The Owen Expeditions: 1840s surveys along St. Croix River were first of kind

Team led by a top geologist explored region’s natural resources.




12 minute read

“A circumstance which to some may seem trivial, will delay, to a considerable extent, the settlement of a portion of the District. It is the prevalence, especially on the Upper Wisconsin, Chippewa, St. Croix, and Black River countries, and thence north to Lake Superior and to the British line, of venomous insects, in such insufferable quantities, that, at certain seasons, they destroy all comfort or quiet, by day or by night…”

– David Dale Owen, 1852

In the late 1840s, the U.S. government wanted to know just what it had on its hands in the region then called the Northwest. The country had acquired rights to the minerals and some other resources in recent treaties with the Dakota and Ojibwe and industrial interests and settlers were starting to pour in. It was important to have a general idea of the land’s geology, plant life, agriculture value, navigable rivers, water power potential, and more.

In 1847, the U.S. Geological Survey sent David Dale Owen and a party of assistants to survey parts of what is now Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa — including the St. Croix River and several of its tributaries. The first sawmill in Stillwater had started spinning just a couple years earlier. The first year of the survey, 1848, a territorial convention was held in Stillwater that would ultimately give birth to the state of Minnesota, ten years later.

Over the next three years, Owen’s expedition traveled rivers including the Mississippi, Minnesota, Chippewa and the St. Croix, documenting their discoveries in great detail. In 1852, Owen submitted a 638-page report on the region to his agency, which today provides fascinating information about the St. Croix and its surrounding lands at the cusp of great changes. They found a rich landscape full of value provided by nature, and they faced hardship and strenuous work.

“Among the pineries of Northern Wisconsin, and more or less throughout the whole of the above designated region, the buffalo-gnat, the brulot* and the sand-fly, to say nothing of myriads of gigantic musquitoes, carry on incessant war against the equanimity of the unfortunate traveller.”

– Owen

David Dale Owen was a renowned figure in American geology in the first half of the nineteenth century. Born in Scotland and educated in Switzerland, he immigrated to the United States in 1827, moving to a Utopian community his father founded in Indiana. The settlement quickly failed and Owen’s father went back to London. Owen stayed in Indiana, except for two years studying science in London. The community’s idealistic roots led to it becoming a hotbed of early American scientific study.

Before coming to the upper Midwest, Owen had conducted surveys in Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, and eastern Wisconsin. He had gained a reputation for rigorous study.

The region’s geologic resources such as bedrock, glacial deposits, fossils, and soils were Owen’s primary focus and area of expertise, but he and his team also noted much about the plants, animals, lakes and rivers, the Native people, and more. Expeditions took them up and down the St. Croix by canoe and foot, as well as several of its tributaries.

“I and other members of the corps, when unprovided with the necessary defence, have had our ears swelled to two or three times their natural size, and the line of our hats marked, all round, by the trickling blood. It was often necessary to rise many times, in the course of the night, to allay the fever of the head, by repeated cold bathings; and, at some of the worst spots, we could scarcely have discharged our ordinary professional. duties at all, without the constant protection of musquito-netting, worn over our head and face.”

– Owen

For the men and their government, the work was worth its difficulties because they were performing the necessary work to expand the country’s land base and economy. The phrase “manifest destiny” had appeared in print for the first time just a couple years earlier. Within decades, it would determine the fate of millions, as the United States successfully sought to expand from coast to coast, driving out other European nations and Native Americans.

Yet the surveyors and scientists received significant help from local Ojibwe people, who provided navigation, food, medical care, and more. Reading the report, it’s hard to see how the expedition could have succeeded without assistance from the very people whose land the government was seeking to seize.

“At the time I visited this place, the chiefs of the Chippewa Indians, from all parts of the territory, were assembled for the purpose of hearing proposals for the purchase of their unceded lands east of the Mississippi. In consequence of the country through which I had to pass being almost totally unknown, except to the Indians, I availed myself of the opportunity offered by so great an assemblage, to acquire from them as much geographical knowledge as possible.”

– Owen

The narrative sections of Owen’s report describe trips down the river by both water and land. Owen himself led a party that portaged to the St. Croix’s headwaters from the Brule River, having come from Lake Superior, and then descended the St. Croix to Stillwater. His assistant Joseph Norwood meanwhile started an overland journey on the St. Louis River that took he, a colleague, and two Métis men nine days to cover, slogging through swamps and dense forest, noting outcrops and potential farmland. The trek nearly killed them all of exhaustion, illness, and hunger.

