The source of the Mississippi River has resisted being pinned down over centuries of time and countless expeditions of discovery.
In the previous post we dug into the decades-long political and geographic confusion that resulted from a wrong guess about the river’s source.
In this post we’ll further investigate the 1832 Schoolcraft / Boutwell expedition, look into four earlier surveys that came to (what we now consider) incorrect conclusions as to the great river’s headwaters, and examine the aftermath of Schoolcraft’s expedition.
The Upper Mississippi River, showing (in red) the locations once thought to define its source. The course of the river is overlaid. Click the image for a larger version.
Defining the Source
What is the source of a river?
Let’s ask it another way. Where does the water in the Mississippi River come from?
Well, for the upper Mississippi the answer is “northern Minnesota.” For the river as a whole, you would have to answer, “the middle third of the United States of America.”
But geographers and politicians like to be able to point to a single source for a river. For one as important as the Mississippi is and has been to this country, the answer is crucial. If the Mississippi’s source had turned out to be above the border in what is now Canada, Britain would have been in a strong position to argue that it should control shipping on the entire length of the river.
The definition of a river’s source has evolved since the 18th century with the development of the sciences of hydrology and geography. Early in the 19th century the consensus definition would have been “that tributary source which sprang from the farthest end of a river’s flow, in the cardinal opposite direction of the river’s mouth.” That’s pretty much what we get once we designate Lake Itasca as the river’s source.
Today a variety of definitions are in use (Wikipedia has a good summary). A modern hydrologist is likely to characterize a river based on its number of branches: its Strahler stream number, following a system devised by Arthur Strahler in 1952. Here is an explanation from Mississippi Valley aficionado Dean Klinkenberg:
While today we accept Lake Itasca in Clearwater County as the source of the Mississippi, its true source can be considered to be the thousands of lakes, streams, and wetlands that dot and line northern Minnesota and which are, to a first-order approximation, all connected.
Finding the True Source
For a very complete timeline of events relating to the discovery of Lake Itasca as the source of the Mississippi, see this page from Veritas Caput, a film project for the Minnesota Alliance for Geographic Education. It includes links to the explorers’ own accounts of their journeys, and in some cases to the maps they drew.
1798, David Thompson: Turtle Lake — The first official expedition of which I could find word was this one commissioned by the British government. They wanted in the worst way to prove that the river’s source lay above parallel 49, and in this they were disappointed. Thompson, a well-regarded English astronomer and cartographer, reported that the source had to be in the vicinity of Turtle Lake, north of what we now call Lake Bemidji. He was in the right neighborhood but off by about 20 miles.
1805, Zebulon Pike: Leech Lake — Pike set out on this expedition four months late and woefully ill-prepared for a winter trek. He and (some of) his men barely made it to Leech Lake alive. A possible reason for his lack of preparation: he was on the rebound from having been rejected to accompany Lewis and Clark, and had put together the Mississippi jaunt in too much haste. Pike was told by a local fur trader that he should talk to a scout named William Morrison, for that man could lead him upstream to the source. (We’ll hear more from Morrison anon.) Pike declined to seek out Morrison, who in any case was wintering over dozens of miles away — Pike did not want to risk his remaining men on further winter trekking — and declared Leech Lake as the “minor source” of the Mississippi, and the upstream Red Cedar (later Cass) Lake as the “major source.”
This is the Pike of Pike’s Peak. His expedition up the Mississippi is considered a failure, though at least one history professor was keeping Pike’s Minnesota flame alive as of 2005.
Gov. Lewis Cass.
1820, Lewis Cass: Red Cedar [Cass] Lake — This was the expedition in which Henry Schoolcraft served as a geologist. He had been recommended to Cass, the Michigan Territorial Governor, by John C. Calhoun, then Secretary of War. Calhoun was an infamous slavery apologist and is the former namesake of the Minneapolis lake now known by its Ojibwa name, Bde Maka Ska. (Cass in turn served as Secretary of War under Andrew Jackson.)
Setting off from Detroit, the expedition traveled nearly 2,000 miles along Lake Huron and Lake Superior, west to the Mississippi, and down the river to what is now Iowa. They then returned to Detroit after tracing the boundaries of Lake Michigan.
Cass Lake had a perfectly good name — Red Cedar Lake — when the expedition reached it in 1820; but Cass named it after himself anyway. He decided that this lake was the source of the Mississippi. One account I read said that the expedition reached the lake late in the season, when the water was low, and were told that earlier in the year it was possible to travel further upstream — meaning that Cass Lake was not in fact the ultimate source. Another account said that Henry Schoolcraft alone noticed two upriver streams feeding Cass Lake, and determined to come back later and explore them. Which he did in 1832.
