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Lake Itasca

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

When Henry R. Schoolcraft found the lake that was the source of the Mississippi River, it already had two names. The Chippewa Indians called it Elk Lake. French fur traders had translated that into Lac le Biche.

To solidify his own claim as the discoverer of the source of the river, Schoolcraft renamed the waters Lake Itasca. You can visit it today and step across the baby Mississippi as it trickles out of the lake.

Few debated Schoolcraft's claims to have discovered the source of the River, but the name Itasca aroused immediate speculation. A beautiful name, but where had it come from? Schoolcraft himself was little help. His account of the discovery only noted that the mythical nature of the country "permitted the use of a female name." Schoolcraft subsequently wrote a poem about the lake in which he talked about the "fair Itasca's" tears.

Who was the beautiful Indian maid whose tears were the source of great river? The legend grew. The anthropologist Mary Eastman said that Itasca was an Ojibway Indian torn from her family by Chebiabo, the keeper of the souls of the dead. She died and was buried in a sandy grave. It was Itasca, wrote Mrs. Eastman, "weeping forever for home and friends" which formed the lake and the river.

What a beautiful beginning for a river. Unfortunately, there were some problems. Why had no other explorers ever heard the legend of Itasca? And linguists pointed out that there was no word even remotely resembling Itasca in the Ojibway language.

The mystery was not solved for a hundred years. In 1937 a letter from Schoolcraft to a friend was discovered at the Iowa State Historical Society. In it Schoolcraft explained the name. To ensure his claim that Itasca was the source of the Mississippi, he had put together the middle syllables of two Latin words for truth and head: veritas caput. Itas ca.

No, Virginia, there was no fair Itasca, and no tears and you might have figured that out yourself, if you had studied your Latin.

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