What I had for brunch: A Trip to Bitch Lake

They say Lake Itasca is the source of the Mississippi. This is why there is a big state park surrounding the lake, a park that preserves some beautiful old forest despite the best efforts of 19th century lumberjacks to cut it down.


Amanda next to the tallest white pine tree in Minnesota
I've been to Itasca a number of times, and I've even done archaeological research there (which didn't turn out to be very interesting). But when I went to Itasca last week, it was my first visit with no work agenda, and I got to spend more time poking around and seeing the sights. I was visiting because Amanda was recruited to run demos for the research lab she has been working in for the incoming bio grad students (who are all sent to the forest the summer before they start), and she got to bring me. So I drove over from the cabin.

There surely were much larger trees in this state before the lumberjacks killed them all, but at the moment, the tallest white pine is here at Itasca. I've seen taller white pines, but this one is pretty impressive and, of course, its tallness is impossible to photograph.

The tallest red pine is supposedly in this park as well, but I'm not so sure. If you look at it (picture below) it seems to be missing it's top. In comparing the drawing of this red pine tree on the plaque commemorating its tallosity to the actual tree, I'd say there is about 22 feet missing.

But what about this source of the Mississippi thing?

Well, this is kind of interesting. Lake Itasca was firmly established as the source of the Mississippi in 1889. This was over 80 years after the source of the Missouri was established. The source of the Nile was established at this level of certainty (though it was earlier claimed) in 1871. And with the source of the Mississippi what, less than an hour from the cabin, how could this have been established so late in the game? The city of Bemidji, just down stream from Itasca, on the river, was incorporated in 1896!!!!
Lake Itasca is shaped like a giant tuning fork. The fishing here isn't bad.

I'm not going to bore you with the details of this story, nor am I going to support any one of the possible arguments that one could lay out about what the source of that great river that flows into the Gulf of Mexico really is. But I will give you a few interesting tidbits to chew on.

First, at the large scale, consider the Missouri river. Where the Missouri and the Mississippi river combine, they are pretty much the same size: Big-ass. The Mississippi, on an average day, is larger, but the Missouri floods are much much larger, so on average, it might be difficult to pick one vs. the other as the main river vs. the tributary. If straightness (the Missouri makes a turn into the Mississippi) was a factor, well, fine, but there are plenty of rivers where the straight one is the short one and the less straight partner is the longer river with the greatest flow.

Visitors to the outlet of Itasca enjoy pretending to be the coolest thing this side of the Mississippi. Or no, THAT side of the Mississippi. No, wait, THIS side of the Mississippi. And so on, until they get hungry and walk up the trail to the gift shop and restaurant newly built.

Some of this may have to do with the fact that the Mississippi flows south, "down map" for much of it's course, while the Missouri comes in at an angle, "across map." That seems strange, but it matters to some people. Note, for instance, that the Mississippi up here in Minnesota makes a big question mark (or, as some say, a fishing hook). It flows out of Itasca to the north, and eventually wanders eastward, then southward, then westward, then southward again. This is so enigmatic to so many visitors to the state park that there is actually an educational exhibit explaining how the Mississippi River flows 'up map' for a while. Can you believe that?

This is the sort of thing that makes me laugh when people extol the great abilities of the human mind.

Here's another point. Here in Minnesota, there are multiple lakes that were originally suggested as the source of the Mississippi, and in fact, this is where the confusion has occurred causing this issue to be settled so late. We now understand that the local people, mainly Native Americans but also some African Americans, French (prior to their expulsion and subsequent widespread mispronunciation from the state) and the mixed ethnic offspring of these presottans, knew where Itasca was ... it was not 'discovered' by Henry Schoolcraft when he first visited Itasca in 1832 (thus beginning the debate over which lake was the source). But this origin question was more of interest to European types who had been fighting out similar issues elsewhere in the world, and who had taken to using rivers as boundaries rather than as central themes in their cultural geography.