Giacomo Constantino Beltrami.
1823, Giacomo Beltrami: “Lake Guilia” — This man was flamboyant and impetuous. A 1967 article in American Heritage Magazine dubbed Beltrami “the preposterous pathfinder,” calling him “an Italian of comic opera proportions.”
In 1823 Beltrami booked passage north from St. Louis, almost on a whim, on the first steamboat to attempt an upriver journey to Saint Anthony Falls. From there he made his way to Fort Snelling and talked his way onto an expedition being mounted by one Maj. Stephen Long to map the US-British border to the north. They got as far as Pembina before Long had had enough of Beltrami and kicked him off the expedition. Beltrami gathered a few Indians and set off on his own to find the headwaters. Within days the Indians too had abandoned him.
Beltrami soldiered on alone, wading upriver and pulling his canoe (which he didn’t otherwise know how to operate) laden with North American souvenirs, holding a red umbrella to shield his collection from the sun and rain. Ultimately he blundered upon a lake north of Upper Red Lake, which he managed to convince himself by whatever evidence presented itself to the eye that here lay the source not only of the Mississippi, but also of the Red River. He named the lake “Giulia” (Julia) after his close platonic friend back in Italy, Countess Giulia Medici-Spada. That name does not survive on the landscape in any way that I could find. It took significant effort even to learn the vicinity of Beltrami’s source lake.
His claim was not taken seriously at the time, nor is it now.
Beltrami lent his name both to the county containing his Lake Giulia and the city of Bemidji, and to a neighborhood in Minneapolis. In 2018 Bemidji announced a sister city relationship with Filottrano, Italy, the town Beltrami returned to after his North American adventures.
1832, Henry Schoolcraft: Lake Itasca — This was the expedition in which the Rev. William Boutwell participated, as noted here a couple of posts ago.
Schoolcraft had a good idea what he was after and where to find it. As a guide he engaged an Ojibwa man named Ozaawindib, “Yellow Head,” to lead the party upriver from Cass Lake.
The Mississippi Traveler Dean Klinkenberg expresses skepticism about the magnitude of Schoolcraft’s achievement:
Schoolcraft was far from the first white man to lay eyes on Lake Itasca. One candidate for the honor is William Morrison, fur trader, in 1804. In an illustrated history of Itasca State Park (1904), Jacob Brower, the “father of Lake Itasca,” quotes an 1856 letter from Morrison to his brother:
French fur traders were on hand even earlier, in the early 18th century. They named Itasca Lac La Biche, or Elk Lake, translating the Ojibwa name Omushkos. Brower found the ruined foundation of a fur trader’s cabin on an island in Lake Itasca, and wrote that it proved the French had been there by 1750.
In the Aftermath of Schoolcraft — All done, right? Lake Itasca is the source of the Mississippi? Not so fast. It took another 67 years and an act of the Minnesota legislature to settle the question.
In 1836 the French geographer, astronomer, and mathematician Joseph Nicollet visited and spent four days at the lake, surveying it with then-modern instruments. He found a large creek flowing into Itasca from the south, but was unable to locate an unambiguous source for it. He called this creek the “infant Mississippi”; it is now known as Nicollet Creek.
Henry David Thoreau traveled to Saint Paul in 1861 on the advice of his doctor — he was suffering from advanced tuberculosis (then called consumption) and hoped that Minnesota’s advertised pure air would improve his condition. Thoreau spent a month in these parts before returning east to die the next year. While the timeline at Veritas Caput claims that Thoreau had an interest in traveling farther north to the headwaters, I can find no support for this assertion in any other source.
In 1872 the journalist Julius Chambers discovered Elk Lake to the south of Itasca and connected to it by a creek, now known as Chambers Creek. He didn’t get credit for the discovery until the publication of The Mississippi River and Its Wonderful Valley 38 years later, on the strength of which he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
(It is possible that at the time of Nicollet’s exploration, water levels in Itasca and Elk were higher so that what he saw there was a southern bay on Itasca. The two lakes are separated by only 350 feet and a few feet of elevation.)
Add to these a Civil War hero named Willard Glazier, a “quack explorer and charlatan adventurer” who in 1881 was so sure that Elk Lake was the answer that he mounted a formidable PR campaign to have the lake declared the source and renamed for him. Glazier went down in ignominy amid accusations that, among other sins, he had plagiarized the work and words of Henry Schoolcraft in support of his cause.
