Done deal: Schoolcraft nails down source of the Mississippi

Time Before Now – July 1832America’s seventh president, Andrew Jackson had  caused a wave of suffering with the winter removal the Choctaw people, and his attempts to remove the Seminole.  Europeans, in the midst of a cholera epidemic were suffering, as well.  More than 50,000 people died in Great Britian between 1832 and 1837.  Romantic composer Felix Mendolssohn was the most popular musician in the world and America’s first curling club opened in Orchard Lake, Michigan.

July 13, 1832

On this day, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft finally found the tiny trickle of water that became the Mighty Mississippi.

The headwaters of the Mississippi at Lake Itaska

An unusual surname and a crowded resumé denied Schoolcraft the recognition he deserved as the man who ultimately settled the U.S. Canadian border, in question for nearly three decades.   In addition to geography and geology, he was also an ethnologist and author of six volumes on Native Americans.  

Born a stone’s throw from the Hudson in Guilderland, New York,  in 1793, he started out as a promising chemist.  Better at science than at business, he was a failure attempting to follow in his father’s footsteps as a glassmaker.  After studying mineralogy at Connecticut’s Middlebury College his glassworks in Keene, New Hampshire, went bankrupt.  

Keene, N.H., mid-1800s slightly after Schoolcraft’s time

Apparently hoping to parlay his knowledge of glass manufacturing to make his fortune, Schoolcraft landed in Potosi, Missouri, the heart of the area’s lead smelting industry.  Originally founded as Mine Au Breton by Spain’s Francis Azor in 1763, it became U.S. property as part  of President Thomas Jefferson’s massive land deal, the Louisiana Purchase.  Moses Austin, (right) father of Texas legend, Steven Austin, renamed the settlement Potosi after the famed silver center in Bolivia.  

Potosi, Mo. in 1820’s

Rumors of lead, not silver, along Missouri’s White River, lured Schoolcraft to the frontier.  Setting out with another Rhode Islander Levi Pettibone, the pair traveled down the White River, surveying the geology and mineralogy along the way.  Levi while reportedly related to early Missouri settler, John Pettibone, was no more skilled at wilderness travel than Schoolcraft.  Getting lost often and running low on supplies they eventually  were rescued by backwoods hunters.   

Schoolcraft survived the trip and published a study that would  make Missouri the nation’s leading lead-producing state.  His work caught the attention of then Secretary of War, John C. Calhoun.  The powerful southerner recommended the young geologist to Michigan’s Territorial Governor, Lewis Cass. (Left)  Cass himself led an expedition of the upper Mississippi valley  in 1820, in hopes of settling the U.S. boundary with Canada.  Like Zebulon Pike before him, he too came up with the wrong conclusion, naming Cass Lake after himself as the source of the river.

It was 12 more years before Schoolcraft traced the river’s beginnings to northern Minnesota’s Lake Itasca.   In the meantime, he was busy forging a career as a government agent for Michigan’s Native Americans.  Assigned to Sault  Ste. Marie’s Fort Brady, he met and married Jane Johnston.  The daughter of an Scots-Irish fur trader and his Ojibway wife, Ozhaguscodaywayquay, (Woman of the Green Glade), Johnston was also the granddaughter of the Ojibway chief, Waubojeeg, or White Feather, known among his people as a powerful warrior and  poet.   

Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, (left)  also known by the magical Ojibway name “Woman of the Sound Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky”could hardly  miss being a poet herself.  She became recognized as the first Native American literary writer.

The couple had four children, two surviving to adulthood.  Together they created a hand-written family magazine, “The Literary Voyager or Muzzeniegen,” which they distributed to friends in Sault Ste. Marie.  The unique publication was soon forwarded to a wider audience in Detroit, eventually finding its way to the East Coast.

Jane’s work was in both English and Ojibway and she taught Schoolcraft her native language.  It was, in fact, largely responsible for revealing the secret of Lake Itaska, the true source of the Mississippi.   In 1832 his language skills sent him to the northern reaches of the territory in a mission to vaccinate the indigenous population against small pox.  It was through his contacts with the Ojibway that led him to the true headwaters.  

The fort at Mackinac Island

The following year Schoolcraft was sent to Mackinac Island.  But President Martin Van Buren’s 1849 defeat at the hands of William Henry Harrison,  ended Schoolcraft’s patronage job there. The family moved to New York where he continued his work as an ethnologist for New York State.  

Tragically, while Schoolcraft was traveling in Europe in 1842 Jane died  at the age of 42 while visiting her sister in Canada.  Despite the absence of Jane’s guidance, he continued his work recording Native American culture.  In 1846, he moved to Washington, D.C, when Congress commissioned Schoolcraft’s publication.  It eventually grew to six volumes and reportedly was the basis of the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic, “Song of Hiawatha.”

In a surprising step, in 1847 the 57-year-old Schoolcraft wed 27-year-old Mary Howard  from a prominent slave-holding South Carolina family.  In 1860, writing under the name “A Southern Lady,”  Mary authored a best selling and highly controversial book, “The Black Gauntlet: A Tale of Plantation Life in South Carolina.”  A collection of pro-slavery speeches, it became a popular addition to the “anti-Tom” genre in response “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe. (Left)

Schoolcraft’s late day nuptials had a number of negative consequences.  He had long suffered from a debilitating rheumatic condition and Mary proved increasingly unhelpful as his editorial assistant.  While critics praised the scholarship, they generally deemed the books “unusable” for their lack of an index and other organizational shortcomings.

In addition, the marriage did little for Schoolcraft family harmony, permanently alienating his Ojibway mixed-race children.

Schoolcraft died December 10, 1864 at the age of 71 and was buried in Washington D.C.’s Congressional Cemetery.  Mary (right) outlived her husband by 14 years.  She died March 12, 1878, at the age of 57 or 58,  

A century later, the Smithsonian Institution published an index to his works, but modern historians have looked unfavorably on some of Schoolcraft’s actions which encouraged  Michigan’s indigenous tribes to relinquish tribal lands to the state.  His reputation as the explorer who discovered of the source of the Mississippi remains untarnished.

Itaska State Park, near Park Rapids, Minnesota, encompasses 32,000 acres, more than 100 lakes and a chance to step across the Mississippi.  The oldest state park in Minnesota, a 2,000-acre Wilderness Sanctuary is one of the state’s seven National Natural Landmarks.  Seasonal outdoor activities include hiking, fishing, biking on 16 miles of paved trails, snowshoeing and cross country skiing.  More than 200 drive-in camp sites are available including a limited number that are wheelchair accessible. 

In addition, Douglas Lodge and a variety of cabins and group accommodations provide housing from basic to luxurious.   The park is open daily from 8 to 10 along with the Visitor Center (above) and Headwater Center.  Park entrance fee for a one-day permit is $5.  Disabled veterans and active duty military personnel are eligible for discounted or free admittance.  For more information go to, e-mail, call (651)296-6157 or toll free (888) 646-6367,

© Text Only – 2021 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.