The area around Lake Itasca was carved and shaped by Pleistocene-era glaciers; the last glaciers left about 20,000 years ago. Lake Itasca sits in a bowl-shaped basin surrounded on three sides by hills called moraines that were formed when sand, gravel, and other material carried by the glaciers dropped off the sides or front. The glaciers ground up everything underneath them; if you want to reach bedrock at Itasca State Park, you’ll have to dig over 600 feet down. The river emerges from the north arm of Lake Itasca at an elevation of 1,475 feet and flows north to Lake Bemdji before it starts to change direction.
The area around Lake Itasca has a long history of human activity. Hunters and gatherers lived seasonally around the lake beginning at least 8,000 years ago. They traveled in small family groups with domesticated dogs. They sustained themselves by fishing, harvesting wild plants for food, and hunting bison, deer, and moose using spears outfitted with carved rock points.
Woodland peoples were also active around the lake from roughly 3,000 years ago to 500 years ago, leaving behind a group of mounds that are still visible today. They lived in semi-permanent settlements and were adept at hunting with a bow and arrow. They may have been the first humans to harvest wild rice and also learned to collect maple sap and make it into maple sugar.
The Dakota lived in northern Minnesota for many generations but gradually migrated to the south and west, a move that may have accelerated somewhat as the Ojibwe began moving into the area. By the early 1700s, the Ojibwe were the predominant group in the region; their descendants still live in northern Minnesota.
Many early explorers wandered around northern Minnesota while trying to locate the headwaters of the Mississippi. While Europeans had been searching for the source for a long time, the Ojibwe already knew where it was. Henry Schoolcraft is credited with making the definitive find in 1832, although it’s doubtful that he would have found it without the help of his Ojibwe guide, Ozaawindib. The Ojibwe called the lake Omashkoozo-zaaga’igan; French traders who had been in the area translated the name as Lac la Biche (Elk Lake). Schoolcraft, though, wanted a grander sounding name for the source of the Mississippi, so, with the help of William Boutwell, he coined a Latin phrase that means true head and simply took the middle part of the phrase for the lake’s name: Veritas Caput became Itasca.
Trapping and fur trading were the first economic activities pursued by Europeans, before homesteaders and logging companies began moving into the area. By the end of the 19th century, as the forests were rapidly being depleted, an effort began to preserve the area around the headwaters of the Mississippi. Much of the credit for the park’s creation goes to Jacob Brower, who conducted surveys of the area, nursed the enabling legislation through a disinterested Minnesota Senate (where it passed by one vote) and House, and became the first and arguably most influential commissioner when the park was created in 1891.
Brower slowly assembled land for the park, mostly by acquiring property from the federal government, but the lumber companies refused to sell at anything less than the value of the timber on the land. As a result, much of the land was logged before the state finally bought it in 1920.
In 1903, Mary Gibbs was appointed commissioner of the park after the previous commissioner, her father, died. She was the first female park commissioner in North America and just 24 years old when appointed to the job by Governor Samuel VanSant. During her term, she had a tense standoff with lumbermen who were holding the water in the lake at levels that were obviously illegal so they could store cut lumber. She won the battle—the logging company was forced to open a spillway—but lost the war. She resigned a few months later and the new commissioner allowed the logging companies to have their way in the park.
In 1933, the Civilian Conservation Corps began work on a project to make-over the spot where the river emerges from Lake Itasca. The superintendent at that time wrote:
At this time I am sorry to say that the established sources of our great river is a swampy, muddy and dirty sight. Since the water is sluggish at this point, all the debris and wild grasses form there. This is, indeed, a sight that is not becoming to such a great river.
In the next eight years, the CCC dug a new channel for the first 2,000 feet of the river’s path, filled in the swamp, planted trees, and constructed a 44-foot dam at the outlet with a 2¼ foot tall placement of rocks to make it look natural. That’s the Headwaters you see today.