Proceeding directly south from this spot a short distance, we entered the Mississippi, which was found to flow in with a broad channel and rapid current. This channel Lieutenant Allen estimated to be but one hundred yards long, at which distance we entered into a beautiful little lake of pellucid water and a picturesque margin, spreading transversely to our track, to which I gave the name of Irving. Ozawindib held his way directly south through this body of water, striking the river again on its opposite shore. We had proceeded but half a mile above this lake, when it was announced that we had reached the primary forks of the Mississippi. We were now in latitude 47° 28' 46". Up to this point the river had carried its characteristics in a remarkable manner. Of the two primary streams before us, the one flowing from the west, or the Itascan fork, contributes by far the largest volume of water, possessing the greatest velocity and breadth of current. The two streams enter each other at an acute angle, which varies but little from the south.
Ozawindib hesitated not a moment which branch to ascend, but shooting his canoe out of the stronger current of the Itascan fork, entered the other. His wisdom in this movement was soon apparent. He had not only entered the shallower and Stiller branch, but one that led more directly to the base of the ultimate summit of Itasca. This stream soon narrowed to twenty feet. We could distinctly descry the moving sands at its bottom; but its diminished velocity was apparent from the intrusion of aquatic plants along its shores. It was manifest also from the forest vegetation that we were advancing into regions of a more Alpine flora. The branches of the larches, spruce, and gray pines were clothed with lichens and floating moss to their very tops, denoting an atmosphere of more than the ordinary humidity. Clumps of gray willows skirted the margin of the stream.
It was found that the river had made its utmost northing in Queen Anne's Lake. From the exit from that point the course was nearly due south, and from this moment to our arrival at the ultimate forks, which can not exceed a mile and a half or two miles, it was evident why the actual source of this celebrated river had so long eluded scrutiny. We were ascending at every curve so far south as to carry the observer out of every old line of travel or commerce in the fur trade (the sole interest here) and into a remote elevated region, which is never visited indeed, except by Indian hunters, and is never crossed, even by them, to visit the waters of the Red Riverthe region in immediate juxtaposition north. This semi-Alpine plateau, or height of land for which we were now pushing directly, is called in the parlance of the fur trade Hauteurs de Terre. It was evident that we were ascending to this continental plateau by steps, denoted by a series of rapids, presenting step by step, in regular succession, wide-spread areas of flat surface spotted with almost innumerable lakes, small and large, and rice-ponds and lagoons. . .
It was now seven o'clock P.M. and we had been in our canoe sixteen hours, and traveled fifty-five miles. It was not easy to find ground dry enough to encamp on, and while we were searching for it, rain commenced. We had pushed through the ample borders of the Scirpus lacustris and other aquatic plants, to a point of willows, alders, and spruce and tamarack, with pinus banksiana in the distance. The ground was low and wet, the foot sinking into a carpet of green moss at every tread. The lower branches of the trees were dry and dead, exhibiting masses of flowing gray moss. Dampness, frigidity, and gloom marked the dreary spots, and when a camp-fire had been kindled it threw its red glare around on strange masses of thickets and darkness, which might have well employed the pencil of a Michelangelo. . . .
With every aid, however, from the tent and the tea-kettle, and our cook's art in spitting ducks, the night here, in a gloomy and damp thicket, just elevated above the line of the river flags, and quite in the range of the frogs and lizards, proved to be one of the most dreary and forlorn. It was felt that we were no longer on the open Mississippi, but were winding up a close and very serpentine tributary, nowhere over thirty feet wide, which unfolded itself in a savanna, or bog, bordered closely with lagoons and rice-ponds. Indian sagacity, it was clear, had led Ozawindib up this tributary as the best, shortest, and easiest possible way of reaching to, and surmounting the Itasca plateau, but it required a perpetual use of hand, foot, paddle, and pole; nor was there a gleam of satisfaction to be found in anything but the most intense onward exertion. . . .
At five o'clock the next morning (12th) we were on our feet, and resumed the ascent. The day was rainy and disagreeable. There was little strength of current, but quite a sufficient depth of water; the stream was excessively tortuous. Owing to the sudden bends, we often frightened up the same flocks of brant, ducks, and teals again and again, who did not appear to have been in times past much subjected to these intrusions. . . .
We toiled all day without intermission from daybreak till dark. The banks of the river are fringed with a species of coarse marshland grass. Clumps of willows fringe the stream. Rush and reed occupy spots favorable to their growth. The forest exhibits the larch, pine, and tamarack. Moss attaches to everything. Water-fowls seem alone to exult in their seclusion. After we had proceeded for an hour above Lake Plantagenet, an Indian in the advance canoe fired at and killed a deer. Altho fairly shot, the animal ran several hundred yards. It then fell dead. The man who had killed it brought the carcass to the banks of the river. The dexterity with which he skinned and cut it up excited admiration. . . .
