the Source

The Mississippi headwaters is an extremely popular destination for visitors today--but it took European and American explorers an awfully long time to find it. Nearly 300 years had passed since the Mississippi was first been seen by a European, Hernando de Soto, in 1541, and still the river's origins remained a mystery. Other much more difficult feats of exploration already had been accomplished by the new masters of the New World. Alexander MacKenzie had plotted new routes to the Arctic and Pacific oceans, and Lewis and Clark had charted huge new territories in the American west. These explorers were motivated by the search for a river highway, the Northwest Passage, that would allow traders to make their way to Asia across the North American continent. But cartographers still had to draw maps of the United States that left in question the source of the mightiest river in the land.

Then, in 1832, explorer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, mostly following directions given him by his wife's Ojibway relatives who lived along the Mississippi, followed the great river until he reached its source--a small lake surrounded by the forests of towering red and white pines. He named the lake "Itasca" from the Latin words for "true"(verITAS) and "head" (CAput), and the Mississippi's headwaters were at last on the map.

Post Cards from the Past
The following two post cards capture images of the Mississippi headwaters in Itasca State Park, which became Minnesota's first state park in 1898.

Headwaters bridge


Can you find historic post cards or photos in books of river views or important river landmarks in your watershed? If you can, try to find the same location today and take a picture. Compare the pictures to explore how the use of the river and the surrounding lands has changed.

Send images of your historic post cards and photos to Rivers of Life and we'll post them on our web site for all to enjoy!

Return to the Rivers Through Time Resources Page

Center for Global Environmental Education
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