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Expedition to, and Discovery of, Itasca Lake, the Source of the Mississippi River

Native American Nations | Thirty Years with the Indians

Expedition to, and discovery of, Itasca Lake, the source of the Mississippi River--Brief notice of the journey to the point of former geographical discovery in the basin of Upper Red Cedar, or Cass Lake--Ascent and portage to Queen Anne's Lake--Lake Pemetascodiac--The Ten, or Metoswa Rapids--Pemidgegomag, or Cross-water Lake--Lake Irving--Lake Marquette--Lake La Salle--Lake Plantagenet--Ascent of the Plantagenian Fork--Naiwa, or Copper-snake River--Agate Rapids and portage--Assawa Lake--Portage over the Hauteur des Terres--Itasca Lake--Its picturesque character--Geographical and astronomical position--Historical data.

1832. June 7th. It was not until this day that the expedition was ready to embark at the head of the portage at St. Mary's. I had organized it strictly on temperance principles, observation having convinced me, during frequent expeditions in the wilderness, that not only is there no situation, unless administered from the medicine-chest, where men are advantaged by its use, but in nearly every instance of fatigue or exhaustion their powers are enfeebled by it, while, in a moral and intellectual sense, they are rendered incapable, neglectful, or disobedient. This exclusion constituted a special clause in every verbal agreement with the men, who were Canadians, which I thought necessary to make, in order that they might have no reason to complain while inland of its exclusion. They were promised, instead of it, abundance of good wholesome food at all times. The effects of this were apparent even at the start. They all presented smiling faces, and took hold of their paddles with a conscious feeling of satisfaction in the wisdom of their agreement.

The military and their supplies occupied a large Mackinack boat; my heavy stores filled another. I traveled in a canoe-elege, as being better adapted to speed and the celerity of landing. Each carried a national flag. We slept the first night at Point Iroquois, which commands a full view of the magnificent entrance into the lake. We were fifteen days in traversing the lake, being my fifth trip through this inland sea. We passed up the St. Louis River by its numerous portages and falls to the Sandy Lake summit, and reached the banks of the Mississippi on the third of July, and ascertained its width above the junction of the Sandy Lake outlet to be 331 feet. We were six days in ascending it to the central island in Cass Lake. This being the point at which geographical discovery rests, I decided to encamp the men, deposit my heavy baggage, and fitted out a light party in hunting canoes to trace the stream to its source. The Indians supplied me with five canoes of two fathoms each, and requiring but two men to manage each, which would allow one canoe to each of the gentlemen of my party. I took three Indians and seven white men as the joint crew, making, with the sitters, fifteen persons. We were provisioned for a few days, carried a flag, mess-basket, tent, and other necessary apparatus. We left the island early the next morning, and reached the influx of the Mississippi into the Lake at an early hour. To avoid a very circuitous bay, which I called Allen's Bay, we made a short portage through open pine woods.

Fifty yards' walk brought us and our canoe and baggage to the banks of Queen Anne's Lake, a small sylvan lake through which the whole channel of the Mississippi passed. A few miles above its termination we entered another lake of limited size, which the Indians called Pemetascodiac. The river winds about in this portion of it--through savannas, bordered by sandhills, and pines in the distance--for about fifteen miles. At this distance, rapids commence, and the bed of the river exhibited greenstone and gneissoid boulders. We counted ten of these rapids, which our guide called the Metoswa, or Ten Rapids. They extend about twenty miles, during which there is a gradual ascent of about forty feet. The men got out at each of these rapids, and lifted or drew the canoes up by their gunwales. We ascended slowly and with toil. At the computed distance of forty-five miles, we entered a very handsome sheet of water, lying transverse to our course, which the Indians called Pamidjegumag, which means crosswater, and which the French call Lac Traverse. It is about twelve miles long from east to west, and five or six wide. It is surrounded with hardwood forest, presenting a picturesque appearance.

We stopped a few moments to observe a rude idol on its shores; it consisted of a granitic boulder, of an extraordinary shape, with some rings and spots of paint, designed to give it a resemblance to a human statue. We observed the passenger-pigeon and some small fresh-water shells of the species of unios and anadontas.

