Mississippi River Discoveries

Paul Gruchow

The theme of GIA's 2000 annual conference is The Source which refers literally to the beginnings of the Mississippi River and figuratively to the tributaries that together make art happen: the creativity of individual artists, the desire to come together in community, and the impulse to give. Author Paul Gruchow lives in Two Harbors, Minnesota, and writes of the Mississippi from first-hand experience. He is a participant in a GIA preconference, "Artists and the Natural World: Art-Making and Environmental Advocacy." This essay is published with his permission.

When I was a student at the University of Minnesota, I lived on the west bank of the Mississippi River and crossed over it every morning to the east bank to attend classes. Although I made this passage at least a thousand times, I never ceased to get a little thrill out of it. I had grown up on a farm west of the Mississippi and by some kind of osmosis had gotten it into my head as a child that sophistication and culture lay just across that great divide. In making the journey from west to east across the Mississippi every morning, I was freshly reminded of the freedom and prosperity that I expected more or less automatically to follow from having enlisted as a university man.

My imagination in this regard was especially agitated by reading Mark Twain, whose river books — Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Life on the Mississippi — made a powerful impression on me as a child. I read them, re-read them, and read them again aloud to my younger sister. From an exceedingly young age I had, like Tom and Huck, an irrepressible urge for escape: I ran away from home for the first of many times at the age of eighteen months. And, like Twain's heroes, I was an inveterate daydreamer. My fantasies almost always involved flight into the wild. Perhaps because I grew up near a small river in the Mississippi River watershed, these dreams invariably entailed escape by water. Under the spell of Twain, I became a builder of rafts, one or two of which even floated.

The hold of the Mississippi River on my imagination was all the more powerful, I suppose, because, with two shadowy exceptions, I never saw it until I actually left home for good. I first encountered the Mississippi when I was five. Our family had gone south to escape the winter. We lived for a time in a shelter house in a park north of New Orleans. The park must have been along the river, but I don't remember anything of it. In the odd way the brain has of editing memories, I can recall only three things about that trip: a car overturned in a ditch in Missouri, taking my first shower in a motel in Arkansas, and seeing African Americans for the first time in Little Rock. The second encounter with the river happened when I was ten on a family trip north to gather blueberries. We stopped overnight at Itasca State Park. Mosquitoes divebombed us in vast battalions and in the night a rainstorm flooded our floorless tent while the lightning flashed and the thunder crashed at ever closer intervals. It was not a delightful occasion. I know that we made a pilgrimage the next morning to the headwaters of the Mississippi because I remember the man there, dressed in the regalia of an Indian chief, who hired himself out to pose for pictures, but again I remember nothing at all of the river.

So the Mississippi was free to grow in my imagination as an extravagant and mythical beast, like one of the giants in the earth that O. E. Rolvaag knew. When I actually did take cognizance of it, on my first day at the University, a muddy and unexotic drainage through the alleyways and back doors of Minneapolis, it was no longer a thing to me but an idea, less a river than a symbol of the rift between my circumstances and my ambitions.

A buffalo kill site on Lake Itasca proves that the headwaters of the Mississippi were inhabited at least 8,000 years ago, and other artifacts indicate that natives of the Woodland culture lived on Itasca's shores a thousand years ago. Obviously it was not any white man who discovered the place. Still, human nature being what it is, the legend in United States history is that the honor of discovery goes to one Henry Schoolcraft, and the date is given as July 13, 1832.

Schoolcraft had much in common with the others who preceded him in contending for this honor. He was enormously ambitious. He had literary pretensions which were largely misplaced — in addition to his travel narratives, he was the author of a good deal of abominable poetry. And he died having changed his name to hide a disgrace, his hopes largely unfulfilled.

Before Schoolcraft, there had been LaSalle who, ill and gone mad, was shot to death by one of his own men. There was Father Hennepin, who got as far as the Falls of St. Anthony (which he named), claimed Lake Pepin as the true source of the Mississippi, and spent the rest of his life writing three highly popular accounts of his travels, each more wildly fantastic than the last, the only substance at all in them being the material he stole whole cloth from LaSalle. Next was Jonathan Carver, who made an earnest expedition and kept an honest account of it, only to be driven by poverty into allowing the truth to be falsified to interest the reading public and who died, nonetheless, his book in its sixth printing, of malnutrition. There was Zebulon Pike who made a hasty expedition upriver late in the season and was frustrated in his endeavors by ice and snow at Leech Lake.

There was the man who, first among white men, accurately placed the general location of the headwaters, only to be instantly forgotten. Then, riding in a canoe paddled by two natives and guided by an Indian named Yellow Head, came Schoolcraft who won the honor of discovery, the scientific confirmation coming two years later on the investigations of one Nicollet. Unfortunately for Schoolcraft, the true source of the Mississippi had by 1832 become merely an academic question.

There were two other claimants — one coming before Schoolcraft, the other half a century after him — who outshone all of the others in sheer silliness and who deserve, for that reason if none other, to be remembered. One was named Beltrami, the other Glazier.

