Water just won’t stay put. It flows, laps and meanders, pushing its way out of perceived boundaries. This can be a problem, especially when attempting to pin down the source of a long, serpentine body of water like the Mississippi River.

Minnesota’s ten thousand lakes don’t help, either. When studying a map of the area surrounding Lake Itasca, the agreed-upon source of the Great River, one is struck by how the lakes and streams blend into one another, as well as into the Mississippi itself. It’s tough to see where one body of water ends and another begins. If a river flows into one side of a lake and a river flows out of another side of that lake, are the two rivers one and the same, or separate?

Turtle River, Lake Itasca or Elk Lake?

Such was the conundrum faced by the first explorers. In the early 1800s, when the land surrounding Lake Itasca was overgrown and only passable through single-file Indian trails, explorers had much difficulty discerning the true source of the Mississippi. Lt. Zebulon Pike, who was charged with finding the source as part of his 1805/06 expedition, got as far as Cass Lake, then called Upper Red Cedar Lake. Technically, he was geographically closer to the source when he was at Leech Lake, but Cass Lake was further along on the river route. When he reached Cass Lake, he saw the Turtle River flowing into the northern side of the lake. Because the Turtle River was the accepted source of the Mississippi River at the time, he felt he had reached the source. His mission accomplished, Pike turned back.

Governor Lewis Cass, for whom Cass Lake was eventually named, led an expedition through the headwaters area in 1820. Like Pike, Cass and his men only made it as far as the mouth of the Turtle River before heading south on the Mississippi. However, David Bates Douglass, one of Cass’ party, reported in his journal that an Indian tribe at this site informed the expedition that the source of the river was Lac Le Biche (Elk Lake), several days’ journey from their current location. Another man on the expedition, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, made note of this and returned in 1832 to claim the prize as discoverer of the source of the Mississippi. He recorded his Eureka! moment in his writings saying, “We glided through opposing thickets with an exhilaration of spirits, arising from the thought, that we were near the goal of our hopes and toils. Presently, as we reached the brow of a ridge, the bright gleams of a lake burst on our vision. It was Itasca Lake”! (pg. 128-129, Source #5) Schoolcraft renamed Lac Le Biche, creating the word “Itasca” by combining the Latin words veritas, meaning “true”, and caput, meaning “head”.

A few years later, in 1836, Joseph Nicollet traveled to the Mississippi Headwaters as part of his expedition to accurately map the Great River. In 1872, a journalist from the New York Herald, Julius Chambers, visited the headwaters area and found another small lake, also called Elk, that fed into Lake Itasca. This particular lake, along with a few other feeder streams, appears on Nicollet’s map. In 1875, Edwin S. Hall was sent to the area to complete an official government survey. His map shows both Lake Itasca and the smaller Elk Lake. Now, what was the true source of the Mississippi, again?

“A Merry Fellow on a Jolly Outing”

Perhaps, if a fraud is thrown into the story, an answer will become clear. Enter Willard Glazier. On July 4, 1881, Glazier left St. Paul, Minnesota, with his brother George and friend Barrett Channing Paine, on a mission to travel the full length of the Mississippi River from the “source to the sea”. When the men reached Leech Lake, they met with Indian Agent Major Ruffe, surveyor Captain Taylor, interpreter Paul Beaulieu, and Ojibwe Chiefs White Cloud and Flat Mouth. According to Glazier, during a dinner hosted by Flat Mouth, Chief White Cloud “expressed regret that his white brothers had been so long in ignorance of the source of the Mississippi.” (pg. 45, Source #2) Paul Beaulieu further informed Glazier that there was an unnamed lake west of Itasca that fed into Itasca by way of a stream. This, Beaulieu felt, was the true source of the Mississippi. Chief White Cloud recommended an Ojibwe warrior named Chenowagesic as a guide for Glazier’s expedition through the headwaters to this lake.

