Schoolcraft’s writings are a window to the past

Itasca State Park in Minnesota contains the headwaters of the Mississippi River.

Folks in the Ozarks recently celebrated the bicentennial of the expedition of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. 

He gave us one of the earliest views of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas in the days after the Louisiana Purchase. 

For those who may not be familiar with Schoolcraft, he was a native of New York, a struggling glassmaker and aspiring writer who decided to go to the western frontier in search of wealth, inspired by his interest in geology and mineralogy.

After arriving in Potosi, Missouri, in August 1818, Schoolcraft soon heard of lead deposits along the White and James rivers in southwest Missouri, and set out in November of that year, along with a New York acquaintance, Levi Pettibone, to find them.  

Schoolcraft and Pettibone were hardly Daniel Boones. After a series of misadventures in northern Arkansas, they arrived at the lead deposits along the James near modern-day Springfield on New Year’s Day, 1819. 

They returned to Potosi in early February. By Schoolcraft’s own calculation, he and Pettibone traveled some 900 miles in about 90 days. 

The 200th anniversary of the expedition was celebrated in 2019 by articles, news stories and even a reenactment of Schoolcraft’s journey by Ozarks storyteller Rick Mansfield.

Schoolcraft wrote two accounts of his time in Missouri; his journal of his trip to the James and White rivers gave a matter-of-fact account of his journey and his lack of experience as a frontiersman.  

It was later incorporated in the book “Rude Pursuits and Rugged Peaks” by the late Missouri State University geography professor, Milton Rafferty.

What happened to Schoolcraft after his Ozarks adventures? Today, Springfield and the Ozarks share him with both Minnesota and especially Michigan, where Schoolcraft continued his explorations.

After his books about his Ozarks exploits were published, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun identified Schoolcraft as a potential member of an expedition to find the headwaters of the Mississippi River organized by Michigan Territorial Governor Lewis Cass in 1820. 

While the expedition only got as far as the mouth of the Turtle River, Cass was impressed with Schoolcraft and assisted with him in being appointed the Indian agent at Sault Saint Marie two years later.

Cass and Schoolcraft’s expeditions weren’t the only ones to search for the headwaters of the Mississippi. 

In 1805, Zebulon Pike proclaimed the Turtle River, which flowed into the northern end of Upper Red Cedar (now known as Cass) Lake, as the source of the river. Others claimed that nearby Elk Lake was the source.

Schoolcraft eventually did reach the source of “The Father of Waters” in 1832 at what the French fur trappers called Lac Le Biche, which the Native Americans like his guide, Ozaawindib, or “Yellow-Head,” insisted was the true headwaters of the Mississippi. 

Schoolcraft renamed it “Itasca” – a combination of the Latin words for “true” and “head,” with a couple of letters left off.

Just as he did on his Ozarks’ journey, Schoolcraft kept a journal of his expeditions, jotting down everything from meteorological data to his observations of local Native American tribes, which he tended to view in a similar negative fashion as the first residents of the Ozarks as “backward savages.” 

However, that view would change.
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Ironically it was Schoolcraft’s wife, Jane Johnston, the daughter of a Scots-Irish fur trader father and Ojibwe mother, who taught him the Ojibwe language and helped him collect information on their folklore and customs. 

It was this knowledge that brought the noted poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to Schoolcraft while writing his Song of Hiawatha.

Jane Schoolcraft

Jane was an author in her own right, writing in both English and Ojibwe, collecting traditional stories and songs and collaborating with Schoolcraft on his works.

Schoolcraft was involved in negotiations with Native American tribes for lands on both the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan, as well as serving on the board of regents of the University of Michigan, a member of the territorial legislature and one of the founders of the Michigan Historical Society and a literary magazine, The Souvenir of the Lakes.

Henry Rowe Schoolcraft

Just as he did with Itasca, Schoolcraft spliced together parts of words from a variety of languages to create indigenous-sounding names for several of Michigan’s counties. 

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