The University Record, May 10 , 1999

Jonathan Carver: Scoundrel or scout?

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

Trautmann will speak about Carver's exploits as part of the Humanities Camp seminar this weekend. Map photo courtesy of the Bentley Library
He kept careful notes of his travels in Wisconsin, created some good maps with what he had to work with at the time, was involved in land schemes, and married his second wife before divorcing the first. An explorer and entrepreneur who surveyed the area near Prairie du Sac, Wis., Jonathan Carver was a man either to be revered or pitied, says Tom Trautmann, historian and director of the Institute for the Humanities.

Originally from Connecticut, Carver set out from Fort Michillimackinac in 1776 to find the Northwest Passage; a time when England was well positioned to dominate trade in the west.

Carver’s saga began as he made his way across Lake Michigan to Green Bay, down the Fox and Wisconsin rivers, and up the Mississippi to what is now St. Paul. There he expected to pick up supplies for his trip west, says Trautmann. But when he found the provisions had not arrived, Carver returned to Fort Michillimackinac, only to find that his commanding officer had been replaced. “The new commander claimed that the expedition was unauthorized and refused to pay Carver,” Trautmann says.

So, Carver sailed to England to petition the government for his back pay. But the Revolutionary War broke out, and Carver was stuck in London. “With his resources dwindling,” says Trautmann, “Carver decided to cash in on his knowledge of America. Since he had kept a detailed log of his travels in Wisconsin, he decided to recoup his expenses by writing a book about his travels in the New World.” The book, Travels through the Interior Parts of North America, became quite popular and was translated into German and Dutch. But Carver died before receiving many of the profits.

“It is puzzling that the British were in no hurry to compensate Carver for his maps during the time the British were at war with the colonies,” says Trautmann. “These maps would have served the British as îintelligence’ during the war.”

In the meantime, Carver claimed that he had been given a land grant from the Sioux and started selling shares to the British, including a member of Parliament. The Parliamentarian joined Carver in his enthusiasm for finding the Northwest passage and his plan to develop Lake Pepin, Wis., as a trading center. One of the many schemes for the development was a plan to make brandy on the spot from wild grapes, thereby replacing liquor which was shipped at great expense from the colonies. This brandy would then be used for trade with the Indians.

“The land share scheme is not the only aspect of Carver’s life that is hard to interpret,” says Trautmann. “While in London, Carver married again, although he had a wife and several children back in Connecticut. This may have had to do with his dire poverty in London, but we don’t really know.”

Carver’s land claims were never recognized. For several generations Carver’s heirs and purchasers of shares tried unsuccessfully to gain recognition for their claims. Though Carver died in 1780, shareholders pursued the matter for nearly a century before giving up.