The party embarked by canoe from Leech Lake and, after battling mosquitoes, portaging, and naming small lakes and streams along the route, Glazier and his men reached Lake Itasca on July 21. Finding their provisions running low, they did not tarry to explore. After a night’s sleep, they pushed ahead, following Chenowagesic’s lead through a small, marshy channel, until Glazier experienced his moment of discovery. “On pulling and pushing our way through a net-work of rushes, similar to the one encountered on leaving Itasca, the cheering sight of a transparent body of water burst upon our view. It was a beautiful lake – the SOURCE of the FATHER OF WATERS.” (pg. 71, Source #2)

Following celebratory remarks by Glazier and a round of volleys from the rest of the party, Paine suggested “that the newly discovered lake be named GLAZIER in honor of the leader of the expedition.” (pg. 75, Source #2) Without further adieu, probably because their stomachs were growling, the party headed back down river. The expedition reached the waters of the Gulf of Mexico on November 15, 1881. Within a few years, the uproar began.

Glazier quickly published articles concerning his discovery of the true source of the Mississippi. His claims to Lake Glazier rapidly fanned through the nation, with east coast publishers and map makers giving him credit over Schoolcraft. The Minnesota Historical Society was incensed and spared no unkind word in describing Glazier.

General James H. Baker, who was assigned to investigate Glazier’s claim, called him stupid, pretentious, shameful, bombastic, a fraud, a liar, a plagiarist, a “tourist”, a “literary thief”, a “falsifier of history”, a “quack explorer”, a “charlatan adventurer”, and “a merry fellow on a jolly outing”. This last term was obviously sarcastic as Baker felt that Glazier had not worked hard enough to find the source to warrant any credit. Baker snidely states that Glazier “travels 155 miles by railroad car to the city of Brainerd in one night, and doubtless in a sleeping car. All this through a region over which Nicollet had toiled weeks and months with all the privations incident to an untrodden wilderness.” (pg. 6, Source #6) He goes on to say that Glazier traveled over “established roads and portages” and this could hardly be considered true exploration. (pg. 7, Source #6)


Dripping with vitriol, Baker’s report continues and explains that Glazier Lake was really Elk Lake and had already been discovered, with proof appearing in Nicollet’s map and the maps of official government surveyors. This report was presented to the Minnesota Historical Society on February 8, 1887. In attendance at the meeting were former Minnesota Governors Ramsey and Marshall, along with the current Governor McGill and the State Attorney General. This was obviously a big deal.

During the meeting, it was revealed that Baker “had wrung a confession from Capt. Glazier Monday, when he admitted the plagiarism with which he has been charged, and also that he had not visited any of the streams running into Elk Lake.” (Source #4, Feb. 11, 1887) Glazier, in writing about his expedition, had supposedly plagiarized Schoolcraft. After Baker completed his report, a resolution was passed denouncing Glazier’s claims, crediting Schoolcraft, Nicollet and other explorers and surveyors for their work, and setting the true source of the Mississippi as “Lake Itasca and its tributaries, arising in sections 27 and 28 of the township in which it is located.” (pg. 27, Source #6) The resolution continued with a request for the State Legislature to pass a bill that would definitively affix “the names of the lakes and streams composing the Itascan sources of the Mississippi river, so that its earliest explorers be not robbed of their just laurels, and to remove temptations to adventurers in future to gain notoriety by attaching their names to said lakes.” (pg. 28, Source #6) In a further blow to Glazier, the Minnesota Historical Society requested that any organization that owned a map showing Glazier’s name erase that name and write in Elk Lake.

At the end of the meeting, a man from the audience stood up and requested to speak. It was Willard Glazier’s brother and he was mad. How dare the Historical Society impugn his brother’s character! As he ranted at the assembly, defending Willard’s claims, the board attempted to shut him up and, when that didn’t work, the meeting was adjourned and those in attendance proceeded to leave as Glazier kept talking.

Who Gets Credit?

What is striking in the Minnesota Historical Society’s report and resolution is that there was no denying that Elk Lake and a number of streams flowed into Lake Itasca. Technically, Glazier was right. Itasca was not the ultimate beginning of the Mississippi. Baker’s report concludes by saying that Lake Itasca “is the first great gathering place and reservoir of the head waters” and that Nicollet had discovered a particular creek fed by “primal springs” which served as the true source. (pg. 24-25, Source #6)

What really seemed to upset the Historical Society was Glazier’s braggadocio and unscientific methods. Only a learned man could claim credit for so great a discovery. Baker’s report admitted that others most certainly knew the source of the river long before Schoolcraft arrived. Both Schoolcraft and Glazier used Ojibwe guides who led them through the source region. Ozewindbin was Schoolcraft’s guide, while Chengowagesic was Glazier’s. Because Itasca was formerly known as Lac Le Biche, a French term, it was obvious to Baker that French fur traders had been to the source. Non-French fur trader William Morrison, namesake of Morrison County, wrote a letter to the Minnesota Historical Society claiming to have been to Itasca as early as 1804.