The late 1840s were still early in the study of science, and geology more specifically. The idea of past Ice Ages was only first suggested in 1840, and Owen does not appear to attribute any of his geological observations to the work of glaciers. Today, we know that most of the St. Croix River region’s landscape — and the river itself — was shaped in a variety of ways by the advance and retreat of glaciers until about 12,000 years ago.

Among their findings, Owen and his colleagues noted the richness of mussel species in the St. Croix, found a fern on the steep basalt cliffs of the Dalles that had never been seen before in North America, and discovered a significant new trilobite fossil near Stillwater.

Here are some selected excerpts from Owen’s 1852 report on the expedition, illustrated with contemporary photos:

Brule-St. Croix Portage

The portage trail which leads from the head waters of the Bois Brulé to those of the St. Croix, passes on the summit-level a ridge of drift, which is one hundred and twenty feet above Lake St. Croix, in which the stream of the same name takes its rise. These heights command an extensive prospect of the surrounding country, which is clothed with evergreens.”

Upper St. Croix Lake

“The head waters of St. Croix River proceed from a larger lake, about six miles long, and a half to three-quarters of a mile wide. The shore at the northern extremity is low, but on the east and west it is bounded by ridges twenty to thirty feet high, on which the growth is chiefly birch. Boulders of trap, granite, and hornblendic rocks line the margin of the lake. The channel of its outlet runs for three or four miles, like a canal, between fields of wild rice, interspersed with bulrushes and water-lilies.”

The St. Croix Trail

“Seven or eight miles below Upper Lake St. Croix, on the west side of the river, the trail which leads from Lake Superior strikes it. This is about two or three miles above the mouth of Schawas-kosibi, or Green River, a tributary which comes in from the southeast.”


“About twenty-three or twenty-four miles below the lake, at the head of the St. Croix, the river expands into a small lake, or, rather, two lakes, connected by a bend of the river. At the foot of the lower of these, the first red sandstone which was observed in place reaches the surface. Here the rapids commence flowing over its horizontal ledges, which are much broken and split into pieces. The rapids are short, with. slack water between. Two of these are very sudden, swift, and difficult to navigate. Trap boulders, some of which are large, fill the channel, and do not appear to be far out of place. The width of the St. Croix, at these rapids, is about twenty-five yards.”


“There are many fine Unios in the St. Croix; most of the species seem to be the same as those found in the streams of the Western States, though they have a slightly modified outline of form. Among them I noticed U. undulatus, siliquoides, crassus, cuneatus, mytiloides, gibbosus, and alatus. These fresh-water mollusca seem to be more abundant on the St. Croix than on the Chippewa, Bad River, or the Brulé. A few were observed even as high up as the outlet of the Upper Lake St. Croix.”

Wild rice waters

“The lakes are generally shallow, and many of them are dotted with small wooded islands. In several instances, these islands were found to be based upon accumulations of boulders. Those formed by the widening of rivers, or connected in chains, are filled with aquatic plants, many of them containing large fields of the Zizania aquatica, the wild oat or northern rice plant. The rice lakes are most liberally distributed in the sections about the head-waters of the Red Cedar, Nemakagon, St. Croix, and Snake Rivers, in the south, and the sources of Big Fork and Red Lake Rivers in the north; and, further east, in the Vermilion Lake region. This grain is an excellent article of diet, and forms a considerable source of support to the Chippewa Indians; many of the bands making annual visits to the rice regions, toward the end of August, for the purpose of gathering a supply for the winter. These fields also attract immense numbers of water-fowl.”

The Dalles

“Half a mile below the Falls, one of these ranges rises into perpendicular walls on both sides of the river, and constitutes the Dalles of that stream. Between these, the St. Croix rushes, at first, with great velocity, forming a succession of whirlpools, until it makes a sudden bend; then glides along placidly, reflecting in its deep waters the dark image of the columnar masses as they rise towering above each other to the height of a hundred to a hundred and seventy feet.”

