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July 14, 2008

Nouvelle Decouverte, New Discoveries, and No Discovery

Filed under: 150 Best Minnesota Books — Lori Williamson @ 8:31 am

We have been having far too much fun lately so let’s get serious for a while and talk about three of the most important and indispensable Minnesota books. Although they are from three different centuries and three different nationalities, the theme of exploration connects them. These books could hardly satiate the old world’s hunger for accounts of this strange new world and its exotic inhabitants.

Father Louis Hennepin. Description de la Louisiane, Nouvellement decouverte au Sud’ Ouest de la Nouvelle France…Paris: Chez la Veuve Sebastien Hure, 1683.

Jonathan Carver. Travels Through the Interior Parts of North-America, in the Years 1766, 1767, and 1768. London: C. Dilly; H. Payne; and F. Phillips, 1781.

Zebulon M. Pike. An Account of a Voyage Up the Mississippi River from St. Louis to its Source. Washington, D. C., 1807.

The oldest, rarest, and most expensive (in case, as I hope, you are attempting to acquire all 150 books) book on our list is the Hennepin. In recounting his trip up the Mississippi River from the Illinois River the Friar gives the first written account of the French holdings of Louisiana and becomes Minnesota’s first author. The question is whether Hennepin is Minnesota’s first writer of fiction or non-fiction. I chose this edition because the narrative embellishments become intolerable in subsequent editions. In his 1697 sequel, Nouvelle decouverte… Hennepin claims to have first paddled down to the mouth of the river before returning north! And in a matter of days!! LaSalle remarked of his underling: “It is necessary to know him somewhat, for he will not fail to exaggerate everything; it is his character.” Fowell dryly states that the writings of early explorers “… may be said to contain truth.”

Carver began with an advantage: he had read Hennepin. This piqued his amateur curiosity to find out more about the Mississippi River and its inhabitants. To make a long and complicated story bloggably short, Carver contributed greatly to the knowledge of the river and of the Dakota people, with whom he spent a winter. Unfortunately Carver’s London publisher added much material that was both plagiarized and fanciful, even by the lax standards of this genre. As they expected, this made the book extraordinarily popular. It was quickly printed in all European languages but Carver’s veracity was widely questioned. It wasn’t until the legendary Dr. Jack Parker, from the James Ford Bell Library, discovered Carver’s original manuscript in the British Library that Carver’s reputation recovered. I have listed the third edition of Carver because it is considered the best edition, having added a biography of the author, an index, and 3 colored plates, one of which is Europe’s first image of a tobacco plant.

Thomas Jefferson read both Hennepin and Carver. In 1805 he sent young Zebulon Pike to acquire land from the Indians for permanent forts, to bring the influential Chiefs to St. Louis for talks, and to discover the source of the Mississippi, which Carver had misidentified as Lake Pepin. Pike proves to be shockingly inept in diplomatic encounters with both the native population and the British traders. He also proved to be a poor explorer and poorer cartographer. He concluded that Leech Lake was the source of the Mississippi and that Cass Lake (called Red Cedar Lake) was the “upper source,” whatever he meant by that. Pike’s only success was procuring the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers for what would become Fort Snelling. Still this is an important part of Minnesota history, a good story, and a must read.

For readers inclined to cheat, skip the above and read Tim Severin’s highly entertaining Explorers of the Mississippi. New York, 1968.

Patrick Coleman, Acquisitions Librarian

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3 Responses to “Nouvelle Decouverte, New Discoveries, and No Discovery”

  1. Mary Says:

    When we celebrated the 200th anniversary of Pike’s Mississippi expedition, we discussed the tendency of history to judge Pike poorly. Here’s the article that ran in our newsletter: “Was Pike a Failure?”
    http://www.morrisoncountyhistory.org/histpikefail.html

  2. Patrick Coleman Says:

    Mary, Thanks for the reminder of Pike’s accomplishments and difficulties. Historians have focused on the negative but as I said, his work was important and the read is well worthwhile. Time for some young historian to write the revisionist account of Pike? Thanks too for mentioning Holling’s “Minn of the Mississippi”. It is a wonderful children’s book and great historical geography and a contender for the 150 best Minnesota books. Pat

  3. Mary Says:

    One of the things archaeologist Doug Birk was able to tease out of Pike’s journals was the fact that Pike wrote more during the evenings of the full moon. Doug had a chance to lead the excavation of Pike’s fort site two times in the 1980s. The site is underwater, but for two years dam maintenance required that the Mississippi River be lowered, thus uncovering the site for excavation.



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