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Nicollet's Map of Iowa

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

The young Frenchman who arrived in New Orleans in 1832 was no ordinary visitor from abroad. Joseph Nicolas Nicollet had already discovered two comets, written mathematical textbooks for the French Navy, served as an astronomical assistant at the Bureau of Longitudes, and been awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor.

He had every intention of continuing these successes in America, and so he did—making friends all the way up the Mississippi, leading an expedition to discover the source of the Mississippi River, and, in 1838, accepting the request from the United States government to map the region west of the Mississippi, soon to become new territories and states. Nicollet finished his Map of the Hydrographical Basin of the Upper Mississippi River in 1841. For all these successes, however, Nicollet found himself unable to solve one puzzle—understanding Iowans.

Iowa was a brand-new territory as Nicollet began his survey, but it was already filling up with immigrants from nearly every country in the world—Scandinavians, Irish, English, Welsh, Greeks, Czechs, Germans, and Russians. How could such people ever get along together to form a society?

Nicollet had already seen in St. Louis how the earlier, easygoing Spanish culture clashed with the energetic and shrewd Americans. In his report, Nicollet proposed that the Territory of Iowa be divided down the middle into two states. The eastern half would be centered on the Mississippi River, while the western half would become a new state centering on the Missouri River. Each would keep its nose in its own river.

Did this plan keep Iowans from squabbling? Indeed not. When Congress voted for this division in 1844, Iowans rejected it, and rejected it again, and again. They wanted all the land between the rivers, or they would not join the Union, they said. Somehow, the Russians, the Czechs, the Scandinavians, the Greeks, and the Germans had all become instant Iowans, pledged to eating lutefisk with their borscht and sauerkraut.

Congress did not understand Iowans any more than Nicollet had, but by 1848 they had given in to Iowans’ demands and given them all the land they wanted, from Burlington to Council Bluffs.

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Humanities Council and Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, with additional funding from Humanities Iowa, the Iowa Arts Council, and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.