Historic Diaries: James Doty, 1820
July 21, 1820: Schoolcraft Mistakes the Source of the Mississippi
In this entry, which could be considered the climax of his entire journal, Schoolcraft spends several pages describing pelicans and other birds encountered in the wilderness of northern Minnesota before recording that he had reached the source of North America's most famous river – or so he thought. He then goes on for several more pages summarizing the length and features of the Mississippi, whose origin he believed he had found.
In fact, as Schoolcraft discovered 12 years later, the river continued beyond Cass Lake and actually rises in Lake Itasca, about 40 miles further upstream. "Itasca" is a name that Schoolcraft invented by combining syllables from the Latin words 'veritas' and 'caput' meaning "true head" (of the Mississippi). Prior to Schoolcraft's 1832 re-christening, it had been called Lac La Biche by French voyageurs (a translation of the Ojibwe word for elk).
In 1820, Schoolcraft knew of Lac La Biche and even wrote about it, but he did not realize at the time that the Mississippi actually started there. Today, Itasca State Park invites visitors to straddle the great river where it emerges from the lake and begins its 2,300 mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico.
Location: southeast of Bemidji, Minn., on modern Cass Lake, Minn.
View Schoolcraft's complete description in his 1821 Narrative:
[Schoolcraft:] We continued our journey at half past four o'clock in the morning. Passing around the northern shore of Lake Winnipec, we observed at a distance a rocky island of such snowy whiteness, as to give it an appearance of singular novelty, and to baffle every conjecture as to the substance of which it was composed. On reaching its shores, we found it to be a confused pile of water-worn fragments of granite, hornblende, quartz, &c. covered with a thick limey incrustation, produced from the excrescence of the myriads of water-flow who resort to it. These birds were driven away in flocks by our approach, and we particularly noticed the wild goose, black duck, pelican, cormorant, brant, and plover. On landing a dead pelican (pelecanus onocratobus,) was found upon the rocks, having apparently been killed that morning, either in a strife among its own species or through disease. -- No marks of violence, or external disease could however be observed...
On quitting Pelican Island, we steered northwest across the bay, and entered the mouth of the Mississippi inlet, which we pursued up fifty miles to its origin, in Upper Red Cedar or Cassina Lake, where we arrived at three o'clock in the afternoon.
This may be considered the true source of the Mississippi River, although the greatest body of water is said to come down the Leech Lake Branch. The river between Lake Winnipec and Cassina Lake winds through a prairie-valley, a mile in width, which is bounded by ridges of sandy land covered with yellow and white pine. The river pursues the same devious course, and its banks are overgrown with wild oats, rushes, and grass. Cassina Lake is about eight miles long by six in width, and presents to the eye a beautiful sheet of transparent water...
On the north shore of this lake, on a cleared eminence, is a village of Chippeways, of ten lodges and sixty souls, under Wiscoup, or the Sweet. They received the party with every mark of friendship, and presented us an abundance of the most delicious red raspberries, and a quantity of pemican, or pounded moose meat. Here we also found two Frenchmen, who have been in the employ of the American Fur Company, and located themselves at this spot, for the purpose of trading with the Indians.
Cassina Lake, the source of the Mississippi, is situated seventeen degrees north of the Balize on the Gulph of Mexico, and two thousand nine hundred and seventy-eight miles, pursuing the course of the river. Estimating the distance to Lake La Beesh, its extreme northwestern inlet at sixty miles, which I conclude to be within bounds, we have a result of three thousand and thirty-eight miles, as the entire length of this wonderful river, which extends over the surface of the earth in a direct line, more than half the distance from the Arctic Circle to the Equator... To have visited both the sources and the mouth of this celebrated stream, falls to the lot of few, and I believe there is no person living, beside myself, of whom the remark can now be made. On the 10th of July, 1819, I passed out of the mouth of the Mississippi in a brig bound for New-York, after descending it in a steam-boat from St. Louis, and little thinking I should soon revisit its waters; yet, on the 21st of July of the following year, I found myself seated in an Indian canoe, upon its source...