Remembrance in Stone

Nicollet Tower

County: Roberts, South Dakota

Location: Hwy 10 W of Sisseton, South Dakota, on E face of the Prairie Coteau

Coordinates: N44o22.306' W101o44.446'

To many residents of northeastern South Dakota, Joseph Nicollet’s achievements in mapping the region previously explored by Lewis and Clark surpass those of the Corps of Discovery. A former mathematics professor and astronomer at the Royal Observatory of Paris, Nicollet created remarkably accurate topographic maps of the region between the Mississippi and Missouri rivers by utilizing barometric and astronomical readings. Nicollet embarked in 1836 on his first expedition, to the mouth of the Mississippi River at Lake Itasca. He was commissioned by John J. Abert, head of the Topographical Bureau, to correct critical geographical errors made by Zebulon Pike.

Financed by fur trader Pierre Chouteau in the expectation of repayment by Abert’s federal agency, Nicollet took his cartographic talents further west to head up the new Army Corps of Topographical Engineers. Early in his journey, Nicollet met Joseph Renville, Sr., a Metis fur trader fluent in the Dakota language. Renville sent his eldest son to accompany Nicollet as an interpreter and guide, facilitating Nicollet’s travels through what might otherwise have been hostile territory. Like Lewis and Clark, Nicollet and his party, which included the lone military officer, John C. Fremont, had to rely as much on diplomacy as on their skills as outdoorsmen to survive the journey. Nicollet went on to help a young nation achieve its envisioned “Manifest Destiny” by mapping the Oregon Country on behalf of Senator Thomas H. Benton of Missouri.

Inspired by Edmund and Martha Bray’s account of Nicollet’s exploration, Harold Torness of Sisseton, South Dakota, dedicated himself to commemorating the French cartographer. Torness decided that a tower would be the best memorial for the explorer and obtained the plans for a tower in Gelena, Illinois, which included stairs for visitors. When Kenneth Johnson, foreman of Kyburz-Carlson Construction Company, began constructing the tower, permanence was an important objective. Eighteen-foot cement pillars were implanted in the ground, each containing about one and one-half truckloads of cement. The backbone of the structure consists of five 75-foot posts of Douglas fir from Idaho. Another important feature of the monument is its location on South Dakota Highway 10. It is the site described by Nicollet in his journals as most reminiscent of the “steep green hills” of his hometown in France.

Along with an impressive interpretive center, the memorial site boasts the most interactive feature imaginable, allowing visitors to climb the monument. Since the dedication of the Nicollet Tower on October 4, 1992, this historic site has been embraced by the surrounding community and recognized as one of the top ten tourist sites in South Dakota. Despite dire warnings by early detractors of the project, there have been no fatal accidents at the site and only unconfirmed reports of minor injuries, usually attributed to intoxication.--Research by Kelly Hansen, HIST 489, Fall 2007

Recommended Reading

Bray, Edmnund C., and Martha Coleman Bray, Trans. Joseph N. Nicollet on the Plains and Prairies. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1976.

The Journals of Joseph N. Nicollet: A Scientist on the Mississippi Headwaters with Notes on Indian Life, 1836-37. Trans. Martha Coleman Bray; Andre Fertey. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1970.

Bray, Martha Coleman. Joseph Nicollet and His Map. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society Independence Square, 1994.

Photo Gallery
Photos by Kelly Hansen, Fall 2007

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Remembrance in Stone / Center for Heritage Renewal