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Source of the Mississippi

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Who would think that discovering the source of a river would be anything more than a simple trip? Get in a boat, point it upstream, and paddle until one gets to the end. A few days' outing for adventurous boys.

The Mississippi River had other ideas. The first explorers who made the attempt in the early 19th century discovered some difficulties. In 1805, Lt. Zebulon M. Pike was dispatched up the Mississippi to explore and discover its source. Pike, who later had little trouble finding Pike's Peak, met his match in the Mississippi. By the time they reached Red Cedar Lake on February 12th, 1806, they had lost all their tents and clothes in a fire and were forced to turn back.

General William Cass, Governor of Michigan Territory made another attempt in 1820. He, too, ended his expectations at Red Cedar Lake, stopped by low water. The party gave up after renaming Red Cedar Lake Cass Lake, and returned home.

And so it went until 1832, when Henry R. Schoolcraft, guided by local Chippewas, reached Elk Lake in north-central Minnesota. Schoolcraft named the lake Itasca and claimed credit as the discover of the source of the Mississippi.

Or was it? In 1836 Joseph Nicollet, a Frenchman, led an expedition up the Mississippi. He discovered five streams flowing into Itasca. Was one of these the infant Mississippi? He traced the largest of them through three small lakes, now named after him. The upper lake was connected to the middle lake only by an underground stream. Could that still be the Mississippi, underground?

Subsequent explorers examined other streams as possibilities. How far could one go? Perhaps the real beginning was a low spot in a nearby potato patch.

By this time, however, Americans found it too embarrassing to have a great river with an unknown source, and a compromise was reached. For the common good, everyone agreed that Lake Itasca was actually a reservoir collecting water from all the streams and springs and farms flowing into it and was therefore the true source of the Mississippi River.

Otherwise, we would have had to change the signs.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.