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 it into their road trip itinerary.
During their visits, Murzyn and his brother would race back and forth across the rocks that span the stream that flows out of the lake. The two even had matching Lake Itasca T-shirts.
Murzyn remembers learning early on that this small stream fed the mighty Mississippi River that rushed near his elementary school in northeast Minneapolis.
Recently while sifting through family photographs, Murzyn, now a Star Tribune reader in Fridley, began to wonder: Is Lake Itasca the true headwaters of the Mississippi River or can we trace it to another source?
That’s the latest question for Curious Minnesota, our community-driven reporting project that invites readers into the newsroom to ask questions they want answered. 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, the lead interpretive naturalist at Itasca State Park. “One is a cultural story. The other one is a science story.”
The river’s cultural story spans decades of exploration by travelers who followed the Mississippi north into Minnesota 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 a range of Minnesota lakes as potential sources, but 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. Schoolcraft reinforced his claim by renaming the lake Itasca, meaning “true source.” The name combines the Latin words “veritas” (truth) and “caput” (head).
Later, explorer Joseph Nicollet verified Itasca as the source, using the era’s scientific and 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. As word spread, the conflicting claims required new scientific verifications.
Jacob V. Brower surveyed the area and again identified Itasca 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 the source because they disappeared during droughts, while Itasca had a continual flow.
Nevertheless, doubters still remain.
Wendell Duffield, a geologist and native Minnesotan, argues that the Minnesota River should be considered an alternative source. By following the Minnesota River, Duffield has traced the source of the Mississippi to the northeast corner of South Dakota.
Hydrologists — the people who study water and its movement — have varied interpretations of the term headwaters, said Mark Brigham, deputy director at the United States Geological Survey’s Upper Midwest Water Science Center. While some argue a river’s source should be traced to its longest tributary, others trace it to the stream that contributes the most water. According to these definitions, the Mississippi’s source should be the Missouri or Ohio rivers, respectively.
Despite its detractors, Lake Itasca has become culturally recognized as the Mississippi’s source by tourists, mapmakers and Minnesota natives like Murzyn.
“There is something that just brings out the youthful joy and excitement of adventure and discovery,” Cox said about the headwaters. “It’s just hard to describe for each individual person, but it does have some magic to it.”
Emma Dill is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.
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