Solving the mysteries of Itasca: Name has connections all over the country

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 12, 2008

By Ed Shannon, staff writer

Minnesota&8217;s map has several place names which don&8217;t seem to match up with reality. For example, the city of Blue Earth is the seat of Faribault County, and about 45 miles to the north the city of Mankato is the seat of Blue Earth County. And for a place named Itasca Lake in Clearwater County and a now nearly forgotten place named Itasca in Freeborn County, the distance in mileage is over 300 miles.

Adding another dimension to the Itasca name is its use in both north and south Minnesota, by a nearby firm in Iowa, and for a suburban town in Illinois.

Email newsletter signup

Maybe Freeborn County&8217;s former community named Itasca has faded away to just a historical marker, a former school building, a nearby cemetery, several homes and a rock garden. Yet, down in Illinois the town of Itasca has an official population of 8,302 people.

This community with the name of Itasca is in the northwest corner of DuPage County, Ill., and 25 miles west of the Chicago Loop. It&8217;s also located 10 miles from O&8217;Hare International Airport and 29 miles from Midway Airport.

The Iowa connection for this name is with Winnebago Industries of Forest City which makes and sells one of its recreational vehicle or motorhome lines under the brand name of Itasca.

One of the other commercial uses for this name is a product branded as Itasca Winter Boots.

However, the prime use of this name and where it originated is in the northern part of Minnesota.

Itasca State Park was created in 1891 and is the state&8217;s first. The park is 32,000 acres in size and has at least 100 lakes. And the most famous of these lakes is also named Itasca, the source of the Mississippi River.

Just to the east of this state park, which is located in Clearwater County, is Hubbard County. The next county to the east is also named Itasca. Grand Rapids is the seat of the state&8217;s third largest county which has a population of 43,000 people. This county has a thousand lakes and a thousand miles of snowmobile and skiing trails.

Also in Grand Rapids is Itasca Community College.

Credit for the creation of the Itasca name goes to a federal Indian agent and explorer named Henry R. Schoolcraft. In 1832 he became obsessed with finding the real source of the Mississippi River. Working with several Ojibwe Indians, he found out they considered a lake named Omushkos (Elk) to be the source of this particular river. This lake had also been given the French name of

Lac le Biche by earlier explorers.

When Schoolcraft determined that this specific lake was the actual source of the Mississippi River, he decided to give it a more meaningful name. He asked the expedition&8217;s chaplain for the Greek or Latin words for &8220;true head.&8221; The minister offered the Latin words &8220;Veritas&8221; and &8220;Caput.&8221;

Schoolcraft eliminated the first three letters of the first word and the last three letters of the second word. Combining what was left resulted in the new word Itasca.

Through the years Itasca has been considered to be a rather unusual and distinctive word. It has been used for a city, college, and various business firms and other activities in the northern part of the state. The word has also been used to designate a town in Illinois, for a line of winter boots, as a brand name for recreational vehicles, and for a new town in Freeborn County about 150 years ago.

When Lt. Albert M. Lea came through the area in 1835 with the U.S. Army Dragoons, he named the site in what&8217;s now the southwest corner of Bancroft Township as Paradise Prairie. This prairie became the location for a new town in 1855 which became known with four names – Freeborn Springs, Itasca, Itasca City and incorrectly as Itaska. Several early settlers were Chas. C, Colby, Samuel Batchhelder and A.M. Burnham. They promoted the growth of their new town and even became strong contenders to be the seat of Freeborn County. This town had a newspaper by early 1860, the Freeborn Springs Herald, and a post office, officially designated as Freeborn Springs. When the election of November 1860 confirmed Albert Lea as the Freeborn County seat, the small town of Itasca started on its long decline into obscurity.

One of the founders of Itasca, A.M. Burnham, later moved west to Tacoma, Wash. There he became the founder and prime promoter of the town of Gig Harbor (named for a type of boat), located across the Puget Sound narrows from Tacoma. Unlike the Itasca in Freeborn County, the locality of Gig Harbor now has a population of 6,620 people.