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Henry R. Schoolcraft

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Henry R. Schoolcraft's discovery of the source of the Mississippi River at Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota was achieved by an act so courageous that few men, even today, are willing to do it.

Schoolcraft was the Superintendent for Indian Affairs in Michigan. In 1830 the United States Government ordered him to lead an expedition into northern Minnesota to confer with several Indian tribes. Federal money was available for military missions such as this, but the hidden agenda was to discover the source of the Mississippi River—previous attempts had failed.

Schoolcraft and his party followed the route of a similar 1820 expedition from Sault Ste Marie through Lake Superior and across country to Sandy Lake in Minnesota. From there, he traveled up the Mississippi across Pokegama Falls through Winnebegoshish Lake to Cass Lake, where the earlier expedition had stopped and turned back.

From here, the way was not exactly clear. Streams and lakes of various sizes went off in all directions. To explore each one and determine which was the real river would have taken years. What to do?

Fortunately, on an island in Cass Lake, the explorers found a village of 157 Chippewa Indians living under their chief, Yellow Head. It was here Schoolcraft was forced into his courageous act: he asked directions.

Yellow Hand not only knew where the source of the Mississippi was, he offered to provide the necessary maps and lead the Schoolcraft party there in five canoes, each holding two paddlers and a passenger, with himself as guide. The boats the explorers had arrived in were too heavy to make the trip. Up through Lake Bemidji the group went, then back toward the southwest. On the afternoon of July 13th, 1832, after a complicated trip of portages from one body of water to another, Schoolcraft stood at the source of the Mississippi River: the lake he named Itasca, claiming himself as its discoverer.

All this has given me an idea. I'm off to discover Minneapolis. I think it's—uh—this way?

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