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Descent of the Mississippi River, from Itasca Lake to Cass Lake

Native American Nations | Thirty Years with the Indians

Descent of the Mississippi River, from Itasca Lake to Cass Lake--Traits of its bank--Kabika Falls--Upsetting of a canoe--River descends by steps, and through narrow rocky passes--Portage to the source of the Crow-Wing River--Moss Lake--Shiba Lake--Leech Lake--Warpool Lake--Long Lake Mountain portage--Kaginogomanug--Vermilion Lake--Ossawa Lake-Shell River--Leaf River--Long Prairie River--Kioskk, or Gull River--Arrival at its mouth--Descent to the Falls of St. Anthony, and St. Peter's--Return to St. Mary's.

1832, July 14th. I found the outlet of Itasca Lake to be about twelve feet wide, and some twelve to fourteen inches deep. The water is of crystal purity, and the current very rapid. We were urged along with great velocity. It required incessant vigilance on the part of the men to prevent our frail vessels from being dashed against boulders. For about twelve miles the channel was not only narrow, but exceedingly crooked. Often, where the water was most deep and rapid, it did not appear to exceed ten feet in width. Trees which had fallen from the banks required, sometimes, to be cut away to allow the canoes to pass, and it required unceasing vigilance to avoid piles of drifted wood or boulders. As we were borne along in vessels of bark, not more than one-eighth of an inch thick, a failure to fend off, or hit the proper guiding point, in any one place, would have been fraught with instant destruction. And we sat in a perfect excitement during this distance. The stream then deployed, for a distance of some eight miles, into a savannah or plain, with narrow grassy borders in which its width was doubled, its depth decreased, and the current less furious. We went through these windings with more assurance and composure. It was one of the minor plateaux in which this stream descends. The channel then narrowed and deepened itself for another plunge, and soon brought us to the top of the Kabika Palls. This pass, as the name imports, is a cascade over rocks. The river is pent up, between opposing trap rock, which are not over ten feet apart. Its depth is about four feet, and velocity perfectly furious. It is not impossible to descend it, as there is no abrupt pitch, but such a trial would seem next to madness. We made a portage with our canoes of about a quarter of a mile across a peninsula, and embarked again at the foot of the falls, where the stream again expands to more than double its former width, and the scenery assumes a milder aspect. It is another plateau.

Daylight had departed when we encamped on a high sandy bank on the left shore. We were perfectly exhausted with labor, and the thrilling excitement of the day. It seemed, while flying through its furious passes, as if this stream was impatient for its development, and, like an unrestrained youth, was bent on overthrowing every obstacle, on the instant, that opposed its advance and expansion. A war horse could not have been more impatient to rush on to his destiny.

We were in motion again in our canoes at five o'clock the next morning. At an early hour my Indian guide landed to fire at some deer. He could not, however, get close enough to make an effectual shot. Before the animals were, however, out of range, he loaded, without wadding, and fired again, but also without effect. After passing a third plateau through which the river winds, with grassy borders, we found it once more to contract for another descent, which we made without leaving our canoes, not, however, without imminent peril and loss. Lieut. Allen had halted to make some observations, when his men incautiously failed for a moment to keep his canoe direct in the current. The moment it assumed a transverse position, which they attempted to fix by grasping some bushes on the opposite bank, the water dashed over the gunwales, and swept all to the bottom. He succeeded in gaining his feet, though the current was waist high, and recovered his fowling piece, but irretrievably lost his canoe-compass, a nautical balanced instrument, and everything besides. Fortunately I had a fine small land-compass, which Gen. Macomb had presented to the late John Johnston, Esq., of St. Mary's, many years before, and thus I measurably repaired his loss. On descending this channel, the river again displayed itself in savannas, and assumed a width which it afterwards maintained, and lost its savage ferocity of current, though still strong.