A short channel, with a strong current, connects this lake with another of less than a third of its dimensions, to which I gave the name of Washington Irving. Not more than three or four miles above the latter, the Mississippi exhibits the junction of its ultimate forks. The right hand, or Itasca branch, was represented as by far the longest, the most circuitous, and most difficult of ascent. It brings down much the largest volume of water. I availed myself of the geographical knowledge of my Indian guide by taking the left hand, or what I had occasion soon to call the Plantagenian branch. It expanded, in the course of a few miles, into a lake, which I called Marquette, and, a little further, into another, which I named La Salle. About four miles above the latter, we entered into a more considerable sheet of water, which I named Plantagenet, being the site of an old Indian encampment called Kubbakunna, or the Rest in the Path.

We encamped a short distance above the upper end of this lake at the close of the day, on a point of low land covered with a small growth of gray pine, fringed with alder, tamarisk, spruce, and willow. A bed of moss covered the soil, into which the foot sank at every step. Long moss hung from every branch. Everything indicated a cold frigid soil. In the act of encamping, it commenced raining, which gave a double gloom to the place. Several species of duck were brought from the different canoes as the result of the day's hunt.

Early the next morning we resumed the ascent. The river became narrow and tortuous. Clumps of willow and alder lined the shore. Wherever larger species were seen they were gray pines or tamarack. One of the Indians killed a deer, of the species C. Virginea, during the morning. Ducks were frequently disturbed as we pushed up the winding channel. The shores were often too sedgy and wet to permit our landing, and we went on till twelve o'clock before finding a suitable spot to breakfast.

About five o'clock we came to a high diluvial ridge of gravel and sand, mixed with boulders of syenite, trap-rock, quartz, and sandstone. Ozawandib, our guide, said we were near the junction of the Naiwa, or Copper-snake River, the principal tributary of this branch of the Mississippi, and that it was necessary to make a passage over this ridge to avoid a formidable series of rapids. Our track lay across a peninsula. This occupied the remainder of the day, and we encamped on the banks of the stream above the rapids and pitched our tent, before daylight had finally departed. The position of the sun, in this latitude, it must be recollected, is protracted, very perceptibly, above the horizon. We ascended to the summit in a series of geological steps or plateaux. There is but little perceptible rise from the Cross-water level to this point--called Agate Rapids and Portage, from the occurrence of this mineral in the drift. The descent of water at this place cannot be less than seventy feet. On resuming the journey the next morning (13th) we found the water above these rapids had almost the appearance of a dead level. The current is very gentle; and, by its diminished volume, denotes clearly the absence of the contributions from the Naiwa. About seven miles above the Agate Portage we entered Lake Assawa, which our Indian guide informed us was the source of this branch. We were precisely twenty minutes in passing through it, with the full force of paddles. It receives two small inlets, the most southerly of which we entered, and the canoes soon stuck fast, amidst aquatic plants, on a boggy shore. I did not know, for a moment, the cause of our having grounded, till Ozawandib exclaimed, "O-um-a, mikun-na!" here is the portage! We were at the Southern flanks of the diluvial hills, called HAUTEUR DES TERRES--a geological formation of drift materials, which form one of the continental water-sheds, dividing the streams tributary to the Gulf of Mexico, from those of Hudson's Bay. He described the portage as consisting of twelve pug-gi-de-nun, or resting places, where the men are temporarily eased of their burdens. This was indefinite, depending on the measure of a man's strength to carry. Not only our baggage, but the canoes were to be carried. After taking breakfast, on the nearest dry ground, the different back-loads for the men were prepared. Ozawandib threw my canoe over his shoulders and led the way. The rest followed, with their appointed loads. I charged myself with a spy-glass, strapped, and portfolio. Dr. Houghton carried a plant press. Each one had something, and the men toiled with five canoes, Our provisions, beds, tent, &c. The path was one of the most intricate and tangled that I ever knew. Tornadoes appeared to have cast down the trees in every direction. A soft spongy mass, that gave way under the tread, covered the interstices between the fallen timber. The toil and fatigue were incessant. At length we ascended the first height. It was an arid eminence of the pebble and erratic block era, bearing small gray pines and shrubbery. This constituted our first pause, or puggidenun. On descending it, we were again plunged among bramble. Path, there was none, or trail that any mortal eye, but an Indian's, could trace. We ascended another eminence. We descended it, and entered a thicket of bramble, every twig of which seemed placed there to bear some token of our wardrobe, as we passed. To avoid this, the guide passed through a lengthened shallow pond, beyond which the walking was easier. Hill succeeded hill. It was a hot day in July, and the sun shone out brightly. Although we were evidently passing an alpine height, where a long winter reigned, and the vegetation bore every indication of being imperfectly developed. We observed the passenger pigeon, and one or two species of the falco family. There were indications of the common deer. Moss hung abundantly from the trees. The gray pine predominated in the forest growth.

