Mighty fine origins – the Source of the Mighty Mississippi

Ellen and Jerry at source sign-2

So what’s the story?

It’s been a source of food, transportation, civilization.  It’s marked the division between the known and unknown.  It’s served as a barrier between empires, countries, territories and finally states.  It’s been a strategic point of combat  It’s sparked imagination, romanticism, and lore, celebrated in song and story.  Hernando de Soto is credited with being the first European to discover the mighty river, in 1541, a river the tattered remnants of his expedition sailed to the Gulf of Mexico in 1543.  Ah, but where was the beginning of such a magnificent, if muddy, waterway?  Could it lead possibly to British Canada or beyond?  Just how extensive were these waters, could they be easily traveled, and what riches might it and its associated tributaries lead to?

The search for the Mississippi River’s true source spanned a century and several explorers.

Now, according to Wikipedia, the source of a river is defined as:

  1. The source or headwaters of a river or stream is the furthest place in that river or stream from its estuary or confluence with another river, as measured along the course of the river.

which is kind of unnecessarily complicated and repetitive.  The Oxford Dictionary version is simpler:  “A spring or fountainhead from which a river or stream issues.”

But in the 1800s, the definition of a river’s source was marked by “that tributary source which springs from the farthest end of a river’s flow, in the cardinal opposite direction of the river’s mouth.”  And by that measure the source has been named in several different places in northern Minnesota – Turtle Lake, Leech Lake, Cass Lake, Lake Julia, Elk Lake (at one point called Lake Glazier).

There was even fierce controversy over men and methods after William Glazier decreed Elk Lake to be the true source.

info-sign-part-threeToday, it has been agreed that Lake Itasca is the true source of the Mississippi – even its name proclaims it, being a combination of verITAS and CAput, the latin words for “truth” and “head.”  Now, I’m not going to list off the location process with a bunch of names and dates – I’ve a picture to do that for me, courtesy of the park service at Lake Itasca.  And in taking in one of the many maps in the park, you can see that unlike most rivers, the Mississippi actually flows north for about the first sixty miles.

jerry-at-the-map-of-the-mississippi(You know, in grade school I always though that was strange, calling the beginning of a river the “head” and the end of it the “mouth.”)

Now, heading into the park, you might feel like you’ve gotten lost, especially if you come in by the South Entrance.  You’re headed for the Mary Gibbs Mississippi Headwaters Interactive Center at the northernmost tip of Lake Itasca – don’t worry, there are signs.  And you could always ask the park attendants at the entrances.  (I really do recommend the south entrance – the drive along Lake Itasca is absolutely gorgeous.)  Once you get to the Mary Gibbs Center, that’s where you park and hoof it down the trail to the headwaters.  (But do be sure and take in the Center itself; there are signboards and exhibits and a lovely little gift shop – my favorite is the water table in the portico that shows the flow of the Mississippi down to the Gulf.)

The trail is well-maintained, with bare ground underfoot and trees forming a leafy canopy overhead – look for the tree bent over at a 90-degree angle and then back upward!  If your timing is good, you might even find the education table manned by a park ranger, ready and willing to answer questions… and ask some of their own!  Try your eye at identifying talons and feathers – which bird are they from?

crossing-the-source-o-the-mississippi-2Jerry in the splashing poolAnd then – if you’ve come in the summer – you can wade across the source either through the chilly water or on the stones, and splash about in the shallow pool below or swim in the deeper pool above – and then tell the folks back home you walked across the Mississippi!

Source of the Mississippi


Lake Itasca, Lake Itasca State Park, Clearwater County in Minnesota


Memorial Weekend thru first Saturday in October: Daily, 8 a.m. – 10 p.m. Beginning first Sunday in October thru Thursday before Memorial Weekend: Daily 9 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.


$5.00 for a daily parking permit; if you get out to the state parks in Minnesota more than once a year, the annual parking permit for $25.00 might make sense for you!

Contact Information:

Phone, 218-699-7251; fax, 218-699-7210; email, itasca.statepark@state.mn.us


www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/Itasca/index, and there is an unofficial Facebook page

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