Kudos to Glazier

So, after all the name-calling, what happened to Willard Glazier? In 1891, he was still defending his claim by revisiting the headwaters region and by publishing an account of his first trip called Down the Great River. It is clear from his book that Glazier was a lackadaisical explorer. He had never portaged a canoe. He had no idea about the amount of provisions he would need for his trip. He and his men wasted ammunition by shooting at just about anything, yet couldn’t seem to shoot much game to eat. He was not inclined to tough out extreme conditions. And, he was an excellent self-promoter, scheduling speaking engagements all along his “source to sea” journey. Regardless of whether Glazier’s expedition was a serious one, it did last 117 days and he did manage to get to the Gulf of Mexico.

Glazier did not shrink from the controversy over his discovery. In the appendix to his book, he published testimonials from people who agreed with him. (Would it be any other way?) One of the testimonials is from Nathan Richardson, first mayor of Little Falls, who met with Glazier on his way down river.

Even the Minnesota Historical Society allowed a softer view of Glazier once the emotion of the situation abated. Professor E. Levasseur, whose essay titled “The Question of the Sources of the Mississippi River” was published in the 1898 edition of the Minnesota Historical Society Collections, states that “Mr. Glazier’s adventure will have had the merit of hastening the conclusion, and of giving to geography a definite map of the cradle of one of the great rivers of the world.” (pg. 225, Source #7) Sometimes, a fraud is all that’s needed.

By Mary Warner
Copyright 2004, Morrison County Historical Society


1. Coues, Elliot, The Expeditions of Zebulon Montgomery Pike, Vol. 1, Ross & Haines, Inc., Minneapolis, 1965.

2. Glazier, Willard, Down the Great River, Hubbard Brothers, Publishers, Philadelphia, 1891.

3. Jackman, Sydney W., editor, et. al., American Voyageur: The Journal of David Bates Douglass, Northern Michigan University Press, Marquette, MI, 1969.

4. Little Falls Daily Transcript, May 7, 1886, Dec. 10, 1886, Feb. 11, 1887, Nov. 25, 1887, Sept. 4, 1891.

5. Minnesota Historical Collections, Vol. 1, 1850-56, Ramaley, Chaney & Co., Printers, St. Paul, 1872.

6. Minnesota Historical Collections, Vol. 6, The Pioneer Press Company, State Printers, St. Paul, MN, 1894.

7. Minnesota Historical Society Collections, Published by the Society, St. Paul, MN, 1898.

6 Replies to “Who Gets Credit? Naming the Source of the Mississippi River”

  1. William Morrison was there in 1804 long before Schoolcraft. Also Schoolcraft had a Swedish man along with the Ojibwa people who guided them who lived with the Ojibwe peopled dressed like them who showed Schoolcraft where ithe source was. Schoolcraft probably didn’t know he was White. So William Morrison should get the credit as the first white man to discover the source of the Mississippi.

  2. I just finished reading a book by Glazier titled “headwaters of the Mississippi” dated 1893. This book details his expedition of 1891 . His first book is mentioned above but not this book. Interesting for sure and also noted that it is not mentioned in the historical notes written above. Any particular reason why not?
    How does one decide that a given lake is the source when it has several feeder creeks and bodies if water sourcing it such as Itasca does.?

    1. Candace-

      As this article was published over a decade ago and the author is no longer at MCHS, I can’t tell you for sure why that source wasn’t referenced.

      In finding the source of a river, scientists agree that it all depends on the furthest point of the river, where tributaries and confluences may also feed into it. As per the United States Geological Survey: “length may be considered to be the distance from the mouth to the most distant headwater source (irrespective of stream name), or from the mouth to the headwaters of the stream commonly known as the source stream.”

      Grace Duxbury
      Museum Manager

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