Jonathan Carver

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Jonathan Carver

Jonathan Carver (April 13, 1710 – January 31, 1780) was a colonial American military officer, explorer and writer. After his exploration of the northern Mississippi valley and western Great Lakes region, he published a widely read account of his expedition, Travels through America in the Years 1766, 1767, and 1768 (1778).

Carver was born in Weymouth, Province of Massachusetts Bay on April 13, 1710, the son of David and Hannah Dyer Carver. His father was modestly wealthy and was elected to various public positions in Weymouth and Canterbury. The family moved to Canterbury, Connecticut when Carver was still a young child. The details of his education are unknown but he was literate, taught himself surveying and cartography, and may have studied medicine at one time. He also apprenticed as a cobbler. On October 20, 1746 he married Abigail Robins and they eventually had five children together. Around 1748, Carver moved his young family to Montague, Massachusetts, at the time a small frontier settlement where he served as a selectman.[1][2]

In 1755 Carver joined the Massachusetts colonial militia at the start of the French and Indian War. In 1757, Carver, a friend of Robert Rogers, enlisted with Burke's Rangers. Burke's Rangers would in 1758 become a part of Rogers' Rangers.[3] During the war he studied surveying and mapping techniques. He was successful in the military and eventually became captain of a Massachusetts regiment in 1761. Two years later he quit the army with a determination to explore the new territories acquired by the British as a result of the war.

Initially Carver was unable to find a sponsor for his proposed explorations but in 1766, Robert Rogers contracted Carver to lead an expedition to find a western water route to the Pacific Ocean, the Northwest Passage. There was a great incentive to discover this route. The king and Parliament had promised a vast prize in gold for any such discovery. The eastern route to the Pacific was around the Cape of Good Hope. That route was both lengthy and contested by competing European powers.

In 1766-67 he explored parts of present-day Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa, mainly along the upper Mississippi River. When he returned east, however, his efforts were not recognized. He sailed to England in 1769, seeking recompense, and remained there for the rest of his life. In 1778 he published a book on his travels, which became very successful. He died in 1780.

Following his death, some of his heirs claimed to that he had obtained a land grant from two Sioux chiefs for a large area of eastern Wisconsin during his voyage; however, the grant was legally invalid and may have been a later fraud.

Carver, Minnesota, Carver County, Minnesota and Jonathan Association in Chaska, Minnesota were named in honor of Jonathan Carver for his exploration and mapping of the region.[4]

Travels and exploration[edit]

Carver left Fort Michilimackinac at present-day Mackinaw City, Michigan in the spring of 1766. Taking large fur-trading canoes, he traveled the well-utilized trade routes of the French. His route took him along the northern coast of Lake Michigan, cut across to the Door Peninsula (what is now Door County) in Wisconsin and proceeded along the western edge of the bay until reaching what is now Green Bay, Wisconsin.

There was a small Metis settlement at the foot of Green Bay (Lake Michigan), as well as a French monastery nearby in De Pere, Wisconsin. Carver resupplied here and then continued. He traveled up the Fox River to the Winnebego Indian village at the north end of Lake Winnebago at the site of the present city of Neenah, Wisconsin. Continuing up the Fox River he eventually arrived at the "Grand Portage" a well used portage between the Fox River and the Wisconsin River. This was a major fur trade location because from here (now Portage, Wisconsin) furs could proceed from the Great Lakes to the Wisconsin River, hence to the Mississippi and New Orleans.

Carver crossed to the Wisconsin River and then traveled down the Mississippi emerging at the great trade encampment at Prairie du Chien. Rather than turn south towards New Orleans, his expedition turned north into what is now Minnesota. By the late summer he had reached the Saint Anthony Falls at what is now Minneapolis. He spent some time with the tribe near the falls but turned south, down the Mississippi to find a more suitable place to spend the winter. During this portion of the trip he discovered Carver's Cave.

He spent the winter in a tribal village in what is now eastern Iowa. The next spring he encountered James Tute and James Stanley Goddard, who had been sent to accompany Carver on his journey. They continued exploring and mapping up the Mississippi River through what is now Minnesota, and Wisconsin. They then headed for Grand Portage on Lake Superior, hoping that Rogers had sent supplies there for them. However, instead of supplies they found a letter from him chiding them for having spent as much money as they already had and warning them to be more thrifty in the future. Unable to proceed without the badly needed supplies, they headed back to Fort Michilimackinac, arriving there on August 29, 1767.