At length, at half-past five o'clock in the evening, we came to the base of the highlands of the Itasca or Hauteurs de Terre summit. The flanks of this elevation revealed themselves in a high, naked precipice of the drift and boulder stratum, on the immediate margin of the stream which washed against it. Our pilot, Ozawindib, was at the moment in the rear; halting a few moments for him to come up, he said that we were within a few hundred yards of the Naiwa rapids, and that the portage around them commenced at this escarpment. We had seen no rocks of any species, in place, thus far. . . .
The next morning (13th) a dense fog prevailed. We had found the atmosphere warm, but charged with water and vapors, which frequently condensed into showers. The evenings and nights were, however, cool, at the precise time of the earth hiding the sun's disk. It was five o'clock before we could discern objects with sufficient distinctness to venture to embark. We found the channel of the river strikingly diminished on getting above the Naiwa. Its width is that of a mere brook, running in a valley half a mile wide. The water is still and pond-like, the margin being encroached on by aquatic plants. . . .
I had now traced this branch of the Mississippi to its source, and was at the south base of the intercontinental highlands, which give origin to the longest and principal branch of the Mississippi. To reach its Source it was necessary to ascend and cross these. Of their height, and the difficulty of their ascent, we knew nothing. This only was sure, from the representation of the natives, that it could be readily done, carrying the small bark canoes we had thus far employed. The chief said it was thirteen opugidjiwenun, or putting-down-places, which are otherwise called onwaybees, or rests. From the roughness of the path, not more than half a mile can be estimated to each onwaybee. Assawa Lake is shown, by barometric measurement, to be 1,532 feet above the Gulf. Having followed out this branch to its source, its very existence in our geography becomes a new fact. . . .
The elevated parts of the route were sufficiently open, with often steep ascents. Over these syenite and granite, quartz and sandstone boulders were scattered. Every step we made in crossing these sandy and diluvial elevations seemed to inspire new ardor in completing the traverse. The guide had called the distance, as we computed it, about six or six and a half miles. We had been four hours upon it, now clambering up steeps, and now brushing through thickets, when he told us we were ascending the last elevation, and I kept close to his heels, soon outwent him on the trail, and got the first glimpse of the glittering nymph we had been pursuing. On reaching the summit this wish was gratified. At a depression of perhaps a hundred feet below, cradled among the hills, the lake spread out its elongated volume, presenting a scene of no common Picturesqueness and rural beauty. In a short time I stood on its border, the whole cortège of canoes and pedestrians following; and as each one came he deposited his burden on a little open plat, which constituted the terminus of the Indian trail. In a few moments a little fire threw up its blaze, and the pan of pigieu, or pine pitch, was heated to mend the seams of the bark canoes. When this was done, they were instantly put into the lake, with their appropriate baggage; and the little flotilla of five canoes was soon in motion, passing down one of the most tranquil and pure sheets of water of which it is possible to conceive. There was not a breath of wind. We of ten rested to behold the scene. It is not a lake overhung by rocks. Not a precipice is in sight, or a stone, save the pebbles and boulders of the drift era, which are scattered on the beach. The waterfowl, whom we disturbed in their seclusion, seemed rather loath to fly up.
The diluvial hills enclosing the basin, at distances of one or two miles, are covered with pines. From these elevations the lands slope gently down to the water's edge, which is fringed with a mixed foliage of deciduous and evergreen species. After passing some few miles down its longest arm, we landed at an island, which appeared to be the only one in the lake. I immediately had my tent pitched, and while the cook exerted his skill to prepare a meal, scrutinized its shores for crustacea, while Dr. Houghton sought to identify its plants.
I inquired of Ozawindib the Indian name of this lake; he replied Omushkös, which is the Chippewa name of the Elk. Having previously got an inkling of some of their mythological and necromantic notions of the origin and mutations of the country, which permitted the use of a female name for it, I denominated it Itasca.
1From Schooleraft's "Narrative of the Exploratory Expedition to the Source of the Mississippi River: Discovery of its Origin in Itasca Lake." Mr. Schoolcraft was a noted traveler and ethnologist. He wrote important books on the North American Indians after close personal knowledge derived from long residence among them..
The ultimate source of the Mississippi has since been determined as Elk Lake, which lies just beyond Itasca and was discovered in 1872 by Julius Chambers, a New York Journalist. There are several lakes, however, which could be called sources, the others being Bemidji, Cass, Fishing, Leech, Mud, and Winnibigashish, which are described as "lying among hills of drift and boulders in the midst of pine forests and marshes."