History - Who was Jonathan Carver?

By Leanne Brown, Exec. Director Carver Co. Historical Society

When the county was organized in 1855, it was named after Jonathan Carver. Historical Society staff is often asked who he was. The short answer is that Carver was an explorer, author and the subject of controversy for over 200 years. A longer answer is as follows.

joncarver.JPG (11876 bytes)Jonathan Carver was born in Weymouth, Massachusetts on April 13, 1710. Little is known about his life until he joined the colonial militia in 1755 during the French and Indian War. Much of his time in the militia was spent at forts along the frontier. When he mustered out after eight years, Carver held the rank of Captain. By this time, he was 53 years old. With western lands opening up, Carver bought books on cartography and surveying so that he would be able to make maps of the new frontier.

Captain Carver’s opportunity to explore the expanded frontier materialized in 1766 when a party was organized to map part of the new land and find a western water route which flowed to the Pacific Ocean. Carver was charged with documenting geography as well as the number and location of Indians. He was also told to describe the trade posts that they encountered along the way.

Carver spent the winter of 1767 around Saint Anthony Falls and along the Minnesota River. When the rest of the party joined him that spring, they began to explore the area but quickly ran out of supplies and were forced to turn back. During the rest of 1767 and early 1768, Carver spent much of his time at the frontier Fort Michilimackinac in Michigan where he worked on his journals documenting their exploration. He then traveled to London where he found an editor to liven up his journals for wide-spread publication.

Carver’s book, Travels through the Interior Parts of North America, in the Years 1766, 1767, and 1768 was published in 1778 and immediately found critical acclaim. Unfortunately, the book’s profits did not come soon enough for Carver. He died destitute in 1780.

By 1789 praise for the book had faded and many were questioning the validity of Carver’s exploration claims and accused him of plagiarizing the work of other explorers. The controversy was heightened when Carver’s descendants claimed that two Dakotah chiefs had deeded the Captain thousands of acres of land in what is now southeastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin. Many, including the federal government, saw this claim as fraudulent and it has never been treated as valid.

The controversy over Travels persisted until the original journals documenting his explorations were discovered at the British Museum in the early 1900s. The journals helped prove that his book’s inaccuracies and plagiarism were based on the work of Carver’s editor, not Carver. And while the validity of his land claim has never been fully resolved to the satisfaction of his descendants, Jonathan Carver’s work as an explorer has been exonerated by most historians.

Much of the information for this article comes from the Journals of Jonathan Carver, edited by John Parker.