank of the river, between Sandy Lake or Comtaguma, Mille Lac, and the Rum and St. Croix Rivers. A territory, indeed, which gives origin to the Mississippi, and furnishes a thousand miles of her banks, on the right and left, can neither be small nor obscure. Such is Minnesota.
2. The first subject that demands attention in the new territory is the name. It has been frequently asked whether this soft and harmonious name be Indian; and if so, in what language or idiom? We have the authority of some practical inquirers in this matter, for saying that it is a compound Dacota or Sioux word, describing the peculiar clouded color of the water of the St. Peter’s River. Whether this phenomenon be due to sedimentary blue clays brought down from its tributaries; to leaves settled in its bed; to thick masses of foliage overhanging its banks, under the influence of atmospheric refraction, or the influx of the Mississippi waters in its flood, is uncertain. But the Dacotas, who live on its banks, were early to notice it as a characteristic feature, and have embodied the description in the term Minnesota; Minne simply signifying, in the Sioux language, water. The term for river, wah-ta-pah, which the natives use as a noun-prefix, is properly dropped in adopting the word into the English language.
By the Chippewas, who live north and east of the Dacotas, this river is called Oskibugi Seepi, or the Young Leaf River, in allusion to the early foliage of its forests, or premature time of their putting out leaves; while the more boreal regions, occupied by them, are still standing in their wintry leaflessness.
3. Compared, indeed, to the shores of Lake Superior, the valley of the St. Peter’s is an Italy, but, to the Saxon and Norman emigrant, who seek the country for its capacities of industrial employment, it has a higher value. The whole of southern and central Minnesota is eminently suited to the zea maize, and the entire family of the cereals. There is no part of the great West better adapted to wheat, corn, and the leading staples of Northern agriculture. The St. Peter’s has long been noted, among travelers, for its precocious and blooming gardens; and the sylvan basin of Lake Pepin, and the valleys of the St. Croix, the Issati, or Rum river, with the St. Francis, Corneille, Osaukis, and higher tributaries, are found to be equally rich in their floral character and power of vegetation. Profitable agriculture is destined to extend, town ship by township, to the De Corbeau; and it must be borne in mind that Indian corn, which cannot be cultivated at Sault Ste. Marie, in latitude 46° 30′, is raised by the Indians annually, and ripens early in August, at the very sources of the Mississippi, and at Red Lake, north of them. The latter point is but a few seconds south of north latitude 49°.
Meteorological observations, made at Forts Snelling and Atkinson for many years, indicate a favorable climate at the latter post: the maximum heat, for the months of May, June, July, and August, 1848, was 82°, 88°, 84°, 81°, respectively; the mean temperature, during the same months, being, in their order, 63°, 65°, 71°, 62°, and the minimum 36°, 47°, 51°, 51°. Thunder showers are frequent in those latitudes, and even on the higher tributaries of the Mississippi. The amount of free electricity is thought to produce local currents which mitigate the sultriest days. Thirty-seven inches of rain fell at Fort Atkinson in 1848.
By observations made at Sandy Lake in July 1820, (vide Nar. Jour. Ex., p. 268,) the maximum heat at that lake is shown to be 90°, and the mean temperature between the 17th and 24th of the month, 73°, which is a little higher than the entire monthly average heat, in 1848, at Fort Atkinson, lying, atmospherically, south. Probably the entire month would sink the northern average a couple of degrees, showing a remark able equability of summer temperature over a very wide range.
4. Volney appears to have been the first observer to notice the prevalence of a valley-current from the tropical latitudes up the Mississippi, a remark in which he is sustained, at later dates, by Dr. Drake, of Cincinnati, and Dr. Hildreth, of Marietta. It is evident, from the scanty materials of observation we possess, that this gulf-current does not spend its force until it has well nigh reached the southern terminus of the Itasca summit. It is certain that the extreme upper Mississippi escapes those icy winds from Hudson s and Baffin s Bays, which are often felt, during the spring months, in northern Michigan and northern Wisconsin. The same latitudes which cross the lake country give a milder climate in the valley of the upper Mississippi. One of the causes of this phenomenon has probably been noticed above. Others will doubtless be found by a scientific scrutiny of its meteorology. The observations being made by the government on this topic may be expected to enlighten us.
5. Longevity must characterize a country without fevers or congestion. Surgeons, who have been stationed at the military posts of Minnesota and the upper Mississippi, give a favorable view of its diseases and their diagnoses, under the effects of the climate. Malignant fevers appear seldom or never to originate in longitudes north of about 44°. It is also known that the cholera, which in a single instance, in 1832, was carried by steamboat as high as 46°, at Michillimackinac, did not spread at that sanitary point, but was confined south of the general latitude of 44°. This point is, according to the late Doctor Forrey, very nearly the northern curve of the isothermal line. Both Green Bay on the east, and Prairie du Chien on the west, escaped its ravages. So far, however, as fevers and malignant diseases have been locally compared, there is a decided tendency in their development, to pass north of the lake latitudes, in the Mississippi Valley.