He found that his sponsor Royal Governor Robert Rogers was under suspicion of plotting treason against England. On December 6, 1767, Rogers was arrested, charged with treason, placed in irons and put in solitary confinement. While he spent a miserable winter in an unheated guardhouse, Carver probably spent time preparing his journal of the expedition for publication. In the spring of 1768 the first ship of the season took Carver and Rogers both to Detroit. Carver travelled in the relative comfort of a passenger cabin, while Rogers was forced to sit out the journey seated upon the ballast rocks in the hold of the ship. Rogers was taken to Montreal to be court-martialed, and although he was found not guilty of the charges against him, he was not returned to his position as Royal Governor. Carver submitted a list of expenses to his superiors, but payment was denied on the grounds that Rogers had not had sufficient authority to order such an expedition.

Carver was outraged. He believed that he had been legitimately hired by the Crown to map and explore the newly acquired territory. He believed that he had possibly identified a Northwest Passage. He had spent two years working and now had little to show for it but maps and log books. No one seemed interested. In 1769 Carver left for England to petition the government for his promised payment and for a reward for identifying a potential Northwest Passage.

He left his wife Abigail in the colonies and never saw her again. He spent the remainder of his life petitioning the [English] government for his payments. He did in fact ultimately get two separate grants from the crown, although not the great reward for identifying a Northwest Passage. While working at this lobbying endeavor he wrote his Travels ... book, and started a second family in London.

The book[edit]

A Man and Woman of the Ottigaumies, copperplate from Jonathan Carver's book, 1781 edition.

Carver's book was an immediate success when first published in 1778, and a second edition published in Dublin followed the next year; over thirty editions and versions have been published since in several languages. The publication of this book was a significant event in the history of the exploration of the American West as Carver was the first English-speaking explorer to venture west of the upper Mississippi River. He anticipated the idea of a continental divide as he was the first to mention a large mountain range to the west (presumably the Rocky Mountains) that blocks the westward passage and serves as a continental divide. Further, the name 'Oregon' appears in print here for the first time, both in the text, and on one of the maps. Carver penetrated farther into the West than any other English explorer before the Revolution and stimulated curiosity concerning routes to the Pacific, later satisfied by Mackenzie and Lewis and Clark. The book proved and remained immensely popular. The profits did not come soon enough for him, however. He died in poverty on January 31, 1780 in London.

In the 20th century, the reliability of Carver's narrative has been debated by scholars; examination of Carver's manuscript journal establishes that it differs in important respects from the published version. More recent research points to the conclusion that while Carver actually made the tour he describes, he suppressed the fact that he performed it as a hired agent of Royal Governor Major Robert Rogers, rather than on his own responsibility.

E.G. Bourne, in a 1906 essay published in the American Historical Review, summarized his view of Carver's book: "Scholars are in general agreement that much of the work in this volume is an abridgement or adaptation of historical writings by Charlevoix, Adair, and La Hontan. Entire chapters read as near verbatim text from one or more of these other authors." [5]

Carver's grant[edit]

After Carver's death, Dr. John Coakley Lettsom purchased the copyrights to the book and had published a third edition [1781]. Lettsom claimed he had in his possession a deed, signed by two chiefs of the Sioux, giving Carver title to about 10,000 square miles (30,000 km2) in what is now Wisconsin and Minnesota. The deed could not be located after the death of Carver's London widow.

In 1804, a group of descendants of Carver petitioned the U.S. Congress for ownership rights to a large tract of land in Wisconsin and Minnesota, claiming that the deed supposedly dated at the "Great Cave, May the 1st, 1767" entitled Carver and his family to over 10,000 square miles (30,000 km2) of land. Specifically they identified; "the whole of a certain tract or territory of land, bounded as follows, viz.: from the Falls of St. Anthony, running on the east bank of the Mississippi, nearly southeast, as far as Lake Pepin, where the Chippewa joins the Mississippi, and from thence eastward, five days travel, accounting twenty English miles per day, and from thence again to the Falls of St. Anthony, on a direct straight line." This triangular tract in northwestern Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota would have been bounded by lines running from modern Minneapolis southeast to Pepin, then due east to near Stevens Point, and from there northwest roughly through Eau Claire to Minneapolis.

