Last weekend, I had some time off during a work visit to Bemidji, so I drove down to Itasca State Park to see the source of the Mississippi River. I suppose I have been there half a dozen times in my life, but never during the off season. It was a lovely windy spring day in northern Minnesota: temperature 40, winds gusting up to 25 mph. When I arrived at the visitors' center, there were only four cars parked in a lot worthy of a theme park or stadium. The other folks were there to walk their dogs.
The source of the Mississippi was established in 1832 by a geographer and ethnographer named Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (1793-1846). He had first ventured into the maze of interlocking lakes and streams of the upper Mississippi basin in 1820-1821, under the leadership of Lewis Cass, on an expedition designed (among other things) to determine the boundary between the United States and Canada. That expedition had decided that the source of the Mississippi was Upper Red Cedar Lake, which it dutifully if unimaginatively renamed Cass Lake.
Henry Schoolcraft was a serious student of Indian cultures. He would go on to write a massive six-volume collection called Indian Tribes of the United States. That study, published 1851-1857, is still one of the most important ethnographic works in American history. During his wanderings in the Cass Lake area, Schoolcraft was informed by an Ojibwe leader named Ozawindib that it was possible to find waters flowing into the Mississippi upstream from Lake Cass. With the help of Ozawindib and his family and followers, Schoolcraft pressed on in light craft over shallow winding waters, with great difficulty and much portaging, until he arrived at the place where today's Lake Itasca (then known as Elk Lake) spills over a little lip into a modest streambed.
Schoolcraft had found the true source of the mighty Mississippi River, 2,321 miles from its mouth below New Orleans, inscribing a watershed of 1,151,000 square miles. If you include the Missouri, the Missouri-Mississippi River ranks as the fourth longest river in the world; taken alone, it ranks about 15th.
Thank goodness Schoolcraft kept his ego in check and did not decide to name the source after himself. In other words, he had more class than Cass. Aware of the monumentality of the moment—he had solved one of the world's short list of geographic mysteries—he decided to call this spot the True Source, but in Latin, the language of learning. So he wrote out the Latin words Veritas (true) and Caput (head or source). (This may have been the suggestion of his traveling companion, the Reverend W. T. Boutwell.) Later in his life, Schoolcraft decided that Veritas Caput was too prosaic, too Linnaean, for a site of such romance and geographic significance, so he "Indianized" his Latin nomenclature. He saw that it was possible to clip the Latin phrase at both ends to form a more exotic place name: ver-Itasca-put. Itasca. The name has stuck.
Caught up in the flow of his own copious imagination, Schoolcraft later even wrote a poem, in the manner of Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha, about an Ojibwe woman named Itasca! You may think I'm making all of this up, but this is one of those moments in the history of exploration wherein truth is stranger than fiction. I knew some of this before last weekend, but I learned a great deal by wandering slowly through the excellent interpretive center at Itasca State Park. Already, I have ordered several books by and about Schoolcraft.
The quest for the sources of the world's principal rivers was one of the obsessions of the Second Great Age of Discovery (1768–1858). At precisely the same time Scottish explorer Mungo Park was searching for the source of the Niger in west Africa in 1805-06, Zebulon Pike was half-heartedly searching for the source of the Mississippi (Leech or Cass Lake, thought he), and America's greatest explorer Meriwether Lewis was searching for the source of what he called the "mighty and heretofore deemed endless Missouri River." Pike died in the War of 1812. Mungo Park was killed by natives in Africa. Lewis committed suicide three years after his return from his fabulous transcontinental journey. Maybe this source-hunting thing is not such a good idea.
You can get a sense of the mythological grandeur the Enlightenment attached to source-hunting by studying Meriwether Lewis's journal entry for August 12, 1805. "At the distance of 4 miles further the road took us to the most distant fountain of the waters of the mighty Missouri in surch of which we have spent so many toilsome days and wristless nights. thus far I had accomplished one of those great objects on which my mind has been unalterably fixed for many years, two miles below McNeal had exultingly stood with a foot on each side of this little rivulet and thanked his god that he had lived to bestride the mighty & heretofore deemed endless Missouri."
I believe this was the proudest moment of Lewis's life. My view is that Lewis's deepest passion was to bestride the previously unknown source of the Missouri River, and that the rest of the expedition's journey to the shore of the Pacific was less interesting to him, and much less satisfying. Indeed, Lewis had to travel hundreds of miles off what Jefferson called "the most direct and practicable" route to the Pacific to get to the source of the Missouri, and once he got there, he had to endure almost endless difficulties in getting back to a place (Missoula) where a trail would take his exploration team through the Rocky Mountains (the Bitterroots).
But here's the rub. Nobody any longer believes that Lewis's Trail Creek just this side of Lemhi Pass in Montana is the source of the Missouri River. Officially, the source is listed as Three Forks, where feeder tributaries the Gallatin, the Madison, and the Jefferson flow together northwest of Bozeman, Montana, to form the "Missouri proper." But if you want to get picky about it, the Veritas Caput is now said to be at Upper Red Rocks Lake southeast of Dillon, Montana, on the Wyoming, Montana border. I have been there with a high-ranking official of the North Dakota higher education system. I realized that he shared my sense of the solemnity and majesty of the site, some 3,902 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, when he said: "Yep. This would be a marvelous place if there were no mosquitoes."
Nowadays, with our more sophisticated sense of how watersheds work, we know that there is almost never a single "source" for any river, just as there is seldom a single "mouth." At both ends of their sinuous adventures, rivers tend to divide into tributaries, steams, creeks, and rivulets—into a grand maze of capillary feeders, no one of which can accurately be called the source of the river. At the Gulf end, the Missouri-Mississippi fragments into a wild capillary no man's land; and way up at the Rocky Mountain "source," it fragments into hundreds of rivulets, any one of which one might bestride to thank her or his God.
At Itasca, after I made sure that nobody was looking, I took off my shoes and socks and strode (actually it was more like winced and whined) across the Mississippi River. Twice. And I thanked God that I have a career that enables me to do really unwise things. Blue feet in a blue river under blue skies.