6. Both banks of the Mississippi, within the boundaries of Minnesota, are quite elevated. This elevation is rocky and often precipitous, at the river s brink, as high as St. Anthony’s Falls. Above that point, which is, according to Nicolet, in latitude 44° 58′ 40″, a succession of elevated plains, with forests of the drift stratum, come in, and characterize both banks, as far up as Sandy Lake, and, with intermissions, quite to the falls of Puckäguma. The consequence of this elevation is, that its waters, which reveal themselves abundantly in pure springs, lakes, and streams, flow into the Mississippi with rapid currents and cascades, presenting numerous seats for hydraulic works. The pine forests of Minnesota may be readily converted into lumber to supply the central and lower portions of the Mississippi. The falls of the St. Croix, of the Chippewa, and other tributary streams, have already been occupied, in part, with sawmills. At the Falls of St. Anthony, where the Mississippi, agreeably to the measurement of Captain S. Eastman, U. S. A., drops twenty feet perpendicularly, with strong rapids above and below, its power may be thrown, by a series of mill-canals, upon almost any amount of machinery. This point, which is distant nine hundred miles above St. Louis, and about 2200 miles from the Gulf, is the true head of steamboat navigation of heavy tonnage, and must become an important manufacturing city and point of transshipment. In a future state of the country, steamboats of moderate tonnage may be built above the falls, to run during the freshets, as high as Comtaguma, or Sandy Lake, and Puckäguma. They may also ascend the De Corbeau to the mouth of Leaf River.
7. The topography and general geography of Minnesota cannot be well understood without giving full prominence to the character, course, and origin of the Mississippi. Geologically considered, the Mississippi River originates in the erratic block-group or drift stratum of the north, in longitude 18° west of “Washington, and north latitude 47° 13′ 35”, agreeably to Mr. Nicolet. This stratum develops itself in a prominent range of sand-hills, once probably naked ocean dunes, which throw out copious springs of the purest water on all sides. These infant sources of the “father of rivers” first gather themselves together in a handsome lake, called Itasca, of some five to seven miles in length, whose shores are surrounded with deciduous trees. The scene is one of picturesque beauty. From this lake, the Mississippi sets out on its wonderful course of more than 3000 miles to the Gulf, by an outlet sixteen feet wide, with a depth of fourteen inches making a body of pure crystal water, gliding rapidly over a sandy and pebbly bed, in which the traveler, as he shoots along in his canoe, can see the broken white and pearly valves of the unio and other fresh-water shells of the lake scattered in its bed.
8. Thus much topographically. This great northern drift stratum, which constitutes the height of land, rests on a broad range of the crystalline or primary rocks which cross the continent between latitudes about 44° to 50°, linking together the mountain groups of the Labrador and Hudson’s Bay coasts with the Rocky Mountains. To these broad ranges and mountain-outbreaks, as they are developed west of James Bay and north of Lake Superior, Bouchette, the geographer of Canada, has applied the name of Cabotian Mountains, in allusion to the true discoverer of North America.
9. Agreeably to this theory, the St. Louis river, which falls into the head of Lake Superior, presenting a series of magnificent views and cataracts, passes transversely through the Cabotian chain; while the Rainy Lakes and the Lake of the Woods lie north of it. This range of transverse rocks, which, with all its diluvial and drift covering, does not rise over 1600 feet above the ocean, may be said by its ” rocky roots” to continue west from the Itasca highlands, and to divide the waters of the Upper Missouri from those of the Saskatchiwine, and Assinaboin Valleys of Red River and Lake Winnipec. The natural line of elevations denotes this. It is, in fine, the transverse Wasserscliied, between the Hudson s Bay and the St. Lawrence waters and those of the Gulf of Mexico.
