Up on the River
By JOHN MADSON
UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS
Copyright © 1985 John Madson
All right reserved.
Chapter One THE OLD RIVER
In terra incognita, if the opportunity presents itself at all, the only way to go is by river—always assuming, of course, that you and the river happen to have the same general route in mind and that the river doesn't object violently to having passengers. At the same time, there is a certain comfort in knowing where the thing ends and where it begins.
De Soto found the main trunk of the Lower Mississippi in 1541. La Salle sailed down it to the sea in 1682. Marquette and Joliet came into the middle reaches of the Upper River in 1673. Sieur Du Luth visited the headwaters region in 1679; Pbre Hennepin was there in 1680. By 1806 the whole Upper River was American territory and the army had built Fort Snelling below Saint Anthony Falls, and still the true source of the Mississippi River was unknown.
There was a rumor that it came out of a hole in the ground up around Hudson Bay or somewhere, but no one had ever found it. Oh, they had tried. Sieur Du Charleville gave it a shot as early as 1700, coming from far down the Mississippi up to a point just below Saint Anthony Falls. There the Indians told him it was about as far upstream to the River's source as it was downstream to the mouth, and that did it for Du Charleville. He went back the way he had come, without the slightest desire to continue up a river that apparently began somewhere in the Arctic.
When Lieutenant Zebulon Pike headed upriver &om Saint Louis in 1805 he did so under orders to "proceed up the Mississippi with all possible diligence," select sites for future military posts, appreciate the Indian situation, and "ascend the main branch to its source." It was a slow trip upstream and winter caught them behind schedule. They made winter camp near what is now Little Falls—about a hundred miles up into the headwaters region from Saint Anthony Falls—and continued on foot, traveling on the river ice by sled. In early January they had gone another hundred river miles to the Northwest Fur Company's post at Big Sandy Lake, where they rested for a couple of weeks before pushing on.
They soon found the Mississippi bending into the northwest in a sweeping arc, passing Lake Pokegama and the Vermillion River. Not far beyond little White Oak Lake, ill equipped for the deep cold through which they were travelicg, they came to a fork in the River. Pike chose the south branch, a strategic error that led him up the Leech Lake River and away from the fledgling Mississippi. He reached Leech Lake in the bitter evening of February 1, 1806, planting the flag on the shore and proclaiming the lake to be the "main source of the Mississippi." One version of this adventure has the Indians telling Pike that this was indeed the main source and he, not really believing them, striking overland to the northwest and Upper Red Cedar Lake, which he proclaimed to be the "upper source" of the Mississippi. But like several subsequent explorers, the young lieutenant hadn't gone far enough, nor west enough.
At the time, Pike's discovery may have been accepted as valid, but before long there was growing interest in verifying his claims and carrying his explorations farther. However, it was fourteen years before the next real attempt was made, this time by the territorial governor of Michigan, Lewis Cass, who led a thirty-eight-man expedition from the southern end of Lake Superior up into the northwestern Minnesota wilderness. In July 1820, the party reached the Upper Red Cedar Lake where Pike had halted. In honor of their leader, the men voted to name this lake "Cassina," which was later trimmed to "Cass Lake," which it bears today. This was also as far as Cass's party went, but they did not really believe they had found the Mississippi's source. Their topographer, David Douglas, wrote that the Mississippi actually emptied into the west side of the lake and that the little river "took its rise in a small lake called 'Lac la Biche'." The official journalist of the party, James Doty, recorded that "they did not go to the extreme source of the river, only to red cedar Lake."
Next to try was an expatriate Italian, one Giacomo Constantino Beltrami, whose burning ambition was to be numbered among North America's great explorers—and figured that North was as good a compass point as any at which to begin conquering.
In 1823 he arrived in the United States and hurried down the Ohio River and up the Mississippi to Fort Snelling at the mouth of the Minnesota. Major Stephen H. Long was about to resume the army's northern explorations and was preparing to lead a party up into Canada and the Lake Winnipeg area. Beltrami persuaded the major to let him accompany the expedition part of the way; at Pembina, on the Canadian border, he left the main party and struck off southeastward toward the unknown source of the Mississippi. He wanted adventure, and found it. His Chippewa guides deserted him in unexplored country but he somehow won through to the Red Lake region. Just south of there, between Red Lake and Cass Lake, he came upon a little heart-shaped lake that he named "Julia" and which he proclaimed was the true source of the Mississippi.
A bit too flowery and romanticized for the pragmatic tastes of American military and scientific bodies, Beltrami's two-volume account of his expedition and discoveries was unconvincing. But while he may have failed to persuade authorities that Lake Julia was the head of the River, he fueled new interest in further exploration.
