As a child, Edward Murzyn remembers piling into his family's car to head Up North nearly every summer. A stop at Lake Itasca almost always made their itinerary. During the visits, Murzyn and his brother would race across the rocks that span the stream flowing out of the lake.
Murzyn remembers learning as early as elementary school that the tiny stream he walked across fed the mighty Mississippi River.
Recently, Murzyn, a Star Tribune reader in Fridley, began to wonder: Is Lake Itasca the true headwaters of the Mississippi?
That's the latest question for Curious Minnesota, our community-driven reporting project that invites readers to ask questions. Readers then vote on which query we should investigate — and Murzyn's was the winner of a recent round.
"There's two parts to the answer," said Connie Cox, lead interpretive naturalist at Itasca State Park. "One is a cultural story. The other one is a science story."
The cultural story spans decades of exploration by travelers who followed the Mississippi north in search of its source. "It wasn't just an exercise in geography. It was an international and political question," said Patrick Coleman, an acquisitions librarian at the Minnesota Historical Society. "If the source of the Mississippi is up in Canada, then the Brits have control of this major highway, the Mississippi River. If it's lower, the Americans walk away with it."
During the late 1700s and early 1800s, explorers identified various lakes as potential sources. It wasn't until Ozaawindib, a prominent Ojibwe, led explorer Henry Schoolcraft to Lake Itasca in 1832 that Americans began calling it the Mississippi's source. Explorer Joseph Nicollet later scientifically verified the claim using the era's surveying tools.
That could have been the end of the story, but in 1881, Willard Glazier, a self-promoting traveler, claimed Glazier Lake as the river's source. The conflicting claims required new verifications.
Jacob V. Brower surveyed Lake Itasca and again identified it as the Mississippi's source because of the area's bowl-shaped topography.
"What he had concluded is Lake Itasca is that bottommost reservoir … and that all of these other lakes and rivers do contribute water, but the ultimate source is Lake Itasca, where it pools and collects," Cox said.
Brower discounted Itasca tributaries as sources because they dried up during droughts, while Itasca supplied a continual flow.
But doubters remain. Geologist Wendell Duffield argues that the Minnesota River could be considered a source. By following the Minnesota, Duffield has traced the source of the Mississippi to the northeast corner of South Dakota.
Despite its detractors, Lake Itasca has become culturally recognized as the Mississippi's source by tourists and Minnesotans alike.
"There is something that just brings out the youthful joy and excitement of adventure and discovery," Cox said about the headwaters.
Emma Dill is a University of Minn. student on assignment for the Star Tribune.