10. It is impossible to visit this remote summit, to which the French apply the term Hauteur des Terres, and examine its oceanic dunes, gravel-beds, and sand-plains, without supposing the present condition of its surface to be the result of oceanic currents, however produced, which, at a very ancient period of the globe s history, poured their waters over these heights, surcharged with the ruins of broken strata and disrupted formations which once spread over the area north of them. 2 We observe, amidst the heavy beds of comminuted sandstones and slates, and of primary rocks from remoter positions, wide-spread evidences of trap and greenstones, grauwackes and amygdoloids, which tell of the prostration of volcanic formations, with all their peculiar imbedded minerals and vein-stones. Of these latter, the harder varieties of the quartz family, with zoned agates, and, less abundantly, chalcedonies and carnelians, are found both in the dry drift at the highest elevations, and about the shores of lakes and streams. These masses have been carried, by fluviatile action, down the Mississippi Valley to great distances, suffering more and more from the force of attrition. They are often picked up, very well characterized, on the shores of Lake Pepin. I have traced them as low as St. Louis and Herculaneum. 3
11. It is a peculiar feature of the Itasca summit, and its various steppes, that it has a sub-soil, or deposit of an aluminous or impervious character, resting below the various sand-plains, loams, and loose carbonaceous and lacustrine beds. This appears to be the true cause of the retention, at those heights, of a vast body of water, in the shape of lakes, which are of every imaginable size, from half a mile to thirty miles in length. It will not be too much, perhaps, to say that ten thousand of these lakes exist within our borders, north of latitude 44°. These lakes in the drift stratum, so remarkable for their number, consist of transparent and, very often, very pure water; the temperature of which is generally 8° to 10° below that of the atmosphere. (Vide Nar. Jour. Ex. of 1820, p. 168.) They are supposed, in several districts, to have a subterraneous communication with each other, whereby their purity and liveliness is preserved without visible outlets. The water that sustains such a system of lakes and rivers is, manifestly, the result of the condensed vapors of the ocean, wafted from warmer latitudes to these broad eminences.
12. The lakes of the sub-mountain region of Minnesota may all be considered as falling under two classes, those with clean sandy shores, and a considerable depth, and those whose margins consist of a sphagneous character, and abound in the zizania palustris, or wild rice, and are comparatively shallow. The former yield various species of fish; the latter serve not only as a store-house of grain for the natives, who gather it in August and September, but they invite myriads of water-fowl into the region, and thus prove a double resource to the natives. It is constantly affirmed that fish are taken in lakes which have no visible outlet. Some of the larger open lakes connected with the Mississippi yield the white fish, which is so celebrated in the upper lakes, while in no case has fish of this species ever been found in the Mississippi itself.
13. The country around the sources of the Mississippi, extending to the Lake of the Woods, and the old Grand Portage of Lake Superior, is not adapted to profitable agriculture. Some portions of it, in the angle west of Lake Superior, extending to the Lake of the Woods, and the source of the St. Louis River, are naked rocks, of the crystalline and volcanic kinds, and are entirely valueless for the purposes of agriculture. Other portions of it, reaching across the actual head-waters of the Mississippi, to the high ground of the Otter-tail Lake, and Itasca summit, have a large proportion of arid sand-hills and plains, and an almost illimitable number of lakes and Muskeegs. 4 The proportion of fertile land in this area is rendered less valuable than it otherwise would be, from its isolation by waste waters and barrens, and the impracticability of connecting the good tracts by roads. West of the Hauteur des Terres the lands are fertile, consisting of woods and prairies which are easily traversed.
14. This region has been considered as a central point for the Fur Trade. It has been noted, from the first settlement of Canada, as abounding in the small furred animals, whose skins are valuable in commerce. Its sources of supply to the native tribes have been important. It has, at the same time, had another singular advantage to them from the abundance of the grain called monomin, or rice, by the Chippewa Indians, and Psin by the Sioux. Its lakes abound with waterfowl and fish. Its forests and valleys yield a sufficiency of the acer saccherinum to enable the natives to make maple sugar: and, if the territory of Hudson s Bay were ceded to the United States, it would form a suitable area for an Indian colony.
15. Besides the beaver, otter, mink, muskrat, fisher and martin, whose furs are valuable, it yields many of the larger quadrupeds. There are some portions of it where that remarkable animal still exists, which the Indians call mäz, and the Americans moose, the largest of the deer species. This animal, which has nearly the strength of the horse, and resembles it in height, is very wary, and quick of hearing. The least noise disturbs it, and the Indians hunt it with great care. Its flesh is much esteemed by them. The elk, red deer, and common black bear, are common. Its western skirts, on the Red river plains, yield the grizzly bear the lion of the region, if strength be the point at issue. To kill this animal is an object of prime boasting with the natives and hunters.
16. REINDEER. Portions of the country yield the caribou, which is an American species of the reindeer the Cervus Americanus. This beautiful and fleet animal, which has a split hoof, is provided with a foot that enables it to spread it over a considerable surface at every step, so as to walk on the surface of the deepest snows. It subsists during the winter season on mosses. Its flesh is a most delicious and delicate venison, and its skin is dressed by the Indian females for their finest garments.
17. HYENA. It is not true, as has been supposed, that the glutton or hyena of Europe exists on the sources of the Mississippi. The only species of this family found by the hunters, is the wolverine; a vicious animal, which will dig up caches of provisions, and commit various depredations.
18. The WOLF of this region is the canis lupus; well haired, and of good size. To the naturalist the region is deeply interesting; but an enumeration of its various productions would require more time and space than are at our command.
- La Salle.
- Geological Report of the Expedition of 1820, “War Office, Washington.
- View of the Lead Mines of Missouri, 1819.
- Geological Report, 1820.