Fragrant fern

Fragrant fern, Polk County, Wis. (Derek Anderson/iNaturalist)

“Aspidium fragrans, (Sw.) Trap-rocks. Falls of St. Croix…. The whole fern beset with fragrant, glandular hairs. Growing in dense tufts, in the shaded crevices of trap-rocks, with the withered remains of several years’ growth still adhering. The fronds are of a deep green colour above, paler below, four to nine inches high. The aroma is permanent and agreeable. I am informed by Dr. Torrey that this species has never before been found within the limits of the United States, but has been obtained in British America and Kamschatka, where it is used for making tea. In the locality here specified, it is quite abundant.”


“On the west side of the St. Croix, at the Dalles, forty or fifty feet above the present level of the river, are large pot-holes, some of which are twenty to twenty-five feet in diameter, and fifteen to twenty feet deep. These seem to have been worn into the solid rock by sand, gravel, and loose rocks, kept in motion by circular currents of water, similar to those now observed in the river at the head of the Dalles. They afford evidence, either of successive upheavals of the trap, or of the waters of the St. Croix having flowed formerly at a higher level.”

Ancient ocean creature

“Specific character.—The principal distinctions between this and the other species of the genus are its larger size, less convexity of the glabella, the greater extent and slightly concave, shovel-shaped area expanded in front of the glabella; with the greater size of the caudal flap and the shortness of the caudal spines, set wide apart, and projecting vertically backwards; five or sometimes six segments in the axal lobe of the pygidium, since the terminal and largest lobe is usually, though obscurely, divided by a faint furrow.

“Dimensions.—Cephalic shield 1,7, long ; pees shield 2,3, long, 4 inches wide.

“This species was first found, at is most common, in a dark gray, argillo-calcareous bed intercalated in member d of F. 1, ninety or one hundred feet below the base of the Lower Magnesian Limestone, near the margin of Lake St. Croix, above Stillwater; towards the base of La Grange Mountain, and at the Great Slide, below Lake Pepin, on the Mississippi.” More information…

Best laid plans

By Owen’s chief assistant, Joseph G. Norwood:

Boggy country between the St. Louis and St. Croix Rivers. (Greg Seitz/St. Croix 360)

“After remaining six days on St. Louis River, I started on foot, with two [Métis men], Joe Cadotte and Pierre Le Meur, for packmen, to cross the country lying between St. Louis River and the head of Lake St. Croix. Neither of these men had ever been in that section, or knew anything of the route, and our sole reliance was on the Indian map and my compass to lead us to our destination. From the best information which could be obtained, it was expected that the journey would not occupy more than five days, allowing ample time for making all the observations necessary in such a reconnoissance.”

“Nearly two miles south of the river, we ascended the high range of hills which bear off towards the south shore of Lake Superior, and entered on what we supposed to be the trail to Lake Pokegoma. Owing to the heavy rains which had recently fallen, the swamps were rendered almost impassable ; this, together with the weight of the packs, made our progress necessarily slow.”

“On the morning of the 7th, one of my men was attacked with fever, and was unable to travel, from that time, more than from five to ten miles a day. And, to add to the difficulty, the trail disappeared that day and no trace of it could be discovered. The route from St. Louis River to Pokegoma has been used principally for winter travel; few even of the Indians passing it at any other season. It runs directly across swamps and lakes, which are impassable, except when bridged by ice; while in the most favourable situations, the path is easily obscured by vegetation, and, if disused, soon becomes entirely obliterated.”

“At two o’clock, P. M., on the 12th, we reached Lake Pokegoma, having been seven days in traversing a country, which, I have been told, has been passed over by Indians in thirty-six hours’ constant travel, when the lakes and swamps were frozen. Our route, so far, was an exceedingly winding one, having often been turned aside from our course by lakes and swamps, and compelled to walk many miles to avoid them.”

“Next morning I procured a passage in a canoe about to descend Snake River for my sick man, and having hired a [Métis] youth to carry a part of his pack to the mouth of Sunrise River, while I added the remainder to mine, at two o’clock, on the 13th, we entered on the trail to St. Croix River. The country between Pokegoma and the St. Croix, along this route, is an excellent one. The principal timber is sugar maple, poplar, oak, ash, walnut, elm, hornbeam, and some birch and pine. Between some of the low ridges wet meadows occur, but most of them are sufficiently dry, at the proper season, for mowing.”