On this plateau, the river receiving on its left the War River, or Piniddiwin (the term has relation to the mangled flesh of those slain in battle), a considerable stream, at the mouth of which the Indian reed first shows itself. We had, the day previous, noticed the Chemaun, or Canoe River, tributary from the right bank. Minor tributaries were not noticed. The volume of water was manifestly increased from various sources. At a spot where we landed, as evening came on, we observed a species of striped lizard, which our guide called Okautekinabic, which signifies legged-snake. Various species of the duck and other water fowl were almost continually in sight. We reached the junction of the Plantagenet Fork about one o'clock at night (15th), and rapidly passing the Irving and Cross-water Lakes, descended to Cass Lake, reaching our encampment at nine o'clock in the morning.

A day's rest restored the party from its fatigues, and we set out at ten o'clock the following day (16th) for Leech Lake, by the overland route. Two hours rowing brought us to a fine sandy beach at the head of a bay, which was named Pike's Bay, from Lieut. Pike having approached from this direction in the winter of 1806. Here the baggage and canoes were prepared for a portage. A walk of nine hundred and fifty yards, through open pine forest, brought us to the banks of Moss Lake, which we passed in canoes. A portage of about two miles and a-half was now made to the banks of a small lake, which, as I heard no name for it, was called Shiba, from the initials of the names of the five gentlemen of the party1. This lake has an outlet into a large stream, which the Pillager Chippewas call Kapuka Sagitawag. It was nearly dark when we embarked on this stream, which soon led, by a very narrow and winding channel, into the main river. Pushing on, we reached and crossed an arm of the lake to the principal Indian village of Guelle Plat, Leech Lake, which we reached at ten o'clock at night.

The next day (17th) was passed in council with them, till late in the afternoon, when I embarked, and went a couple of leagues to encamp, in order to rid myself fully of the village throng, and be ready for an early start in the morning. It was my determination to pass inland south-westerly by an Indian trail, so as to strike the source of the Crow Wing or De Corbeau River, one of the great tributaries of the Mississippi which remained unexplored.

We found the entrance to this portage early the next morning (18th). After following the trail about three-fourths of a mile we reached and crossed a small lake called Warpool. A small and intricate outlet led successively to Little Long Lake, the Two Lakes, and the Lake of the Mountain. Here commenced a highland portage of over 900 yards to the Lake of the Island--another portage of some 2000 yards was then made to Midlake, and finally another of one puggidenun, partly through a bog, but terminating on elevated grounds at the head of a considerable and handsome body of water called Kaginogamaug, or The Long Water. This is the source of the De Corbeau River, and here we encamped for the night. We had how crossed the summit between Leech Lake and the source of the Crow Wing River. We commenced the descent on the morning of the 19th, and passed successively through eleven lakes, connected by a series of short channels. The names of these in their order, are Kaginogamaug, Little Vermilion, Birch, Ple, Assawa, Vieu Desert, Summit, Longrice, Allen's, Johnston's, and Kaitchibo Sagitawa. Two tributary streams enter the river in this distance, the principal of which is Shell River; the stream assumes an ample size, and there is no further apprehension of shallows. Next day (20th) we passed the influx of six rivers, the largest of which is Leaf River, coming in from the West. The channel has now attained a bold and sweeping force. It required part of another day to reach its mouth, in the course of which it is joined by the Long Prairie River from the right, and the Kioshk or Gall River from the left. An alluvial island, with a heavy forest, exists at the point of its confluence with the Mississippi River. We encamped at the Pierced Prairie, eighteen miles below the junction, and were less than two days in a high state of the water, in reaching St. Anthony's falls.

24th. I arrived at St. Peter's about two o'clock in the afternoon, and entered and encamped on the open common on the banks of the river. The Indian agent (Mr. Tallieferro) was absent. I found Captain Jouett in command of the fort, and in charge of Indian affairs. He received me in a cordial manner, and offered every facility in his power to effect the objects of my mission among the hostile tribes. No recent news from the seat of operation against the Black Hawk and his adherents was known. Recent details were, however, imprecise. Captain Jouett had kept up, I think, the mail communication with Prairie du Chien, by a canoe sent once a fortnight. The murder of St. Vrain, the events on the Rock River with the Illinois militia, and the movements on foot to chastise the hostile Sauks and Foxes, were among the latest items of intelligence. But nothing was known of the actual position of the Black Hawk and his followers. My determinations, therefore, as to the route to be pursued, in returning home, were made in entire ignorance of the fact, that at that time, the Black Hawk had been driven before Gens. Atkinson and Dodge to the banks of the Mississippi, at the mouth of the Badaxe River--where he completely intercepted all communication between the posts of St. Peter's and Prairie du Chien.

