”No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river, and he’s not the same man.” — Heraclitus
There are few things like a river. We pass by them often, or perhaps more appropriately, they pass by us. They are places of wonderment, places to let the mind wander like the water that flows from some unseen place — water that carves through miles of countryside, of which pieces fall off and go along for the ride like a hitchhiker traveling down a watery highway. Like a chisel to a sculptor, or a brush to a painter, a river is a tool that forms the landscape.
Long before a paved road ever existed, rivers were the “highways” that humans traveled, be it by boat or by foot. In fact, many throughout history have made it a quest to be the first to map out a river, for those who knew the lay of the land typically had advantage over those who did not. It was precisely this reason that European explorers, with the aid of Native American guides, mapped out the Crow River — not for knowledge of it, but to know better the headwaters and tributaries of the mighty Mississippi River.
The Indians, of course, had known of the Crow River for centuries. The Dakota called it the Khaŋǧí Šúŋ Watpá, which translates to “The Large Wing Feather of the Crow River.” The Ojibwa named it Uneg-sipi, meaning “Crow River.”
The first white explorer to map the Crow was named Jonathan Carver. In 1766-67, Carver reached St. Anthony Falls, the present day site of Minneapolis, where he spent some time with the Mdewakanton Dakota. He later turned south to find a better wintering camp and landed in northern Iowa. When the river ice broke away, he began traveling north in order to map out the Mississippi. Though he never found its source, he was able to map out the area of the Crow River, which he named Goose River.
In 1823, another European explorer again tried to find the source of the Mississippi. His name was Giacomo Beltrami. With the help of local Indian tribes, Beltrami mapped out the Mississippi and believed he had found the source at Lake Julia. Along the way, Beltrami mapped out the Crow River and gave it the name Rook River.
The last and most notable explorer to map the Crow was Joseph Nicollet, a French mathematician, astronomer and cartographer. Nicollet set out from Fort Snelling in 1835 with an Ojibwa guide, the guide’s son and a French/Indian man named Brunia. During the expedition, Nicollet kept a detailed journal of his travels, marking known Indian villages as well as other landmarks that still exist today. He found the source of the Mississippi at Lake Itasca, though some still debate if that is indeed the source.
At any rate, Nicollet successfully mapped all three forks of the Crow River, as well as Buffalo Creek. He listed the Crow River as the Karishon River on his map, owing the pronunciation to the Dakota name of Khaŋǧí Šúŋ Watpá.
With the Crow River on the map, settlers were able to use it as a guide while heading west in the 1850s. The first white settlers to various points of the river gave it their own names. For example, settlers on the South Fork called the Crow River the Hassan River. A local tale suggests that Hassan was/is an Indian word for maple.
Settlers on the North Fork called it the Pleasant River. At some places, the settlers even built steam boats to travel the river, though they were short-lived due to the river’s depth, which could be shallow in places. As settlement progressed, portions of all three forks of the river were straightened out to allow water to flow faster and provide for a better agricultural environment.
Few people realize it, but the river was once a necessity for civilization. Not only did it provide water but also transportation, as well as a guide to travel east or west. A short look at a map will reveal that no settlement in the world, prior to the advent of the railroad, appears away from a river, canal or large body of water. Of course, those settlements in McLeod County that appeared prior to the 1870s were all within a proverbial stone’s throw of the Crow River or Buffalo Creek.
Though our modern world has changed much since the first explorers stepped into the river, the river is still there, passing us by as we go about our lives. We may pay little attention to it, but it is the very thing that drove civilization on the frontier. It provided a means of travel and a means of nourishment.
We don’t always realize it, but it is the very thing that made settlement of this area possible, and though it may seem like just a river, it is a slight reminder that, with all things in history, there is always more to the story.