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Early Scientific Surveys in North Dakota

Janet Patton

Table of Contents


The Explorers and their Expeditions

Railroad, Mapping and Boundary Surveys

Later Scientific Surveys



The first explorers of European descent came to present-day North Dakota in the 1700s. Their primary purpose was to survey the area for fur-bearing animals and to trade with the native people. An interest in mapping the region and claiming territory for various governments soon developed. A few of the explorers who were associated with the fur companies traveled from the north, but most of the explorers came up the Missouri River. These travelers relied upon the hospitality of the Mandan and Hidatsa people living along the Missouri. With the exception of Lewis and Clark, most of the early explorers and naturalists in North Dakota traveled with the fur companies’ crews, and later with the surveying and railroad expeditions. Their enthusiasm for this unexplored area, this “magnificent garden” (Nuttall, in 1811), namely the open prairie, is understandable, and their determination was remarkable.

The Explorers and Their Expeditions

David Thompson

David Thompson was a British-Canadian surveyor and cartographer for the Hudson’s Bay Company and later for the North West Company. From 1792 to 1812, he mapped the area west of Hudson Bay and Lake Superior to the Pacific Coast, covering one-fifth of the continent. In 1797-8, he explored the northern part of North Dakota, traveling in winter as far south as the Mandan and Hidatsa villages on the Missouri River. He spent three weeks recording astronomical observations of longitude and latitude and information about the people (which numbered an estimated 15,000 in 1738). Thompson’s maps were of such detail and accuracy that they were still used 100 years later. A monument northwest of Karlsruhe, North Dakota, is dedicated to him.

Alexander Henry

Alexander Henry was also an explorer and fur trader for the North West Company. In 1800, he built a trading post at the confluence of the Park and Red Rivers, east of present-day Grafton, North Dakota, and another at Pembina in 1801. A prolific writer, he had a scientific interest in all that he observed, recording detailed information about the native people, landscape, flora and fauna, weather, and, of course, fur trade. In fifteen years (1799 to 1814), he filled 3,284 legal-sized pages with notes. Henry spent a month with the Mandan and Hidatsa on the Missouri River in 1806, recording his observations, and leaving just days before Lewis and Clark arrived on their homeward journey. In 1808, he headed west to Oregon, meeting his demise on the Columbia River in 1814.

Lewis and Clark

In 1803, Thomas Jefferson gave detailed and far-reaching instructions to Meriwether Lewis for an expedition in the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase territory. Lewis and his co-leader, William Clark, were able to complete an expedition with a level of success like few others. Their detailed journals and maps, and their extensive collections of artifacts, plants, animals, and minerals are invaluable records of the inhabitants and landscapes encountered along their 7,400-mile journey. They observed and collected many plants and animals new to science. Few discoveries were made in North Dakota, however, because their travels were confined to the river valley, which was similar along its course through the Great Plains. Also, they were in the state from October 14, 1804 to April 27, 1805, so they missed many of the mammals, nesting birds, and plants seen only in summer. On their return trip, they traveled quickly, 40 to 80 miles per day, and spent only 17 days in North Dakota, from August 3-20 of 1806.

Lewis and Clark sent many specimens back home from their wintering location at Fort Mandan, near present-day Washburn, North Dakota. These samples included hides, skeletons, antlers and horns, seeds and dried plant specimens, rocks, minerals, fossils, and artifacts from the Mandan people. They also sent their journals compiled up to that point in the expedition and six live animals (four magpies, a sharp-tailed grouse, and a black-tailed prairie dog), all of which were shipped to Jefferson on April 7, 1805.


One of the most important outcomes of the Lewis and Clark Expedition was a new understanding of the region’s geography. During the trip, Lewis made the astronomical observations for latitude and longitude, while Clark, who had previous training in surveying and cartography, drew the maps. The final collection from the Expedition included 140 maps of the trail and 30 maps from the native people, trappers, and traders. Clark compiled a map of the West by 1810.


