Great Journeys: The Mississippi

Part 1 The lie at the start

The Mississippi River begins with a lie. This probably shouldn’t be surprising, since it begins in the land of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. One should expect some tall tales.

But the layer upon layer of distortion, misunderstanding and outright fib is quite astonishing.

The Mississippi is widely accepted as beginning at Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota. It is a smallish lake by the state’s standards, but especially attractive, surrounded by a state park that was established in 1891; the land  has been protected for a long time.

A Minnesota tourism brochure gives one origin of the lake’s name: Itasca was the daughter of the mythical Ojibwe Chief Hiawatha. She was stolen by the ruler of the spirits of the dead to be his bride and live in the dark underworld. Her tears, shed in sadness for the world she was forced to leave behind, flowed together, forming Lake Itasca and poured out into the mighty  Mississippi.

A very pretty tale, but a complete fabrication.

The Paul Bunyan version says that a gigantic water wagon pulled by Babe sprung a leak and created Lake Itasca.

In reality, the lake was formed by the retreat of glaciers and was named by its supposed discoverer, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, who, in the early 1800s was one of an army of “discoverers” out to find the headwaters of the great river.

Schoolcraft had once accompanied an expedition led by Lewis Cass as Cass searched for the “true source” of the river. Cass discovered one of the thousand lakes in the area that feed into the river and named it Lake Cass and pronounced it the source of the source of the Father of Waters.

Twelve years later, in 1832, Schoolcraft, in the Indian Service, came back to Minnesota and took it on himself to prove Cass wrong and take the honor for himself.

He was only one of dozens searching for the mythical “source:” Father Louis Hennepin, Antoine Auguelle, La Salle, British surveyor David Thompson, Zebulon Pike, Giacomo Beltrami, among others, each claimed at one time or another to have found the “true source.”

At least one explorer published findings that later turned out to be pure fraud: He had invented a lake and claimed supremacy for it.

There was a veritable frenzy of adventurers looking for true sources at the time: Explorers looked for the source of the Nile, of the Amazon, of the Congo. Just a few years before, Lewis and Clark had traveled to the source of the Missouri. It was in the air.

Well, Schoolcraft knew from his earlier expedition, that there were feeder streams to Lake Cass. He figured he could ride up one to find the ultimate source. He persuaded an Ojibwe Indian named Ozaawindib to take him to a lake he had heard of that the Indian had assured him was the real source of the river. Together they went and found it and Schoolcraft named it Itasca, compounding the name from the middle syllables of the Latin phrase, “Veritas caput,” or “true head.”

So much for the Indian princess.

Ah, but the shenanigans have only begun. Schoolcraft slyly ignored the fact that there are feeder streams entering his own choice for the ultimate lake.

“They are too small to count,”  Ozaawindib told him. Schoolcraft said he took the Indian’s word for it and never bothered to check out the feeder streams.

This was the same mistake the dozen other adventurers had made, and their claims had all been superseded by Schoolcraft’s. Schoolcraft turned out to be lucky and although his claim was no better researched than anyone else’s, he had the good fortune ultimately to be accepted.

Schoolcraft wrote a book about his adventure and claimed the credit for the discovery, ignoring the fact that it was Ozaawindib who knew about the lake and guided him there. Perhaps Ozaawindib should be credited with discovering the source of the Mississippi.

But the real lie is that there is a source to any river, let alone one as huge as the Mississippi. The river is more in the nature of a giant old oak tree, and who is to point to one twig end of one branch on one bough and say, “This is the beginning of this oak tree.”

The fact is, the river is not a single course, but the confluence of thousands of branches that eventually coalesce into the great muddy trunk that dumps into the Gulf of Mexico.

It is only an accident of history that the river that ends at the Gulf isn’t called the Ohio, which contributes more water to the river than the Mississippi and Missouri combined; or called the Missouri,  which is by far the longest tributary and, if the river system had not been discovered piecemeal, would have been the Mississippi from Montana to Louisiana. By rights, the headwaters of the Mississippi could as well be declared in Yellowstone National Park.

The weak sister of the three largest branches, flowing from the north and Minnesota, is only by default the Mississippi.

But there is still one more delicious lie in this tale.

For it turns out that the beautiful cascading waters that spill over the rocks at the edge of the lake are also a fabrication.

A hundred years after Schoolcraft claimed its discovery, a park superintendent took it on himself to improve reality. It turns out that the lake outlet was a swampy, muddy morass, only gradually sorting out into a stream.

“Since the water is sluggish at this point,” he wrote in a report, “all the debris and wild grasses form there. This is, indeed, a sight that is not becoming to such a great river.”

His idea was to make a hidden concrete dam that would direct the flow of water through a channel he wanted to dig.

“It will take 2,000 loads of sand and gravel. I can say our river can be built up to a point of beauty and also have the running effect of water that will really make it the Source of the Father of Waters.”

So, with the help of the National Parks Service and the Civilian Conservation Corps: A new route and channel for the first 2,000 feet of river was created; some 40,000 cubic yards of fill coaxed the water to flow in the channel; 16 acres of trees were planted “so grouped that their ultimate growth will produce a naturalistic effect;” and a concrete dam was built to stabilize the flow, with rocks placed on top to make it appear natural. These are the present headwater rocks that so many visitors tiptoe across each year.

To be continued

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