At length, the glittering of water appeared, at a distance below, as viewed from the summit of one of these eminences. It was declared by our Indian guide to be Itasca Lake--the source of the main, or South fork of the Mississippi. I passed him, as we descended a long winding slope, and was the first man to reach its banks. A little grassy opening served as the terminus of our trail, and proved that the Indians had been in the practice of crossing this eminence in their hunts. As one after another of the party came, we exulted in the accomplishment of our search. A fire was quickly kindled, and the canoes gummed, preparatory to embarkation.

We had struck within a mile of the southern extremity of the lake, and could plainly see its terminus from the place of our embarking. The view was quite enchanting. The waters were of the most limpid character. The shores were overhung with hard wood foliage, mixed with species of spruce, larch, and aspen. We judged it to be about seven miles in length, by an average of one to two broad. A bay, near its eastern-end, gave it somewhat the shape of the letter y. We observed a deer standing in the water. Wild fowl appeared to be abundant. We landed at the only island it contains--a beautiful spot for encampment, covered with the elm, cherry, larch, maple, and birch, and giving evidence, by the remains of old camp-fires, and scattered bones of species killed in the chase, of its having been much resorted to by the aborigines.

This picturesque island the party honored me by calling after my name--in which they have been sanctioned by Nicollet and other geographers. I caused some trees to be felled, pitched my tent, and raised the American flag on a high staff, the Indians firing a salute as it rose.

This flag, as the evidence of the government having extended its jurisdiction to this quarter, I left flying, on quitting the island--and presume the band of Ozawandib, at Cass Lake, afterwards appropriated it to themselves.

Questions of geography and astronomy may deserve a moment's attention. If we assume the discovery of the mouth of the Mississippi to have been made by Narvaez in 1527--a doubtful point!--a period of 305 years has elapsed before its actual source has been fixed. If the date of De Soto's journey (1541) be taken, which is undisputed, this period is reduced to 290 years. Hennepin saw it as high as the mouth of the river St. Francis in 1680. Lt. Pike, under the administration of Mr. Jefferson, ascended it by water in 1805, near to the entrance of Elk River, south of the Crow Wing Fork, and being overtaken at this spot by frosts and snow, and winter setting in strongly, he afterwards ascended its banks, on snow shoes, his men carrying his baggage on hand sleds, to Sandy Lake, then a post of the North-west Company. From this point he was carried forward, under their auspices, by the Canadian train de-glis, drawn by dogs to Leech Lake; and eventually, by the same conveyance, to what is now denominated Cass Lake, or upper Lac Cedre Rogue. This he reached in January, 1806, and it formed the terminus of his journey.

In 1820, Gen. Cass visited Sandy Lake, by the way of Lake Superior, with a strong party, and exploratory outfit, under the authority of the government. He encamped the bulk of his party at Sandy Lake, depositing all his heavy supplies, and fitted out a light party in two canoes, to trace up the river to its source. After ascending to the point of land at the entrance of Turtle River into Cass Lake, it was found, from Indian accounts, that he could not ascend higher in the state of the water with his heavy canoes, if, indeed, his supplies or the time at his command would have permitted him to accomplish it, compatibly with other objects of his instructions. This, therefore, constituted the terminal point of his journey.

The length of the river, from the Gulf of Mexico to Itasca Lake, has been estimated at 3,160 miles. Barometrical observations show its altitude, above the same point, to be 1,680 feet--which denotes an average descent of a fraction over six inches per mile.

The latitude of Itasca Lake has been accurately determined to be 47 deg. 13' 35"--which is nearly two degrees south of the position assigned to it by the best geographers in 1783, the date of the definite treaty of peace between the United States and Great Britain.

The reason of this geographical mistake has been satisfactorily shown in traversing up the stream from the summit of the Pemidjegomag, or Cross-water Lake--during which, the general course of the ascent is due south.

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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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