I would hope that most residents of our region know that what we call the Red River Valley is actually an old lake bed: that of glacial Lake Agassiz. Most residents think of the lakebed as covering a sliver of land along the North Dakota – Minnesota border and perhaps some portion of Manitoba downstream of the Red River, but it was much larger than that. At some time, roughly between 12,000 and 9,000 years ago, glacial Lake Agassiz covered portions of North Dakota, Minnesota, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario.
If you were to peruse the phone books of communities in in the Red River Valley the term Agassiz is used quite often: an elementary school, National Wildlife Refuge, various businesses including real estate and insurance agencies, ag services, and even a running or jogging group bears the name.
So what or who is Agassiz? Although geologist William Keating studied the area in the early 1800’s and hypothesized that it was a lake bed, it was geologist Warren Upham who, in the late 1800’s named the glacial lake in honor of Louis Agassiz. Agassiz is considered to be the father of glacial geology.
Agassiz was born in Switzerland in 1807. He became a doctor and also received his doctor of philosophy degree before going on to become a professor in Switzerland where he studied glaciers. He observed, for example, the evidence of glacial activity such as striations on rocks, large boulders carried great distances from their source (glacial erratics), and other materials moved by glaciers. He applied his observations to other areas, and thus began the new study of glacial geology.
In 1846 Agassiz came to the United States to lecture and study geology. He subsequently accepted a professorship at Harvard University where his work on glaciers was ground breaking (Pun intended!), including his hypothesis of an ancient “Ice Age.”
During the summer of 1868 Agassiz headed west to study the geology of the Great Plains where he also found evidence of glaciation. His observations led him to hypothesize that the Missouri River, as well as the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, was formed by glacial meltwater.
As you might expect, Agassiz’s hypothesis of an ancient ice age was met with a healthy dose of skepticism. Today, of course, it has been well documented and is widely accepted. And glacial Lake Agassiz is part of our ice age legacy.
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.