Beltrami, a portly Italian, had gone north on an expedition up the Red River. He realized correctly that the source of the Mississippi must lie to the southeast, and he got it into his head to set off on his own to make his fame and fortune by finding it. Accordingly, he hired a native guide and headed cross-country. But he was, like most of these explorers, a very difficult man to get along with, and his help soon abandoned him. Beltrami determined to press on alone. The first thing he discovered was that he hadn't the slightest idea how to operate a canoe. The second thing he discovered was that this task, however it was accomplished, was a good deal more difficult than he had imagined. Every time he tried it, he went round in circles and dumped into the river. He resorted to wading the Red Lake River, towing his canoe along behind him, and, when the weather turned rainy, he kept his goods dry by erecting over them the big red silk umbrella he had carried along for just such an occasion. It was the kind of scene a Fellini might have imagined. Eventually Beltrami reached what he declared to be the true source of both the Mississippi and the Red River of the North, although he was accurate in neither instance. Thus satisfied, he took himself home in the expectation of a fame that never materialized.

Glazier came along half a century after Schoolcraft. He had decided — not utterly without some reason — that the true source of the Mississippi was not actually in Itasca, but in a small lake just to the south of it, traditionally known as Elk Lake. He headed north through Minnesota, preparing to lay claim to history. Along the way he renamed lakes, using first the names of U.S. generals and then resorting, as he neared Itasca, to names of relatives. His visit to Elk Lake proved just what he expected, that it and not Itasca was the ultimate source of the Mississippi. Having renamed the lake Glazier Lake, he turned back down the river, traveling all the way to New Orleans, a well-orchestrated publicity campaign preceding him, giving interviews and lectures about his great discovery and eventually writing down his adventures in a gripping and self-aggrandizing narrative.

Glazier's claims met with enough sympathetic attention to rouse the ire of the Minnesota Historical Society, which, in 1886, ordered an investigation of the whole affair. A committee under the leadership of Gen. James H. Baker issued its report to the society a month and a half later. Glazier, the report asserted, was hardly an explorer. He had gotten to Elk Lake by taking a train to Brainerd and then proceeding by carriage to Elk Lake along a series of well-established roads. Indeed, the lake he purported to have discovered had been on the maps all along, was scarcely a lake in its own right in any case, being reasonably interpreted as an extension of the southwestern arm of Lake Itasca itself, and had attracted its first white settlers two years previously. As for the details of Glazier's trip of exploration, as he reported them, these could be demonstrated to have been stolen, down to such minute details as the daily weather reports, directly from Schoolcraft's own account, excepting the beautiful speeches Glazier's Indian guide was supposed to have made about the true source of the Mississippi which no white had before seen, speeches the guide himself could not remember having made. The only thing he told Glazier, he said to the investigators, was that he had grown corn and hunted near Itasca for many years. Glazier's work had been so solidly pilloried by the scholar Henry D. Harrower, the Baker report asserted, “that he must be made of brass if he can again lift his head among literary people.”

And so it was established once and for all that Henry Schoolcraft had indeed discovered the source of the Mississippi, even though he did not get to it under his own power, had to be shown the way, and arrived a few thousand years after the first human visitor to the place.

There the matter might be laid to rest: one's own discoveries, like those of any conquering culture, are but the fruits of Narcissistic delusion. But that would be the wrong place to stop.

We may have occupied this continent, the biologist Wes Jackson once said, but we have not yet discovered it. Nor, he might have added, God willing, will we ever truly do so. Once we stop discovering a place, we start to destroy it. Perhaps if we had been, in the beginning of our occupation of this continent, a little less confident of our discoveries, we might also have been a little slower to ravage them.

A great river like the Mississippi is unlike any other remarkable feature of the Planet Earth in that it is distinctly, visibly, within the life span of any individual human being a changeable thing. It floods and recedes, changes course, cuts new islands, sweeps away old ones. The shallowest of philosophers knows that the waters passing through a river one morning are not the same waters that pass through it the next morning. A river begins who knows where in what first drop of liquid and passes out to sea and rises into the air and returns again to its mysterious origins without any definitive beginning or ending. Even Mount Everest, in comparison, has its summit, the last molecule of its finite height.

In Life on the Mississippi Mark Twain recalls an evening on the river early in his steamboating days. “A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood;” he wrote:

in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal; where the ruddy flush was faintest, was a smooth spot that was covered with graceful circles and radiating lines, ever so delicately traced; the shore on our left was densely wooded, and the somber shadow that fell from this forest was broken in one place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like silver; and high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree waved a single leafy bough that glowed in the unobstructed splendor that was flowing from the sun. There were graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances; and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it, every passing moment, with new marvels of coloring.

Twain was entranced then, but the day came, he said, when the river ceased to be a source of rapture to him, when he began to read it with the merely practical eye of a riverboat pilot. “Since those days,” he wrote:

I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty's cheeks mean to a doctor but a “break” that ripples above some deadly disease? Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn't he simply view her professionally, and comment about her wholesome condition all to himself? And doesn't he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?

The Mississippi River, despite all its discoverers, remains to be discovered still. Were this not so, it would — except, perhaps, as a sewerage or barge channel — cease to exist at all. It would fade away like a childish fancy or be drowned in grandiose expectations, just as the Mississippi rivers I knew, or thought I knew, so many years ago have vanished. But the river is still there, lonelier now in its upper reaches than it probably was a thousand years ago, awaiting fresh discovery at every hour, and so it remains continuously alive to our imaginings.

Paul Gruchow is author of seven collections of essays, including Journal of a Prairie Year, The Necessity of Empty Places, and Boundary Waters: The Grace of the Wild. A longer version of this essay appeared in Ascent, a literary magazine based in
Moorhead, Minnesota, in fall 1998.