Glazier does enter the history books as the first person to paddle a canoe from the headwaters to New Orleans.
(Along these lines, I highly recommend a 1998 book by Eddy Harris called Mississippi Solo. It’s an account of a similar journey undertaken by an African American man traveling from “where there ain’t no black folks to where they still don’t like us much.” And if you find that Mississippi River travelogues appeal, do also look into Jonathan Raban’s classic Old Glory: A Voyage Down the Mississippi. Raban didn’t get as far as NoLa.)
(Hmm, it’s clear that I had developed a taste for midwestern river literature years before the thought of moving here had ever begun to form.)
Settling the Question — At last in 1889 Jacob Brower performed an extensive survey of the Itasca basin over six months and declared that the Nicollet and Chambers tributary creeks couldn’t be considered sources because they dried up in the summer. But he concluded that the ultimate source lies south and west of Itasca, connected by an underground aquifer.
Brower then lobbied for the creation of a state park to protect Itasca, and the Legislature granted this in 1891; Itasca thus became the second state park in the US (Niagara Falls was the first). Brower was installed as its first commissioner.
Google Maps today reflects Brower’s conclusion about the source, showing the Mississippi rising from a spring and two small lakes about a mile farther along the creek that Nicollet was unable to follow with certainty.
Regardless, in 1899 the Minnesota legislature voted to keep the official designation of Schoolcraft’s proclaimed headwaters at the north end of Lake Itasca. They did so in part because funds had already been allocated for a park sign giving credit to Schoolcraft.
Naming the True Source
As noted in the earlier post, Schoolcraft and Boutwell reportedly collaborated on creating the name Itasca. The story goes that Boutwell, upon Schoolcraft’s request, came up with the Latin phrase veritas caput, (“truth head”), from which the name was formed by interior selection.
Both men spoke and wrote about how the name came about, but not in venues that reached all parties interested in the question. Almost 90 years after Schoolcraft’s discovery, William Peterson of the Iowa State Historical Society seemingly laid the question to rest for good and all in the pages of Minnesota Historical Society’s magazine:
It may be added that the fanciful creation of new words or names by dividing two familiar words and combining the parts, as in the case of Itasca, was not uncommon in the period of the Schoolcraft explorations.
Peterson found corroboration of Boutwell’s account in a letter written by Schoolcraft only months after the discovery in 1832.
A reasonable person might think the question settled after 1920. But here is Theodore Blevin, at one time president of the Minnesota Historical Society, writing some time after 1931 and treating as still open the question of the origin of the name Itasca. In particular he wondered about its timing — did the two men come up with the name on the way to the lake, or on the way back to Fort Snelling?
Schoolcraft had a penchant for making up mellifluous, vaguely Indian-sounding names for places. For example, according to this archived page from michigan.gov, when it came time to name counties in Michigan, where he lived, Schoolcraft “…mixed words and syllables from Native American, Arabian, and Latin languages to make up Native American-sounding words for some of the 28 counties set off in 1840. They include Alcona, Allegan, Alpena, Arenac, Iosco, Kalkaska, Leelanau, Oscoda, and Tuscola.”
An Aside: Lake Winnie
The river flows through a number of lakes (Cass Lake being one), the largest of which is Lake Winnibigoshish in the Chippewa National Forest. Lake Winnie is 17 miles wide. Wikipedia says: “Its name comes from the Ojibwa language Wiinibiigoonzhish, a diminutive and pejorative form of Wiinibiig, meaning ‘filthy water.’”
One source I read translated the sense of Winnibigoshish as “little terrible, horrible, no good, useless lake.” Lake Winnie is mostly shallow (averaging 15 feet), turbid and cloudy. These less-than-ideal conditions didn’t prevent natives from using the lake; they lived around its shores for thousands of years, fishing, growing rice, and tapping for maple syrup.
These old ways mostly came to an end after 1884 when the Corps of Engineers built a dam at the point where the Mississippi’s flow exits the lake, causing Winnie’s level to rise by 14 feet — flooding reservation land and pretty much destroying fish and rice production. The dam’s construction also required 2 million board feet of pine, resulting in the clearcutting of thousands of acres of conifer forest.
The fishing sounds pretty good these days on Lake Winnie.
We generally followed the course of the river in our trip last year to see the headwaters and the Lost 40 Scientific and Natural Area. We went by Cass Lake to the south and by Lake Winnie to the south and then east. In a nod to the dam on Lake Winnie, some local proprietor of the hospitality industry could not resist naming his business in the cheeky fashion you see here. They have a website. We did not stop in.