What if — what if — oh, wow, this is crazy — but what if the Mississippi River doesn’t begin in Lake Itasca?
What if it begins in — South Dakota?
The question by Wendell Duffield, first posed in an essay in 2012, isn’t really new. Other geology texts and scholarly papers have cited similar logic.
Nor does Duffield, a geologist who grew up in Browns Valley, Minn., on the South Dakota border north of Big Stone Lake, mean any harm (although he does live a safe distance away in Washington state).
Nor does he seek to rewrite history, despite feeling that generations have been “bamboozled by the Itasca tale, which is told as gospel to children before they are educated enough to be critical thinkers.”
Still, he said with a good-natured laugh, “I don’t think there’s any chance in hell anybody is going to change the names of rivers. That gets into political jealousies.
“I just want people to think more thoughtfully about the geological history of the area.”
In other words, while Lake Itasca is the Mississippi’s cultural source, Duffield makes a case that the Minnesota River and the tiny town of Veblen, S.D., is the river’s geologic source.
Here’s why: If you follow the Minnesota River up to Big Stone Lake, that takes you to the Little Minnesota River, which takes you to Veblen.
Granted, many state histories call a halt at Big Stone Lake, naming that the headwaters of the Minnesota because — duh — that keeps everything within the state. Still, at the least, that means the ancient Mississippi owes more to Big Stone than to Itasca.
Let’s break it down.
If we were mastodons:
We’d be lumbering 11,000 years ago along the River Warren, a huge glacial river that cut a wide valley through what now is central Minnesota, fed by the immense Lake Agassiz, which lay over a continental divide near Browns Valley.
In what now is St. Paul, we might have gazed upon River Warren Falls, which dropped 175 feet — taller than Niagara Falls — into a deep gorge.
But over the next 1,000 years, the waterfall eroded the channel back to where Fort Snelling now stands, and where a river from the north (which later became known as the Mississippi) joined the Warren. The waterfall continued its eroding ways up that new channel, eventually forming St. Anthony Falls.
In the meantime, Lake Agassiz finally broke through the ice to the north and began draining toward Hudson Bay. The River Warren, on the south side of the divide, dwindled to a much smaller river.
This became known as the Minnesota.
If we were eagles:
We’d see from on high how the broad and bluff-lined watershed of the Minnesota is one of the state’s most dramatic geological features, almost 5 miles wide in places.
We’d see, as modern satellite images show, how the Mississippi is barely visible — a comparative scratch upon the land — as it descends to meet the Minnesota.
We’d see how the two waterways join at Fort Snelling, and how the valley that bends toward St. Paul still looks like the Minnesota in width and depth. Yet it’s now called the Mississippi, journeying south toward Tom Sawyer and literary fame, just as Lake Itasca is celebrated to the north as the Father of Waters.
As Tom might say, “’Tain’t fair, Huck.”
If we were Thomas Jefferson:
We’d be thinking about getting settlers into a vast tract from the Mississippi River and west that we just bought from France for $15 million.
We’d send surveyors, who usually follow natural landmarks, but in this comparatively featureless expanse, mark the land in square-mile tracts — no matter what.
Michael Freed is a retired professor of forestry and ecology. He grew up in Hastings amid the sloughs and bluffs of the Mississippi River Valley and, like Duffield, finds the geologic similarity between it and the Minnesota as clear as day.
“You look at the outwash fans of the rivers, and you can see where the water comes from,” he said. But by Jefferson’s time, Lake Agassiz had long ago drained, gutting the Minnesota.
A student of naturalists such as Henry Thoreau, Freed bemoans how man exercises dominion over nature.
“We’ve laid across the continent many material measures of our culture, and a classic example is surveying,” Freed said. By the time the prairies were platted with little concern for ecological borders, “we couldn’t see the geology of the land.”
The prehistoric Minnesota faded further into the past.
If we were Henry Schoolcraft:
We’d be seeking the Mississippi’s source, still unknown 300 years after its mouth was discovered.
An earlier expedition in 1820 had named Cass Lake as the source. But Schoolcraft, a young man on that trip, was skeptical. In 1832, he led another expedition along a slightly different route and found the true source, naming it Lake Itasca.
(Trivia alert: Itasca comes from combining the inner syllables of the Latin veritas caput, or “true head.”)
To be fair, most explorers coming upriver from St. Louis understandably bypassed the now paltry Minnesota River. The northern waterway past Fort Snelling, the Mississippi, looked far more impressive, and the Falls of St. Anthony promised wealth.
And so history was written.
If we were residents of Veblen:
We’d likely be shaking our heads over what that reporter from the Cities called about.
Veblen’s finance officer, Nichole Rivera, responded to the notion of South Dakota as the Mississippi’s source with a mildly bewildered, “Huh.”
“We have the Little Minnesota [River] here, but … really?” she said. “I guess I’ve never heard that, and I’ve lived here all my life.”
If we were — um, are — loyal Minnesotans:
We’ve walked across the steppingstones of Lake Itasca and declared that we have crossed the Mississippi. And, indeed, we have.
Despite geological textbooks, papers and state histories from which much of the above information was drawn, we love that this mighty river flows from a picturesque local lake — what Schoolcraft called a “glittering nymph.”
Duffield is OK with this.
He knows some people think he’s crazy, but he prefers to think of himself as better educated (again, with the good-natured laugh).
“Some people are educated without geological thought,” he said. “They aren’t thinking about the landscape as it developed. You know, 20,000 years is a lot of time. But to a geologist, it’s just overnight.”
No question, the Minnesota River keeps a low profile.
Its best publicity came in 1935, when Eric Sevareid and Walter Port canoed its length and then to Hudson Bay. Their account, “Canoeing With the Cree,” is well nigh sacred in the paddling community.
In 2011, Ann Raiho and Natalie Warren, friends at St. Olaf College, re-created that trip. Raiho, who grew up in Inver Grove Heights, said that she’d rarely given the silty waterway much thought.
“I hardly even knew where the Minnesota River went until we were paddling it,” Raiho said. “But it’s good to stop and think what a river is about. It’s been here a long time, and just because it’s moving slow and hidden by bluffs and stuff, we don’t think about it.
“I was grateful to be on it.”