Just last week, this happened: Amanda and I were driving around the lake, and we pulled over to look up some plants and watch some birds. So there we were gazing across a stream passing through a marsh opening into Itasca. The stream was an outlet from another lake behind us. Another lake. Upstream from Itasca. So why was that lake, known today as Elk Lake, not the source of the Mississippi?

It's complicated, and the short answer is that this part of Minnesota is a giant swamp with some parts of the swamp being more open water (those are the lakes) and some being less open (those are the forests). The real source of the Mississippi is either some muddy stream uphill (like by nine inches) from Itasca, or it is simply this entire quagmire taken as a whole.

What about the name "Itasca"? All these names up in these parts are either French or Native. The French names are always butchered as part of a deep seated hatred Minnesotans have of the French. For instance, the following lake: Lac l'homme Dieu (Lake of the god-man?) is pronounced as follows:

Lake La Hama Doo.

Mississippi means "Father of Waters" down in the state of Mississippi, but here in Minnesota (which means either "sky colored" or "muddy" waters) it is said to mean "Great Waters."

Itasca is, however, different. Neither Native nor French, it is from the Latin, derived from the words veritas and caput (truth and head ... the true head). This name was provided by the 'discoverer' Schoolcraft. I suppose it started with:


And then they played around with it for a while: ritascap ... veritascapu ... ascaput ... itascap ... itasca. Itasca! That one sounds Indian, by jove, we'll use that one!

But as you may imagine, the lake was not always named Itasca. It already had an Indian name or two. Could have been worse. The lake I mentioned before, Elk Lake, was for a while named Lake Glazier, after some guy named Glazier, who claimed that ... ah let's see ... right, Lake Glazier is the source of the Mississippi. He also drew maps of Lake Glazier and Itasca, and in his maps, Glazier (Elk) is much larger than it is in real life.

Omashkoozo-zaaga'igan is the original native name, Ojibwe, for, wait for it ... Elk Lake. So Elk Lake became True Head Lake and Glazier Lake became Elk Lake.

But .. in between being called Omashkoozo and being called Itasca, it was called ...

... La Biche.

And what, you may ask, is this word from French, "La Biche"? I'll bet a lot of French speaking people are not sure, but I'll tell you. It means Elk (female elk, to be exact). It was Elk Lake!

So, you may ask, are there Elk in Itasca Park? There were. In the 19th century, Itasca was well inside of wild Elk range. Today the nearest wild Elk is about 75 miles north. (There are of course "domestic" elk here and there ... we eat them now and then.)

Itasca is nice. If you are ever in the neighborhood, do try to drop in. And if you do, stop by the cabin, we'll cook up some elk burgers.

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That takes me way back. In the 1950s I worked on a farm (well, some cleared space) north of Bemidji for a summer. And later, when I was in graduate school in Minneapolis, my wife and I drove to Itasca with an Ojibwe grandmother and her granddaughter so the granddaughter could see it. We were on our way to Red Lake Res for a week of visits.

You forgot to mention that all the native names were butchered by the French.

This is the second time I've seen you mention Minnesota's great hatred for the French. As a part-French Minnesotan, I've never seen nor heard of this. Of course, this part of the family is in the southern part of the state. Details?


Where I grew up, not too far from French Canada, there was a phrase used ... mostly no longer used but remnant from a few generations back ... for the part of town where the African Americans lived. There was another phrase used for towns up north where Canadians lived. The first part of the African American place was a derogatory term for African Americans. The first part of the parallel term for the Canadian place was an equivalent expression of derision for Canadians.

I learned to not say the "F word" in polite company. Not "fuck" .... the other "F word." We also had a K word but that wasn't considered as bad, and in fact, was later used for one of the 'Kanadian' sports teams. Kanook (or canuke).