This was not hard to do.
The exploring business was a matter of great public excitement about then, what with the young nation caught up in the fever of Manifest Destiny, and all that new ground in the Louisiana Purchase waiting to be inventoried, and it was as good a way as any to become an overnight hero. Moreover, a famous river was involved—and if there is one thing that fiddle-footed citizens of all times and places can never resist, it is a river with an unknown source. Of course, the Indians didn't seem very excited about it all, and for good reason. Some tribes had lived around there for several thousand years and at one time or another had camped and hunted all around the source, and if there had been anything really remarkable about the place, they'd have known it. Otherwise, one creek in their backyard was pretty much like any other. But then, the Indians were not mapmakers and took no honor in publishing learned reports. To certain Europeans, on the other hand, the urge to fill in the blank places on maps was a fever in the blood, a spur and an itch that would always drive them back of beyond until the blanks were filled—usually with the names of wives, politicians, or the explorers claiming to be there first.
For all practical purposes, the search ended in 1832.
Henry Rowe Schoolcraft had left his native New York state in 1817 and quickly racked up an impressive record on the northwest frontier. On the strength of a book he had written of a visit to the Missouri lead mines, he was invited to join the Cass expedition as mineralogist. This resulted in a second book, his Narrative Journal of Travels through the Northwestern Regions of the United States to the Sources of the Mississippi River. Published in 1823, this surely had much to do with Signor Beltrami's decision to go adventuring.
Schoolcraft married a well-educated half-Indian woman named Jane Johnston, and with her help he quickly became an authority on the customs and politics of the Chippewan people. He served in the Michigan Territorial Legislature from 1828 to 1832, was an Indian agent, and became a cultural leader of the territory. It was his writings about the Chippewa, by the way, that inspired Longfellow to create The Song of Hiawatha.
His interest in the northwest territory had never subsided, and the deep-grained itch to find the source of the Mississippi once and for all had not diminished in the decade since the Cass expedition. But he was a full-time Indian agent with little money and even less reason to go looking for the top end of a river. Besides, the only sensible time to do so would be during the summer months, and that was the busiest season at the Sault Sainte Marie Indian Agency. It seemed a hopeless dream unless he could quit his post and finance an expedition with his own purse, and that was out of the question.
Sometimes, though, obstacles have a way of becoming bridges. When Schoolcraft's main chance to find the River's source did come, it was because of Indian problems and not in spite of them.
For almost three hundred years there had been unremitting hostility between the region's Sioux and Chippewa. The latter were relative newcomers to Wisconsin and Minnesota, having been driven westward by the powerful eastern Iroquois. Although the Chippewa were no match for the warriors of the Iroquois federation, they were strong fighters who moved into the Sioux country with guns, while the early Sioux were still warring with arrow and club.
The bloody raids and ambushes showed no sign of abating in the late 1820s, when Sioux twice slaughtered Chippewa in the shadow of Fort Snelling's palisades, and the federal government grew seriously concerned for the first time. Up until then, the only whites who might be caught in this intertribal warfare were a few trappers, traders, adventurers, and the usual offscourings of civilization who were always found along American frontiers. If such were unable to protect themselves, there was no great loss. But all this was changing. Settlers and their families were arriving in growing numbers-the sort of people who create a solid economic base and stable political systems-and the government had a vested interest in their health, welfare, and votes. In a crash program to quiet the frontier, treaty conferences between the warring factions were organized, Indian leaders were pressured to make pledges, new forts were built, and Henry Schoolcraft labored tirelessly to "check and allay the spirit of predatory warfare" among the Chippewa whom he knew so well.
One of his urgent recommendations was to establish a sort of territorial boundary between Sioux and Chippewa that each tribe would recognize and respect. He also suggested an expedition into the northern Minnesota country to further "check the predatory spirit" of the Chippewa there, the sort of effort that had already succeeded in Wisconsin. Up to this point, nothing in any of his letters and recommendations revealed an intention to look for the source of the Mississippi. If he had any secret plans for doing so, however, they weren't weakened by the fact that Lewis Cass now happened to be secretary of war. Since the Indian Office was then in the War Department, there was never much doubt that Schoolcraft's expedition plan would be approved. Shortly after that, he wrote Cass: "If I do not see the 'veritable source' of the Mississippi, this time, it will not be from a want of intention." On June 7, 1832, the expedition of five "gentlemen" members, twenty boatmen and guides, and an escort of ten soldiers left Sault Sainte Marie and headed into the northwest.
Traveling past Cass Lake, the party arrived at Lac La Biche on July 13. Lieutenant James Allen of the military escort noted in his journal that "There can be no doubt but that this is the true source and fountain of the longest and largest branch of the Mississippi." Schoolcraft, as might be expected, was somewhat more exalted by the occasion: "We followed our guide down the sides of the last elevation, with the expectation of momentarily reaching the goal of our journey. What had been long sought, at last appeared suddenly. On turning out of a thicket, into a small weedy opening, the cheering sight of a transparent body of water burst upon our view. It was Itasca Lake-the source of the Mississippi." They didn't stay long. After about four hours at "Itasca" they turned their backs on it and headed back downstream to Cass Lake. And that was that.
The headwaters lake was "Lac La Biche" in French and "Omushkos" in Chippewa—both of which rendered out as "Elk Lake," since the lake bore a rough resemblance to the head of a wapiti. Yet, Schoolcraft renamed it "Itasca." Vanity, and pride of discovery? Not entirely. A good deal of confusion attended this name change, but it would seem that Schoolcraft's main reason was based on the fact that "Elk Lake" gave no indication of the place's significance as the source of the Mississippi. The word "Itasca" did. It is not of Indian origin as it is often thought to be, but is a coined word formed of the last and first syllables of the Latin veritas caput, meaning "true source." Which isn't bad, at that.
Schoolcraft's claim of finding the true source of the Mississippi was nailed down a few years later by a skilled scientist-astronomer, Joseph Nicollet, who carefully surveyed the Itasca basin and precisely established its latitude, longitude, and elevation. He described five creeks flowing into Itasca and described the largest of these as "truly the infant Mississippi" but did not challenge Schoolcraft's discovery. His own further work, Nicollet reported, was simply a more refined version of Schoolcraft's findings.
The search for the River's source had been dramatic enough and had fired the public imagination from the first. A classic adventure in the best frontier tradition—and to some men, it was just too good to be over. So in 1881 a latter-day Beltrami named Willard Glazier announced his intention of discovering the real source of the Mississippi.
Glazier was an ex-captain of the Union Army and a veteran of the Civil War, the "soldier-author" who later wrought such disparate works as Peculiarities of American Cities, Ocean to Ocean on Horseback, and Down the Great River. It was his intention to travel the Mississippi from end to end and was apparently convinced (or at least hoped to convince others) that Schoolcraft had neglected to "coast Itasca for its feeders, and thus missed the goal he had so industriously sought." Further, he contended that even the keen Nicollet had overlooked the main stream entering the southwestern arm of Lake Itasca, and "to have accepted conclusively the statements of those who had preceded him." He resolved to set things straight and personally reveal the primal reservoir of the Great River.
During June 1881, Glazier was in Saint Paul outfitting for the six-week expedition into what was then still wilderness. He was joined by his brother George and Barrett Channing Paine, of Indianapolis, and the three intrepid explorers departed the city on July 4, heading for the Mississippi's source via Leech Lake and the Kabekona River.
An engraving in his book Down the Great River shows Glazier standing in a bark canoe, rifle in hand, waving his hat in farewell to an assemblage of polite Chippewa standing on the lakeshore. The canoe, which appears to be about twelve feet long, is impelled by a pair of dusky paddlers. (Glazier, who could not swim, had already entertained the Indians by stepping into a canoe and tipping over in shallow water.) There are two other canoes bearing George Glazier and Barrett Paine, each paddled by an Indian. With three birchbark canoes and four faithful guides, the trio set out on their great adventure.
By the time Glazier and his companions arrived at Itasca they had lost all their fishhooks and were nearly out of ammunition, since they persisted in shooting at targets along the way. They had originally planned to live off the land, but managed to shoot only one duck. When they finally reached the lake their provisions had been reduced to a bit of bacon and a few pounds of flour. The disgusted Indians were all for heading back, but our adventurers pressed stoutly onward and forced their way through a marsh and into the small creek entering the southwestern arm of Itasca.
Struggling up this little creek, they finally broke out into a lake about a mile in diameter. They found this to have three small feeder streams, two of which were spring runs while the third was the outlet of a small lake about a mile beyond. Glazier named this "Lake Alice" in honor of his daughter, but for some reason did not regard it as the true source of the Mississippi. That honor was reserved for the lake they had first found, where Glazier lined everyone up on a small promontory and gave a speech about having "corrected a geographical error of a half century's standing." As he concluded, volleys were fired for each member of the party—which just about did in their remaining ammunition and confirms the suspicion that they were mighty slow learners. Then, to the leader's manifest "surprise," the place was named "Lake Glazier" by unanimous decision. Glazier demurred, of course, but allowed his protests to be overridden by majority opinion. Then, mosquito-bitten and famished, they carried their great news downstream to a waiting world.
Excerpted from Up on the River by JOHN MADSON Copyright © 1985 by John Madson. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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