On the journey, Lewis and Clark recorded the compass bearing and distance of each section of the river. They also noted meanders, rapids, sandbars, and points of erosion and deposition. They recorded information about the many rivers they encountered, including channel width, water level, and water velocity. This was long before geomorphology and hydrology were considered scientific fields of study.


Jefferson also instructed Lewis and Clark to make detailed weather observations. Their records of daily air temperatures (from September 19, 1804 to September 3, 1805, when the last thermometer was broken) and weather conditions throughout the journey were the first systematic weather observations in the region.

Thomas Nuttall

The next explorer/naturalist in this area was Thomas Nuttall, an English botanist with an uncommon drive and an eye for new plant species. Traveling with Wilson Price Hunt of the American Fur Company, he went up the Missouri River starting from St. Louis in March of 1811. Also on the trip was John Bradbury, a Scottish botanist who was collecting for the Botanical Gardens of Liverpool. Nuttall was a consummate botanist and collector, and had a reputation for wandering off and being oblivious to danger. At one tense point along the trip, Nuttall’s rifle was found to be filled with mud. He had been using it to dig plants. Nuttall also had uncommon luck. Arriving at a fort, he eagerly began exploring the area and ended up meandering for 100 miles. Eventually, his food ran out and he collapsed. A Mandan found him and was able to bring him back to the fort. The native people watched him with curiosity. They thought he was profound or perhaps insane, and they did not disturb him. He and Bradbury went as far north as the Mandan villages before returning to St. Louis in the fall.

Nuttall also discovered new animal species, including numerous beetles and a bat, and brought back a collection of rock samples. He eventually published a Catalogue of New and Interesting Plants Collected in Upper Louisiana and Principally of the River Missouri, North America in London. In 1834, he joined the Wyeth Expedition to the Pacific Northwest, building on his reputation for scientific skills, eccentricity, and good fortune. He then traveled to Hawaii and California, eventually returning to England.

Prince Alexander Philipp Maxmilian

In April of 1833, explorer and naturalist Prince Alexander Philipp Maxmilian of Prussia began a journey up the Missouri River from St. Louis, reaching Fort McKenzie, at the mouth of the Marias River in Montana, in July. Accompanying him was Karl Bodmer, a skilled artist from Switzerland, and David Dreidoppel, Maximilian’s servant and an accomplished hunter who had traveled with Maximilian on a previous two-year expedition to Brazil. Traveling north on a steamboat owned by the American Fur Company, they stopped at trading posts, where they interacted with the local people and collected specimens of the flora and fauna. They spent the winter of 1833-34 at Fort Clark, west of present-day Washburn, and returned to St. Louis in April. During the trip, Bodmer painted 400 watercolors of the indigenous people, immigrants, and landscapes. Unfortunately, Maximilian’s specimens were all destroyed by water-damage, sabotage, or fire. His journals survived, however, and along with Bodmer’s paintings, they provide an invaluable record of their trip and their observations of the people inhabiting the area.

John James Audubon

Ten years later, in 1843, John James Audubon traveled up the Missouri River as far as the Montana border. Famous for his artistic renditions, he was also well known for his detailed observations of birds, their behaviors, and the habitats in which they live. Traveling on a Missouri Fur Company steamer, he arrived at Fort Union, at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers, west of present-day Williston, by mid-June. Audubon spent two months collecting birds and mammals. He and his party returned to St. Louis in October. Driven by his goal of documenting wildlife throughout America, he eventually painted 500 of the 700 bird species found in North America. Lake Audubon and the Audubon National Wildlife Refuge in central North Dakota are named after him.

Joseph Nicollet

By the 1830s, more interest in the country beyond the confines of the Missouri River Valley was developing. Joseph Nicollet, a French-born astronomer, mathematician, and cartographer, had a goal of exploring and mapping the upper Mississippi region. After trips to the headwaters of the Mississippi in what is now Minnesota in 1836-7 and again in 1838, he and a party of explorers traveled by horseback from Fort Pierre, South Dakota, to the Devil’s Lake area of North Dakota, in 1839. Accompanying him were Charles Geyer, a botanist, and John C. Fremont, who later became famous for leading expeditions on the Oregon Trail and into California. Nicollet was able to produce remarkably accurate maps of the region between the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers using a barometer to determine altitude and over 200 sets of astronomical readings of longitude and latitude. He also recorded the topography and studied the fossils on river embankments in order to correlate the strata from one location to another. A visitor center and an observation tower have been dedicated to Nicollet west of Sisseton, South Dakota.

