Wilderness in the City: Summer Writing Tour: Ellet’s Ramblings & Thoreau’s Notes
“The Minnesota River is always a bender. Long may she wave.” A reporter aboard the Franklin Steele, 1861
Ellet’s journey in 1852 was arranged by a New York newspaper whose interest was in a series of articles with a sensationalist telling of the expansion of the Western Territories, its habitat, natives, settlers and the rail and river journey, getting there and back. Her trip was described as Fashionable Tourism, resulting in an expose of the new western expansion printed in newspaper and journal articles and her book, “Summer Rambles in the West,” published in 1853.
Steamboating down the Minnesota River was fashionable during Ellet’s and Thoreau’s visits to Minnesota. Ellet in 1852 and Thoreau in 1861, both traveled down the Minnesota River past Shakopee and the area to the north, now called Eden Prairie, Thoreau in a side-wheeled steam packet called the Franklin Steele and Ellet in a flat river boat called a bateau. A side-wheeled steam packet is a paddle steamship or riverboat powered by a steam engine that drives paddle wheels to propel the craft through the water. A bateau is a shallow-draft, flat-bottomed boat which was used extensively across North America, especially in the colonial period and in the fur trade. According to Horace Mann, Thoreau’s traveling partner, the boat crept through the river’s twists and turns at eight miles an hour.
Mann wrote home to his mother that the river’s “crookedness” made the journey a series of “intricate maneuvers” which resulted in the trip taking much longer than he had anticipated. And the narrowness of the Minnesota River resulted in trees and bushes falling into the steamboat. That wasn’t all bad, because Thoreau had the ability to botanize from the deck, such flora and fauna as daisy fleabane and honewort, warbling vireos, turtles and rose-breasted grosbeaks. Thoreau wrote, “I could pluck almost any plant on the bank from the boat.” Thoreau, who was an amateur botanist, identified cottonwoods, elms, black willows and long leafed-willows.
Onboard the Franklin Steele were notables such as Governor Alexander Ramsey and his wife, Indian Agent Thomas J. Galbraith, speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives and the Deputy Sherriff of Ramsay County, and Thoreau’s traveling companion, Horace Mann, an American Educational reformist and politician who served in the Massachusetts legislature. In all there were 100 people onboard, including 25 to 30 ladies.
The river ride was billed as the Great Pleasure Excursion including a live band, three meals a day, a saloon, barbershop, communal washing facilities and staterooms, if you were lucky enough to nab one.
Small world along the Thomas Steele. Thoreau ran into Joseph May on his journey, a cousin of Louisa May Alcott. May and Thoreau attended Harvard at the same time. The author, Louisa May Alcott, also a Concord Massachusetts resident said this about Thoreau, "He used to come smiling up to his neighbors, to announce that the bluebirds had arrived.”
Aboard the Franklin Steele Thoreau jotted down his daily observations in unintelligible strokes in a field notebook, which scholars consider atrocious penmanship as well as the use of antiquated botanical names which has confounded present day botanists. Nevertheless they gathered and compared his notes with current day observations to determine a relationship between flowering times and rising winter and spring temperatures. When compared to scientifically gathered data Thoreau’s notes reveal temperatures that have risen four degrees and 200 less plant species today than there were in the 1850’s.
Ellet, who by today’s criteria would be considered a very commercial writer, published assiduously in the popular Dime Novels of that era, Edgar Allen Poe’s Broadway Journal and the fancy leather bound, embossed, engraved and hand painted Lady’s Godey’s Books, a precursor to the Lady’s Home Journal, and her own collection of books: Summer Rambles in the West, Women of the American Revolution, Pioneer Women of the West, The Practical Housekeeper and so many others.
Jeff Strate standing in front of a Cottonwood Tree in the Minnesota River Biome. These trees can get to be 60 to 100 feet tall with a canopy spread of 60 to 100 feet and a grith of 5 or 6 feet.
Ellet described her Bateau voyage on the Minnesota River as a mode of transit particularly Western, yet with the “charm of novelty and romance.” After being detained a day on a steamboat grounded on a sand-bar, the group accompanying her decided to disembark and paddle a less “devious course” in a Bateau. Serpentine is how she described the Minnesota River with luxuriant undulating wild grass along its banks and an abundance of wild cherry bushes and swarms of mosquitoes.
Ellet's and Thoreau's field of vision from their water transport was an ecological subsection of the Minnesota River, what is now referred to as the Minnesota River Valley Wildlife Refuge, which lies within the Minnestoa and Northeast Iowa Morainal (glacially formed accumulation of unconsolidated glacial debris (soil and rock)) and the Big Woods Subsection of Minnesota.
The Minnesota Master Naturalist Program has given this area, which is essentially Big Woods and Big Rivers, the name Eastern Broadleaf Forest, beginning in Minnesota and stretching southeast to Arkansas and parts of other twelve states along the way. Three of the largest rivers are found in this region, the Mississippi, the St. Croix, and the Minnesota. All three were formed during the last glacial period when the huge glacial lakes formed into river channels. The Big Woods, Big Rivers takes in approximately 12 million acres of the state of Minnesota.
Rice and Grass Lake, adjacent the Minnesota River, are in the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge.
According to the DNR’s West Metro Hydrologist both Rice and Grass Lakes are considered Minnesota River floodplain lakes, as was the case in the days of the Fashionable Tourists when the river floods, the lakes flood too. The width of the entire Minnesota River valley is wide compared to the river itself. The river valley was created by other glacial rivers. Together a tremendous volume of water was released, creating a very wide Minnesota River Valley as it exists today.
Today the very wide river valley exists but the present Minnesota River, although still considered a large river, is quite small compared to some glacial rivers. At one time the Minnesota River filled the entire valley from bluff top to bluff top. Because the valley bottom is so broad and the existing river floods often, the flood plain is also very broad and contains many lakes. The lakes are replenished by floods runoff, and ground water inflow. So sometimes the lakes are part of the river and sometimes not. This variation creates dynamic ecosystems and makes for great habitat for fish and wildlife.
It is interesting to note that the Mississippi River inherits the broad floodplain valley starting with the confluence of the Minnesota River at Pike Island at Ft Snelling State Park.
The broad valley itself, combined with the steep bluffs also creates many groundwater discharge zones along the lower part of the Minnesota River valley. Many of these discharge zones result in special wetlands called fens. Not far from Grass and Rice Lakes are significant fens that are so unique they have earned special protections as DNR Scenic and Natural Areas.
Thoreau was obsessed with unspoiled America and the search for primeval forest. As an amateur botanist, Thoreau lived, breathed, and penned nature. His journey to Minnesota was his last excursion and the finale of all his natural history projects.