Mississippi Feature

Finding the Headwaters

The first European to find what is generally considered to be the head of the Mississippi River was Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, an ethnologist, US explorer and collector of Native American folk tales and songs. He called it "Itasca," a word he made up from two Latin words, "verITAS," meaning truth, and ‘CAput," meaning head. To Schoolcraft, Itasca meant "true head."

Schoolcraft was born on March 28, 1793, in Albany County, New York. The son of a glass maker, Henry studied natural sciences at Middlebury College in Vermont, and eventually published a book on glass making. But he loved geology.

In 1818, he went west to study the land. At that time, Michigan, and Lake Superior were as far west as Europeans knew. Schoolcraft joined Lewis Cass, the governor of the Michigan territory, on an expedition to find the source of the Mississippi in 1821, but they got only as far as Red Cedar Lake. (By the way, that lake is now known as Cass Lake.) It was no secret to members of the expedition that the Mississippi actually began in a small lake called Omushkos, or as the Europeans called it, Lac La Biche (Elk Lake.)

For the next ten years, Schoolcraft was involved in treaty negotiations with the Native American bands, collecting traditional stories and legends, and documenting their ceremonies, and lives. There was open warfare by that time between the Ojibwe and the Sioux, and Schoolcraft tried to help settle their territorial disputes.

Finally, in 1832, Schoolcraft got permission, and money, to travel to the Ojibwe bands in the Mississippi headwaters area. His stated reason for the trip were to warn the chiefs against their continued conflicts, gather statistical information about the tribes, vaccinate against smallpox, map the Upper Mississippi watershed, and bring Christianity to the Indians. He didn't mention his desire to find the source of the Mississippi to anyone but his friend, Lewis Cass. On July, 13, 1832, his party reached Lac La Biche, the source of all that water.

Schoolcraft continued to work with both Native American nations in the area, and the white settlers who eventually drove the nations out. He collected and recorded traditional native American folk tales, myths and stories. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow turned many of his tales into the epic poem, "The Song of Hiawatha."

For more information about Schoolcraft and his times, go to:

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