“I returned to Stillwater on the 25th of August, and on the morning of the 27th started on my return to Lake Superior, with the view of examining the eastern line of the District, from Lake Superior to its southern termination… We proceeded by land to the Falls of the St. Croix. At that place we procured a canoe, and ascended the river to Upper St. Croix Lake. From thence we made a portage to the head of the Bois Brulé, and descended that river to its mouth. Here we were detained two days by high winds, and then proceeded to Madeline Island, where we arrived on the 11th of September.”

Surprising subsistence

“Dr. Parry was instructed to collect as much information as possible with regard to the economical and medicinal applications of plants, used by the Indians. Several of their most important native articles of food, as he justly remarks, are found in regions where we might least expect to find the means of subsistence ; thus, the wild rice fringes the innumerable lakes and rivers of this northern Indian country, the cranberry delights in the irreclaimable marshes and bogs, and the huckleberry flourishes in the barren ridges.”

Early energy drink?

“The waters of the Namekagon are not as highly coloured as those of the principal branches of the Chippewa, but they are warmer and less palatable. The Indians who inhabit its banks are wont, before drinking it, to mix it with maple sugar.”

Lots of lakes

“Although a great number of lakes have been laid down on the map along the lines of observation, still but a faint idea can be obtained, from consulting it, of their number and distribution. These are matters of considerable interest, in consequence of the influence which the presence of so great an assemblage of waters must exercise on the climate and productions of the region in which they are situated.”


St. Croix 360 offers commenting to support productive discussion. We don’t allow name-calling, personal attacks, or misinformation. This discussion may be heavily moderated and we reserve the right to block nonconstructive comments. Please: Be kind, give others the benefit of the doubt, read the article closely, check your assumptions, and stay curious. Thank you!

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9 responses to “The Owen Expeditions: 1840s surveys along St. Croix River were first of kind”

  1. Penny Van Kampen Avatar
    Penny Van Kampen


  2. Sue Avatar

    Thank you for this magnificent article!

  3. martyharding1 Avatar

    You have outdone yourself, Greg, with this exemplary article. The careful juxtaposition of Owens’ writings with contemporary photographs and headings makes Owens research vibrant and accessible. St. Croix 360 has become indispensable to those who love the St. Croix Watershed. Thank you!

  4. Bradley Larry Weber Avatar
    Bradley Larry Weber

    Love this stuff. Thank you!

  5. Mark Hove Avatar
    Mark Hove

    Great content, thanks, Greg! I love the fossil info.

  6. Daniel Engstrom Avatar
    Daniel Engstrom

    Excellent piece, Greg. And along closely related lines, I recommend the recent geologic account of the Owen-Norwood Survey by John Green, retired UMD geology professor and expert on Lake Superior’s North Shore volcanics:
    Green, John C. 2022. The Owen-Norwood Survey of 1847-1850 – The first geological survey of the northeast Minnesota region – and its context in the evolution of geological science. Minnesota Geological Survey Open File Report OFR-22-9 University of Minnesota Saint Paul. 35 pp.
    There’s an interesting comment in the Abstract about the new (at the time) theory of continental glaciation (with more detail in the report body):
    “Not long before the time of the Survey, Louis Agassiz had developed the concept of recent continental glaciation (“Etudes sur les Glaciers”, 1840) and was giving popular lectures in Eastern cities. Norwood must have read Agassiz’s book or attended his lectures, as in many places in his report he calls attention to surficial deposits, erratics and bedrock scratches that are clear evidence for glaciation.”
    … which seems somewhat at odds with your comment: “Owen does not appear to attribute any of his geological observations to the work of glaciers.”
    Could be that Owen had a pretty good idea of what he was looking at, but was hesitant to invoke the new glacial theory by name.
    I’ll send you a pdf of John Green’s MGS Open-file report … and here’s the link:

  7. doerrkson Avatar

    WI Commissioner of Public Lands has the original land surveys, notes and sometimes maps online. For example, here’s a link to the Town of Laketown survey sketch notes from 1848.

  8. David L Trudeau Avatar
    David L Trudeau

    For a comprehensive history of the area from an Ojibwe perspective read Michael Witgen’s book “Seeing Red.” I am reading now and this fits right in.

    1. Greg Seitz Avatar
      Greg Seitz

      Thanks, I have requested it from the library!