25th. I held a council with the Sioux at the Agency Buildings; at which the tribe disclaimed, by their speakers, having any connection with the Sauk and Fox league, or having permitted any of their warriors to join in it. They professed a readiness to furnish warriors to aid the government in suppressing it.

On returning to my tent, I sat down and wrote to the editor of a Western paper, as follows:--

ST. PETERS, July 25th, 1882.

SIR:--I arrived at this place yesterday, from an expedition through the Chippewa country on the sources of the Mississippi, accompanied by a detachment of troops under Lieut. Allen of the 5th Infantry. I have traced this river to its actual source. On reaching the point to which it had been formerly explored, I found the water in a favorable state for ascending; and I availed myself of this circumstance to carry into effect the desire of visiting its actual source, a point which has continued to be problematical in our geography. Pike placed it at Leech Lake in 1806. Gov. Cass carried it much further north, and left it at Upper Red Cedar Lake in 1820. But it was then ascertained that its sources were considerably north and west of that lake, which is in lat. 47 deg. 25'. I encamped the expedition, the troops and heavy baggage, at this lake, and proceeded up the river in five small birch canoes, capable of containing one man and his bed, in addition to the Indian and Canadian who conducted it. The Mississippi expands into several lakes, the largest of which is called Lac Traverse. A few miles above this occurs the junction of its south-west and north-west branch. The former I called the Plantagenet, and ascended it through La Salle, Marquette, and Assawa Lakes to a small creek at the foot of the Hauteur des Terres. From this point a portage was made over difficult ascents, and through defiles for about six miles, when we reached the banks of Itasca Lake, the source of the other and longer branch. To this point we transported our canoes and baggage. It is a most beautiful and clear lake, about seven miles long, and lying somewhat in the shape of a y. I found an island in it, upon which I landed and encamped, and, after causing some trees to be felled, hoisted the United States flag. I left this flag flying, and returned down the Itascan branch to my starting point.

I found the Indians friendly, and having no apparent connection with the movements of Black Hawk, although they are subject to an unpropitious influence from the Hudson's Bay Company, the agents of which allure them to carry their trade into that province. The American traders complain of this with great reason. Many of the Chippewas visit the British posts in Canada, and their old prejudices are kept alive in various ways; but I was everywhere received with amity and respect.

26th. Having concluded my affairs at St, Peters, I determined to return to the basin of Lake Superior, by ascending the river St. Croix to its source, and passing across the portage of the Misakoda, or Burntwood River, into the Fond du Lac Bay. This I accomplished with great toil, owing to the low state of the water, in ten days; and, after spending ten days more in traversing the lengthened shores and bays of Lake Superior from La Pointe, returned to Sault St. Marie on the 14th of August.

Aug. 15th. I had now accomplished the discovery of the true source of the Mississippi River--and settled a problem which has so long remained a subject of uncertainty in the geography of this celebrated river. If De Soto began it (and of this there seems little question, for Narvaez perished before reaching it), and Marquette and Joliet continued it; if Hennepin and Pike and Cass carried these explorations higher, I, at least, went to its remoter points, and thence traced the river to its primary forks--ascended the one, crossed the heights of Itasca to the other, and descended the latter in its whole length. This has been done in a quiet way, without heralding or noise, but under the orders and at the expense of the United States.

1: Schoolcraft, Houghton, Johnston, Boutwell, Allen.

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Personal Memoirs of a Residence of Thirty Years with the Indian Tribes on the American Frontiers, 1851

Thirty Years with the Indians


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