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Jonathan Carver: explorer, mapmaker, author and subject of controversy

Jonathan Carver

Jonathan Carver was an explorer, mapmaker, author, and subject of controversy. He was among the first white men to explore and map areas of Minnesota, and including what later became Carver County. While French explorers had been in the area earlier, they did not leave behind detailed maps or journals of their travels as Carver did.

Jonathan Carver was born in Weymouth, Massachusetts on April 13, 1710, when Massachusetts was still part of the British Empire. Carver’s father, Ensign David Carver (an honorary not military rank), a prominent public figure, held many offices such as constable and selectman (chief administrative officer). He also owned property, including a gristmill. The Carvers moved to Canterbury, Connecticut when Jonathan was still a boy, where his father again held public office. Ensign David Carver died when Jonathan was seventeen.

Jonathan Carver grew to an adult in Canterbury, marrying Abigail Robbins in 1746. They had a daughter in 1747 and another in 1748. The family then settled in Montague, Massachusetts where another five children were born. He became town selectman in Montague, before entering the Massachusetts militia in 1755. By 1763, the end of the French and Indian War, Carver had become a Captain with his own company of militiamen.

When the war ended, Carver still wanted to be of service. He signed on as third in command of an expedition to discover a Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean. He believed expedition organizers Robert Rogers and Captain James Tute had approval from the British Crown, with payment promised through the British treasury. This later proved false.

The crew left from Boston on May 20, 1766, with Carver as draftsman and mapmaker. They were bound for Fort Michilimackinac in the Great Lakes region. Carver kept detailed journal accounts of the expedition. By December 7, 1766, they reached the Minnesota River. There, Carver befriended a band of Dakota, whom he calls “Naudowessies” in his journal. They allowed him to winter with them, and he spent time observing and recording their customs and celebrations in his journals. This would become the focal point of his writing.

Spring 1767 saw a return east to Prairie du Chien to rejoin the main expedition. Lack of provisions forced a return to Fort Michilimackinac for winter. While there, Rogers was arrested for treason and the expedition disbanded. Carver’s remaining time was spent compiling his journals, before returning home in spring 1768.

After failing to find funding in Massachusetts to publish his journals, Carver headed to England to try to raise money in February 1769. Carver was fifty-nine, and he left his wife and seven children behind, never to see them again. Carver married a Mary Harris in London, having two more children. He repeatedly petitioned the Crown for payment for the failed expedition. He was always denied, since the government had not authorized the trip.

After nine hard years of struggle, Carver worked with Alexander Bicknell, who was never credited, to add some excitement to the journals. They were published in 1778 as Travels Through the Interior Parts of North America: 1766, 1767, 1768. They received wide praise and popularity. Success came too late, however. Jonathan Carver died in poverty on January 31, 1780.

By 1844, Travels to the Interior had greatly declined in popularity and respect. Many historians claimed the whole book was made up, written entirely while Carver was in London. It wasn’t until discovery in 1909 of a 1767 letter from Carver to his first wife from Fort Michilimackinac printed in a 1768 edition of the Boston Chronicle that many were convinced the book was true. This letter contained many of the details in the book, as did his original journals, which were discovered the same year.

Also controversial was a claim from the third edition of the book. It said two Dakota had granted Carver a large tract of land, estimated around 12,000 miles, for resolving a dispute between them and a neighboring group. It has never been confirmed by other sources, however, despite later claims by Carver’s descendents.

In 1854, former Territorial Governor Alexander Ramsey suggested the name Carver for a town located along the Minnesota River, and a nearby creek, in honor of his travels in the area. In March 1855, the surrounding county was also named for him.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

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