Railroad, Mapping and Boundary Surveys


Surveying for the transcontinental railroad began in North Dakota in 1853. This “Northern Route” was one of three to cross the U.S. Leading the expedition was Isaac I. Stevens, the governor of the Washington Territory. Accompanying the surveyors and support crew were naturalists and artists who collected a vast number of specimens, observations, and data. This new information was later organized into a 13-volume report on the flora and fauna, geology, and geography of the central and western U.S.

Gouverneur K. Warren, a topographical engineer, led another surveying expedition at about this time, traveling up the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers in 1856. Also on this trip was Ferdinand V. Hayden, a doctor and geologist, who studied the geology and collected fossils. Hayden went on to lead geological surveys in the Rocky Mountains. Beginning in the 1860s, the first portion of the soon-to-be organized Dakota Territory was surveyed by the U.S. General Land Office using the rectangular “township-and-range” system, which was originally promoted by Thomas Jefferson in 1785. North Dakota eventually opened seven major Land Offices for the distribution of land, which was available for homesteading beginning in 1863. The General Land Office published a complete sectional map of the state in 1892.

By 1872, the Northern Pacific Railroad line ran from Duluth, Minnesota, to Jamestown, North Dakota. In 1873, the Northern Pacific Railroad Expedition, led by Thomas L. Rosser, surveyed the land from Fort Rice (south of Bismarck) to the Yellowstone River in Montana. The naturalist on this trip was Joel Asaph Allan, a zoologist from the Smithsonian Institution.

During this same period, from 1873-76, U.S. and British surveyors were conducting the Northern Boundary Survey along the International Boundary. Elliot Coues was the surgeon and naturalist on this project. He specialized in ornithology and mammology and later edited the journals of Lewis and Clark (1895) and David Thompson and Alexander Henry (1897).

Later Scientific Surveys

Other accounts of the fauna of the state include those of Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote of the game animals and other aspects of natural history that he observed in the Little Missouri Badlands from 1884 to 1886. Fieldwork began in 1886 for a “Biological Survey of North Dakota” by the U.S.D.A.’s Biological Survey Department. Vernon Bailey, who later became the chief naturalist for the Department, completed a survey of the mammals across the state from Fargo to Pembina, and then to Fort Buford on the Montana border, in 1888.


Earle J. Babcock, the first state geologist, began surveying the lignite and clay deposits of the state in 1890. His report on these valuable resources was published in 1901.

In 1890, the Agricultural College, later to become North Dakota State University, was established in Fargo. Clare B. Waldron, a botanist, was hired as the first faculty member of the college and the first staff member of the North Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station. He collected plant specimens for the College herbarium on field trips from the South Dakota border to the Turtle Mountains. The herbarium collection grew, and by 1918 a publication on the flora of the state included 960 species.

Clare Waldron was also assigned the task of collecting and classifying the soil of North Dakota. As the state was being developed, more information on soils was needed in order to promote and improve agriculture. The USDA made the first soil surveys involving mapping in the U.S. in 1899. These classifications were based on soil texture, although other defining characteristics were soon added. Soil surveying began in North Dakota in 1902, primarily in the Red River Valley. By 1908, several surveys had been made in scattered areas to the west. The fieldwork today continues to be much the same as it was then, digging soil pits and mapping soil types acre by acre.


The Agricultural College, Fargo, ND 1892



The early explorers and scientists who came to North Dakota endured the elements and hardships of travel to reach their goals, whether for science, economic development, or “mere curiosity” (Henry, in 1806). Lured by the possibilities of the unknown, these explorers increased our knowledge of the inhabitants and many aspects of the natural world in this region. Reading their journals and records allows us to see North Dakota as they saw it over the past two hundred years.

NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center
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