Congress investigated their claim and ultimately concluded that English law at the time prohibited any land grants to individuals. They also concluded that Carver himself never made any mention of such a grant in his book or afterwards, and finally that no Indians in the region had any knowledge of such a transaction having been made by their grandparents' generation; in 1817, Sioux elders in St. Paul had even told Carver's heirs that no chiefs with the names on the deed had ever existed. Congress concluded, on Jan. 29, 1823, not to permit Carver's heirs the rights to this land in Wisconsin. Land speculators and con-men nevertheless continued to promote the sale of portions of "Carver's Grant" for another half century.

According to the Wisconsin Historical Society:

Modern scholars who have reviewed all the evidence cannot confirm the existence of any such grant to Carver, who never mentioned it in surviving records. They have, however, documented a great deal of deceit, manipulation, and self-delusion by his heirs and their agents as they attempted to sell portions of the land in the decades following his death.[6]


  • Travels Through the Interior Parts of North America in the Years 1766, 1767, and 1768, first published in 1778.[1]
  • The Journals of Jonathan Carver and Related Documents, 1766-1770. Edited by John Parker. Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1976. This was the original account of Carver's expedition, from which Travels was distilled. It seems to be much more reliable than the book that was derived from it.
  • A Treatise on the Culture of the Tobacco plant; with the manner in which it is usually cured adapted to northern climates and designed for the use of the landholders of Great Britain. London, 1779 - "Written during the American War of Independence (1775–1783), or as Carver delicately puts it 'the present unhappy dissentions,' when trade was disrupted, this treatise details the methods required to grow tobacco in Britain. Carver argues that two acts of parliament from the reign of Charles II prohibiting the cultivation of tobacco should be repealed. Carver felt that the landowner would profit, revenue could be restored to the treasury by means of a duty on the plants, and smokers would be more than satisfied with the 'powerful aromatic' tobacco produced in a northern climate."


A 2005 episode of the Discovery Channel series A Haunting includes claims that the ghost of Carver tormented residents of Summerwind, a former estate on the coast of West Bay Lake in Wisconsin.[7]


Jonathan Carver's papers are available for research use. They include photostatic copies of a journal of Carver's expedition to the Mississippi River (1766–1767), a Survey journal, and a Dictionary of the Naudowessee language, and typed transcripts of these documents; copies of surveys and deeds to the Carver land grant of 1767, which encompassed some four million acres in present-day western Wisconsin; copies of letters about the French and Indian War (1759) and James Tute's gifts to the Indians (1768); copies of two petitions to the British government (1769–1770) asking that Carver be reimbursed for his expedition to the Mississippi; and a copy of a recommendation by the British government on this request.[8]

Other papers relating to Jonathan Carver and the Carver land grant are also available. MHS Library Catalog: Jonathan Carver and related papers


  1. ^ Bickham 2004
  2. ^ Williams 1984
  3. ^ Edward Duffield Neill (1890), Occurrences in the vicinity of St. Paul, Minn., before its incorporation as a city, D. Mason & Co., pp. 5–
  4. ^ Gannett, Henry (1905). The Origin of Certain Place Names in the United States. Govt. Print. Off. pp. 70.
  5. ^ Jonathan Carver, exhibit essay
  6. ^ Wisconsin Historical Society Carver's Grant
  7. ^ "The Haunting of Summerwind". A Haunting Season 1 Episode 2. Retrieved 24 October 2014.
  8. ^ Jonathan Carver papers

Further reading[edit]

  • Ahrens, M. O. (2017). "The Impact of Captain Jonathan Carver's Maps and Journal on the 1782–1783 British-American Peace Agreement". Imago Mundi. 69 (2).
  • Bickham, Troy O. (2004). "Carver, Jonathan (1710-1780)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.
  • Savage, Henry (1959). Discovering America 1700-1875. Harper & Row. pp. 42–48. ISBN 0-06-090740-1.
  • Williams, D. E. (1984). "Jonathan Carver". Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 31. American Colonial Writers, 1735-1781. Gale.

External links[edit]

Media related to Jonathan Carver at Wikimedia Commons