Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery's Frontier

By Lea Vandervelde | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 9
Celestial Explorers

SEVERAL OF THE summer’s steamboat tourists wished to remain at the agency. Since servants’ help was necessary to making the frontier livable, it was also the key to extending hospitality. “[A]s we are not prepared for much company, none remained but a distinguished French gentleman—who had letters to me from my friends in St. Louis,” the master wrote.1 The French gentleman, who was invited to stay, filled the place of houseguest after Mistress Taliaferro’s brother departed. Joseph Nicollet remained with the Taliaferros all winter. His was a friendship in which one was invited to visit and remains for the year.2 The master wrote: “So Monr. Nicollet has comfortable quarters in my family residence and the use of the Agency house to store and carry on his observation at his leisure.”3

By living in the same household that winter, Harriet came to know one of the century’s most remarkable men. The small man with dark curly hair was a brilliant mathematician, and he had already made significant scientific advances in his native France. He also erroneously predicted that the new science of probability could be used to forecast the stock market. Having made some disastrous investment recommendations to powerful friends in Paris, he had had to leave France in disgrace. Setting his sights on America, he had lofty aims; he wished to add to the exploits of the great French explorers and contribute to the record of explorations in the West. Failing at his career, he labored for his posterity. Trained in the highest scientific learning of mathematics, astronomy, geology, and map making, he came to St. Peter’s with no less an aim than to measure the heavens and chart the waters of the earth.4

When he arrived at the agency doorstep, he brought letters of introduction from influential people in Washington and St. Louis. Nicollet seemed to charm everyone he met.5 Despite the master’s usual distrust of “foreigners,” this Frenchman won his complete trust. Nicollet was described as “urbane, forbearing, rounding off obstructions in intercourse; polished and persuasive, and careful of the feelings of others.”6 As Nicollet, the amiable houseguest, seemed to suit his hosts,

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