So, I move to Minnesota, a region first settled by various Native American groups, then the French, and eventually the Germans like everyone else. But the Scandahoovians were in large number here in pockets and have made the claim on this land. Post WW I the Germans felt so repressed by all the other ethnic groups that they were compelled to organize, and they erected a statue of a famous German General (Herman the German) down in New Ulm, but even with this effort they've never taken their rightful place as the primary European immigrant group (the group in largest number) in the region. The Irish and the Ukranians and Poles came as well, but the Scandahoovians made them live on the East Bank of Minneapolis, or forced them into labor building roads in Saint Paul. The Irish were paid in "tots" ... drinks ... which eventually backfired because now it is impossible to find one's way around in St. Paul on those roads. The Eastern Europeans were forced to open deli's on the East Side and were not allowed across the river except to work in some of the factories, in which they were occasionally blown up.

But this all happened AFTER the first primary European settling of the area, during which many towns were established, relationships with the Indians were formed, and all of the transport routes (especially those by canoe) were worked out. That was the French period of which we hear nothing today. All we have today are butchered place names like Lake Lahamadoo, absurd places like "Little Canada," and the obnoxiously named immigrant neighborhood ... where many of the immigrants are put temporarily when they come into Saint Paul, but which was originally the French Ghetto..

.... It makes me cringe to say it ...

"Frog Town"

If nobody in Minnesota has a problem with the French, then where is all the French Cuisine, French Langauge, other French Culture, and why is it called Frog Town? Why?

Frogtown, right. There are a couple of other theories about the name, but yours is popular and may well be right.

I've never really thought about the narrative of Minnesota settlement as being centered around the cities as anti-French. I've generally just thought that it fit better with the bigger American narrative of expansion and conquest. If anything, I've thought of it as anti-native. It's much harder to make a claim that you have to make big changes to control the native population if they're already getting along with their other non-native neighbors.

It's never terribly safe to generalize from me, but as far as being French goes, well, my family has been French in Minnesota so long, and blended with so many other groups, we're just Minnesotans. As far as I know, there were no anti-French incidents locally to consolidate the group identity the way the Acadian transport did for Canada or to make it something to preserve. We do still celebrate the voyageurs around here, though, and traces of their culture are certainly still to be found in Minnesota.

So there are arguments for both sides. I'll have to give it some more thought.

"but this one is pretty impressive and, of course, its tallness is impossible to photograph."

Sounds like a ultra wide lens investment is needed!


Frog Town is derogatory to the French?

What about Coon Rapids? Isn't that derogatory to African Americans? Is White Bear Lake, my home town, derogatory to Caucasians?

A technical question: If a person were to urinate at the outlet of Lake Itasca, how long would it take that liquid to reach St. Louis?

By Virgil Samms (not verified) on 26 Aug 2008 #permalink

Case in point of language butchery -- Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis (and Nicollet Island), pronounced 'nick-o-let'.

By Unsympathetic reader (not verified) on 26 Aug 2008 #permalink

Hey, you guys, I was using my cell phone to take this picture..... I tried duct taping the fish eye on there but it didn't work...

By the way, Whle Hennepain (pronounced here hen-i-pin) was an actual French guy, Nicollet was not. He was a late 19th century developer and land owner, not a Jesuit missionary or explorer or fur trader. So, the pronunciation "Nick - Let" is maybe more correct.

Ah, right, I think i may have been confused about Nicollet. I was thinking of larpenteur, and possibly of a later nicollet.

But, I do not take a wikipedia article that claims that Nicollet surveyed the upper Mississippi in North Dakota (where the Mississippi isn't" as absolutely authoritative in every detail.

Your very interesting blog helped to induce me to make a rush trip over to Itasca State Park a month ago and get some photos of the sources of Lake Itasca. The Park does a good job telling the history of the conservation efforts, early settlers and natives, but I thought their info on the early white-guy explorers was a bit selective. I looked for and didn't find any mention of Lt. Allen - the topographer of the 1832 Schoolcraft-Allen Expedition who (with his own crude global-positioning system) finally got Lake Itasca and its outlet fixed geographically. I had a few other history-related quibbles but they disappeared when I got out in the woods and off-trail which is where I generally belong anyway. I summarized my trip here: