The Mississippi River Headwaters: Itasca


The Mississippi River is one of the longest rivers in the world. The search for its headwaters was not easy for early non-native explorers; in a region with such subtle changes in topography, it proved confusing. But for Native Americans who had been in the area for 8,000 years, the source was clear and they ultimately helped Henry Rowe Schoolcraft identify it in 1832.

headwaters sign

One might assume that the word Itasca comes from a Native American word, but it is actually a combination of the Latin words “truth” and “head” (verITAS CAput) meaning “true head” coined by Schoolcraft. It was originally known as Elk Lake by Indians and traders.

The journey was fraught with "voracious, long-billed, and dyspeptic musketoes"
The journey was fraught with “voracious, long-billed, and dyspeptic musketoes”

While Schoolcraft had identified Lake Itasca as the source of the Mississippi, it was still debated in the late 1800s and Jacob V. Brower came to the park region to settle the dispute. A historian, anthropologist and land surveyor, he recognized the danger logging posed to the area and sought to preserve it. Through his efforts, the state legislature established Itasca as a Minnesota State Park on April 20, 1891, by a margin of only one vote. It became the first state park in the state.lake itasca

The channel as it emerges from the lake was made by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1930s to enhance the visitor experience. The surrounding swamp was drained, a new channel was dug and the man-made rock rapids were made. This is still popular with visitors today.
rock bridge


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By Heidi Van Heel
Heidi Van Heel

Heidi Van Heel

Writer, freelancer, and believer in magic living in Minneapolis. In my free time, I love reading, exploring the great outdoors, and experimenting in the kitchen.

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