Minnesota Tours: Lake Itasca – The Journey to Discover the Ultimate Source of the Mississippi River

Minnesota Tours: Lake Itasca – The Journey to Discover the Ultimate Source of the Mississippi River

Lake Itasca is part of the Minnesota Lake Country Audio Driving Tour. Check it out online.

Itasca State Park is the infamous source of the mighty Mississippi river. Itasca State Park was Minnesota’s first state park, founded in 1889. The record of human habitation in the Lake Itasca area extends back for more than 8,000 years to an era when Indians using stone tipped tools stalked bison, moose and deer.

Visitors who take the wilderness drive can examine the archaeological site where some of these tools have been unearthed. A second group of Indians entered the area of a few thousand years later. They’re known today as the Woodland Indians. Their settlements were more substantial and their material culture more elaborate. Some of the mounds they built and can still be seen in the park.

There are more than a hundred lakes within the borders of the park, but one in particular has grabbed the imagination of generations of Americans – Lake Itasca. The lake is lovely on its own terms but it takes on added luster because of the fact that the Mississippi River begins its 2,500 mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico at this point. Both children and adults get a special thrill from wading across the Mississippi as it leaves the lake.

Early Attempts at Finding the Mississippi’s Source

The effort to find the ultimate source of the Mississippi had been a favorite objective of explorers throughout the early decades of the nineteenth century. In 1820 the governor of the Michigan Territory, General Lewis Cass, lead an expedition from Detroit along the great lakes to Duluth, then up the St. Louis and Savanna Rivers, portaging the Mississippi at Sandy Lake. Two months after setting out he arrived at the lake now called Cass Lake and proclaimed it to be the headwaters of the Mississippi. Henry Schoolcraft who accompanied the party in the role of mineralogist noted in his journal that day “this lake may be considered the source of the Mississippi” then adds immediately afterward that there are two rivers flowing into the lake, one of which lies a six day canoe journey to the west northwest. He further notes the intriguing fact that the French-Canadian Voyageurs in their party referred to one of the incoming rivers as Mississippi. It would seem that the alternate source of the mighty river lay further off in the forest.

Enter Beltrami, Long and Schoolcraft

Twelve years later Schoolcraft got an opportunity to return to Cass Lake and pursue this hunch. In the meantime, in 1823, Major Steven H. Long was sent on an expedition up the Minnesota River, the ultimate purpose of which was to determine at what point the Red River crossed the 49th parallel. Long was accompanied on the journey by a flamboyant Italian Giacomo Constantino Beltrami whom he met up with by chance at Fort Snelling while preparing for the expedition. Beltrami, perhaps inspired by the discoveries of his countryman Marco Polo, Cabot and Columbus, had dreamed since boyhood of discovering the Mississippi’s source.

The party traveled to Pembina and determined the border between the United States and Canada without unusual incident, at which point Long and his men continued northward to Lake Winnipeg. Beltrami struck off up on the Red Lake River through the northern wilderness in search of the Mississippi’s source. He was accompanied at first by a guide and several Ojibwe, but the guide returned to the Red River after a few days and the Ojibwe vanished into the woods after having been fired upon by a party of Dakota leaving Beltrami on his own. Unable to paddle his canoe upstream single-handedly, Beltrami was obliged to walk along the shore towing the vessel until he met up with an Ojibwe who agreed to guide him to lower Red Lake. From that point, with the help of Ojibwe guides, Beltrami proceeded up the river now known as the Mud to a heart-shaped lake that still bears the name he gave it, Lake Julia. Beltrami proclaimed confidently that this lake was the source of both the Mississippi and the Red River systems. Filled with grandiosity as a result of his accomplishment Beltrami later wrote “Like Aeneas, I have roamed through the unknown world and have discovered the wellspring of the Mississippi”. Count Beltrami wrote a best-selling book about his discovery, but Henry Schoolcraft was not convinced.

Schoolcraft Continues the Search

In 1831 Schoolcraft received a commission from the government to travel to the region between Lake Superior and the Mississippi River in an effort to quell the incessant warfare between the Dakota and the Ojibwe tribes. He traveled more than 2,000 miles by canoe that summer and one historian remarked that “much good tobacco and eloquence was wasted cajoling the enemy tribes to live in peace with one another”.

The next summer he set out again with a smaller party consisting of a few soldiers, a priest and a doctor to vaccinate the Indians against various diseases, ostensibly to further his peace efforts, though there can be little doubt what was in the forefront of his mind. Upon reaching Cass Lake he ran by chance into a party headed by an Ojibwe Indian. The following day Schoolcraft’s party proceeded along with six other Ojibwe canoes toward Lake Bemidji. It would be easy to imagine that by simply following the river upstream from Lake Bemidji, the party would arrive at Lake Itasca straight away. In point of fact, on Ojibwe recommendation, the party proceeded up a different creek now called Schoolcraft Creek which leaves Lake Bemidji to the east of the Mississippi. After two days of paddling and portaging through the very rough terrain, the party reached the headwaters of this creek and then made a portage of six miles across a series of sandy ridges before coming upon what Schoolcraft later described as “a transparent body of water”. It was Lake Itasca, the source of the Mississippi.

