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Carver, Jonathan (1710–1780)

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Portrait of Captain Jonathan Carver, an early explorer in the area that later became Carver County

Portrait of Jonathan Carver, who was an early explorer of the area that later became Carver County.

Jonathan Carver was an explorer, mapmaker, author, and subject of controversy. He was among the first white men to explore and map areas of Minnesota, including what later became Carver County. While French explorers had been in the area earlier, they did not leave behind detailed maps or journals of their travels as Carver did.

Jonathan Carver was born in Weymouth, Massachusetts, on April 13, 1710, when Massachusetts was still part of the British Empire. Carver's father, Ensign David Carver (an honorary, not, military rank), a prominent public figure, held many offices, including constable and selectman (chief administrative officer). He also owned property, including a gristmill. The Carvers moved to Canterbury, Connecticut, where his father again held public office, when Jonathan was still a boy. Ensign Carver died when Jonathan was seventeen.

Jonathan Carver grew to adulthood in Canterbury, marrying Abigail Robbins in 1746. They had a daughter in 1747 and another in 1748. The family then settled in Montague, Massachusetts, where another five children were born. Carver became town selectman in Montague before entering the Massachusetts militia in 1755. By 1763, the end of the French and Indian War, Carver had become a captain with his own company of militiamen.

When the war ended, Carver still wanted to be of service. He signed on as third in command of an expedition to discover a Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean. He believed expedition organizers Robert Rogers and Captain James Tute had approval from the British Crown, with payment promised through the British treasury. This later proved false.

The crew left from Boston on May 20, 1766, with Carver as draftsman and mapmaker. They were bound for Fort Michilimackinac in the Great Lakes region. Carver kept detailed journal accounts of the expedition. By December 7, 1766, they reached the Minnesota River. There, Carver befriended a band of Dakota, whom he calls "Naudowessies" in his journal. They allowed him to winter with them, and he spent time observing and recording their customs and celebrations in his journals. This would become the focal point of his writing.

Spring 1767 saw a return east to Prairie du Chien to rejoin the main expedition. Lack of provisions forced a return to Fort Michilimackinac for winter. While there, Rogers was arrested for treason and the expedition disbanded. Carver's remaining time was spent compiling his journals before returning home in spring 1768.

After failing to find funding in Massachusetts to publish his journals, Carver headed to England to raise money in February 1769. He was fifty-nine. He left his wife and seven children behind, never to see them again. Carver married a woman named Mary Harris in London and had two more children. He repeatedly petitioned the Crown for payment for the failed expedition. He was always denied, since the government had not authorized the trip.

After nine years of struggle, Carver worked with Alexander Bicknell, who was never credited, to add some excitement to the journals. They were published in 1778 as Travels Through the Interior Parts of North America: 1766, 1767, 1768. They garnered praise and popularity. Success came too late, however. Carver died in poverty on January 31, 1780.

By 1844, Travels to the Interior had greatly declined in popularity and respect. Many historians claimed the whole book was made up, written entirely while Carver was in London. It wasn't until discovery in 1909 of a 1767 letter from Carver to his first wife from Fort Michilimackinac, printed in a 1768 edition of the Boston Chronicle, that many were convinced the book was true. This letter contained many of the details in the book, as did his original journals, which were discovered the same year.

Also controversial was a claim from the third edition of the book. It said two Dakota had granted Carver a large tract of land, estimated around twelve thousand miles, for resolving a dispute between them and a neighboring group. It has never been confirmed by other sources, however, despite later claims by Carver's descendents.

In 1854, former Territorial Governor Alexander Ramsey suggested the name Carver for a town located along the Minnesota River, and a nearby creek, in honor of his travels in the area. In March 1855, the surrounding county was also named for him.

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"Jonathan Carver." Encyclopedia Britannica Online.

Gelb, Norman, ed. Jonathan Carver's Travels Through America, 1766–1768: An Eighteenth-Century Explorer's Account of Uncharted America. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1993.

Jonathan in Chaska. Jonathan Carver, American Explorer.

Related Images

Portrait of Captain Jonathan Carver, an early explorer in the area that later became Carver County
Portrait of Captain Jonathan Carver, an early explorer in the area that later became Carver County

Turning Point

In 1766–1767, Jonathan Carver explores the area that would become Carver County, creating detailed maps and accounts of the land and American Indians.


April 13, 1710

Jonathan Carver is born in Weymouth, Massachusetts.


The Carver family moves to Canterbury, Connecticut.


Carver marries Abigail Robbins.


Carver and his family move to Montague, Massachusetts.


Carver joins a Massachusetts militia.


The French and Indian War ends; Carver leaves the militia with the rank of Captain.


Carver joins an expedition to explore the interior of America and find a Northwest Passage.

May 20, 1766

The expedition departs, bound for Fort Michilimackinac.

December 7, 1766

The expedition reaches the Minnesota River; Carver camps with a band of Dakota for the winter.

Spring 1767

Carver rejoins the main expedition at Prairie du Chien.

Winter 1767

The expedition returns to Fort Michilimackinac for winter. Robert Rogers is arrested and the expedition is disbanded. Carver compiles his journals.


Carver returns home to Massachusetts.


Carver's edited journals are published as Travels Through the Interior Parts of North America: 1766, 1767, 1768.

January 31, 1780

Carver dies in poverty in England.


The discovery of original journals and letters proves the validity of Carver's book.