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Warren Upham: A man to know

We have known at least since the 19th century that we live in the bottom of an ancient lake bed here in the Red River basin. So how did this knowledge come about?

Speculation about an ancient lake likely existed from early on. American Indians would have noticed the lines of deposits of earth, stone and sand from early lakeshores. Some early settlers used this information in locating homesteads.

Scientists had speculated since the early part of the century that the line of deposits stretching from southern New England and Long Island all the way to North Dakota and Saskatchewan was caused by glacial action. By 1872, one of these scientists, N.H. Winchell, explained that Lake Agassiz resulted from a barrier of receding glacial ice.

The exact size and shores of this lake, however, remained in question. The person who took on the job to find and map these shores was Warren Upham. Who was this person who almost single-handedly mapped the ancient lake that today is the Red River basin?

Warren Upham was born on a New Hampshire farm in 1850, educated at Dartmouth, and worked as a geologist in New Hampshire before moving to Minnesota at the age of 29 to study the state’s resources and geology. Because a primary task of Upham’s work was to map the shorelines of Lake Agassiz, he soon concluded that in order to achieve a comprehensive picture, he would need to bring North Dakota and Manitoba into the study as well.

It took Upham seven years and 11,000 miles of travel by wagon, horse and foot to collect information. The results were made available in a large volume describing topography, geologic formations, drift deposits, reaches of the lake at its various stages, beaches as they formed and changed, even current wells and agricultural and material resources.

As a sign of Upham’s success in breaking political barriers, the study was published by both the U.S. and Canada. The Geographical Survey of Canada published a first report in 1890; the U.S. Geographical Survey published the final Glacial Lake Agassiz in 1895.

As if one large project were not enough, Upham went on to produce a 735-page compendium of Minnesota place names, ranging from rivers and lakes to counties, towns, city streets and parks, among others. In seeking support for the work from the Minnesota Historical Society, he argued that “the value and utility” of such research for Minnesota history “can hardly be overestimated.”

This “careful student” of the Red River basin’s geology and history was given little recognition. Upham’s documents, however, stand on their own even today for their accuracy and detail. And Upham’s willingness to take on big tasks, his perseverance, and his ability to overcome impediments remain important personal models for the many who continue to study and manage the waters and land in the Red River basin.

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