The Source is Discovered

At the time of discovery, there was no way for Schoolcraft to know that the lake that had suddenly come into view was connected with any river, much less the Mississippi, except that an Ojibwe had told him it was. But after lingering for an hour or two and planting an American flag on one of the islands, the party did proceed downstream and eventually arrived back at Lake Bemidji. Confirming more or less that Itasca was indeed the Mississippi’s source. The Ojibwe Chief and his men called the lake Elk Lake, and the French who were also familiar with the lake called it Lac La Biche. But Schoolcraft had concocted a new name for the lake well before you never set eyes on it.

During the journey from Detroit he had asked the priest were a few Latin words that might suggest “true source”. The best the priest could come up with was veritas for “truth” and caput for “head”. Schoolcraft removed the first syllable from veritas and the second from caput and came up with Itasca (verITAS CAput). Though the name is artificial it is also unique in it does have a poetic ring.

Historical Perspective

Nowadays historians sometimes berate the efforts of white explorers to expose origin of things and point out that Schoolcraft could not have discovered the Mississippi’s source because the Ojibwe knew it was there all along. Such views perhaps expose the strange warp of our own era rather than the ethnocentricity of former times. To the Ojibwe of Leech Lake, who traveled at will up streams and across divides throughout the upper Mississippi drainage system, the idea that the Mississippi River started in a single place might well have seemed absurd. In any case it seemed terribly important to European-Americans who lived in a society committed to private property, treaties and boundary lines. The precise location of rivers was highly useful information. In fact, the northwest angle of Minnesota, the only part of the continuous forty eight states that juts oddly up above the 49th parallel into Canada, exists only because the authors of the Treaty of Paris in 1783 mistakenly placed the headwaters of the Mississippi too far north on the continent.

It would be fair to say in other words that the Mississippi with which Schoolcraft was concerned was somewhat different from the one the Ojibwe knew. It had a French-speaking city and its mouth, and frontier cities developing on its banks from Memphis to Minneapolis. It had tributaries pouring in from either side and was the center of a vast drainage system extending from the Appalachians to the Rockies. Though the Ojibwe of the great lakes region were certainly familiar with the long-distance travel, the band at Leech Lake was perhaps only dimly aware of how great the “father of waters” really was.

When we say that Schoolcraft discovered the headwaters, then what we’re saying is that he introduced that item of information into the European worldview. The itch Schoolcraft harbored to uncover a secret that had been hidden from the whites since they had come upon the Mississippi more than 300 years earlier may also be a peculiarly European-American quality. Schoolcraft served as an Indian agent for many years and during that time this same curiosity also drove him to collect a large number of Native American folk tales from the great lakes region.

Schoolcraft the Scholar

While participating in a treaty council in Chicago, Schoolcraft noted how eloquent and serene many of the Indian leaders were and it occurred to him that the customs, legends and manners of these folk ought to be recorded and preserved. While serving as an Indian agent at Sault Ste. Marie, he had the opportunity to do just that. Though not actually a scholar himself, Schoolcraft’s research has won international acclaim from scholarly and linguistic societies.

Jacob Brower – The Father of Itasca State Park

As you enjoy the natural wonders of Itasca state park it might be interesting to ponder the career of a second area hero – Jacob V. Brower. He was an explorer and an archaeologist, and is considered the father of Itasca State Park. He grew up on a farm in the vicinity of Long Prairie, Minnesota, and at the age of 19, served under General Sibley in the Dakota War of 1862, and later fought in the Civil War.

Returning to Long Prairie, he married and was later appointed the first auditor of Todd County. In the course of time he served as the president of the railroad company, the owner of two newspapers and plotted the city of Browerville. But Brower is best known today as a result of his efforts to establish Itasca State Park.

Brower was sent into the area as a surveyor and archaeologist in 1890 to confirm and clarify the true source of the Mississippi River. While engaged in the project he was struck by the fact that the area was in danger of being utterly destroyed by logging operations. He urged the state legislature to establish a park there, and eventually they did, though the measure passed by only a single vote.


Thanks to Brower’s determination, Itasca State Park now contains more than 25% of Minnesota’s old-growth forest outside the borders of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, including a 5,000 acre chunk that’s the largest contiguous block to be found anywhere in the state. One fine stand of pine stands north of the visitor center at Preacher’s Grove, which can be reached on foot, by canoe or by car. There are also several fascinating ruins from the homesteading era nearby. The 10 mile wilderness drive will take you past the other unusual features of the park, from the bison kill site to the largest white and red pines still standing in the state.

Considered all in all, Itasca State Park brings together much that is unusual and fine about the North Woods, its people, its history and its enduring beauty.

This story was brought to you by Open Road Adventures, a provider of self-guided audio driving tours of Minnesota.