Historical Perspectives

I look back at what the Mississippi is to me, and it’s the giver of life. Everything is a circle — a circle of life. That river’s been around here for thousands of years, and people have been using it for thousands of years. And people will continue to use it for the next thousands of years. As long as we keep that circle, don’t try to sever all the spines that go to it, because the Mississippi is just one part of that web.”– Jim Jones, Jr., Bemidji, MN

Anishinabe (Ojibwe) Indian, Leech Lake Pillager Band

Source: Global Investments Project Illustrations (http://don.citarella.net/2007/03/28/era404-client-global-project-illustrations/)

Source: Global Investments Project Illustrations (http://don.citarella.net/2007/03/28/era404-client-global-project-illustrations/)

Pre-1900 Water Quality Observations of the Mississippi River from the Minnesota River to Lake Pepin.

Compiled by John F. Sullivan, WDNR-La Crosse. June 2010.

I compiled the following narrative descriptions of “water quality” observations of the Mississippi River from the Minnesota River mouth (“embouchure”), as Zebulon Pike called it, to Lake Pepin.  Ibelieve these observations provide some general historic water quality perspectives in this reach of the Mississippi.  I found it interesting that Father Hennepin failed to mention the Minnesota River on his ascent up the Mississippi in 1660, it apparently being hidden behind a large island. Perhaps this suggests that the turbid nature of the Minnesota was insufficient to cause notice. Language of the Native Americans suggest the river was turbid (“sota”) but not muddy (“sosha”). This loading of turbidity to the Mississippi was apparently insufficient to drastically alter the clarity of the Mississippi River below the mouth of the Minnesota River, especially all the way to Lake Pepin. Observations by Zebulon Pike in 1805 and Charles Lanman in 1847 suggests the Mississippi River was dark (tinted red) or clear above the mouth of the St. Croix River. There was little information on the flow conditions upon which these observations were made, but I believe this was an important factor. The turbidity would have been lower during conditions of low stage or flow.

Above Lake Pepin

The water of the Mississippi, since we passed Lake Pepin, has been remarkably red; and whereit is deep, appears as black as ink. The waters of the St. Croix and St. Peters, appear blue and clear, for a considerable distance below their confluence.” –  Zebulon M. Pike, September 21, 1805

Minnesota River

The river St. Peter’s enters the Mississippi behind a large island which is probably three miles in circumference, and is covered with the most luxuriant growth of sugar maple, elm, ash, oak, and walnut.- At the point of embouchure it is one hundred and fifty yards in width, with a depth of ten or fifteen feet. Its waters are transparent, and present a light blue tint on looking upon the stream. Hence the Indian name of Wate-paw-mene’-Sauta, or Clear-water-river…” - Henry R. Schoolcraft, July 31, 1820.

Lake Pepin

There is no perceptible current in the lake, during calm weather, and the water partakes so little of the turbidity character of the lower Mississippi, that objects can be distinctly seen through it, at the depth of eight of ten feet.” - Henry R. Schoolcraft, August 3, 1820.

Minnesota River

The river is called in the Dacota language Watapan Men esota, which means, “the river of turbid water.”…. the Missouri is termed Watapan Mene Shosha, “the river of thick water.”…The name given the St. Peter is derived from its turbid appearance, which distinguishes it from the Mississippi, whose waters are very clear at the confluence. It has erroneously stated by some authors to signify clear water. The Indians make a great difference, however, between the terms sota and shosa; one which means turbid, and the other muddy.”“At the mouth of the St. Peter there is an island of considerable extent, separated from the main land by a slough of the Mississippi, into which the St. Peter discharges itself…It was probably, as Carver suggests, this island which, being thickly wooded and lying immediately opposite the mouth, concealed the St. Peter from Hennepin’s observation. No notice of this river is to be found in any of the authors anterior to the end of the 17th century.” - William H. Keating, July 1823 (Maj. Stephen H. Long expedition)

Minnesota River

The Indian name of the St. Peter’s is “Minnay Sotor,” or “Turbid Water;” the water, in fact, looking as if whitish clay had been dissolved in it.” - George W. Featherstonhaugh, September 17, 1835.

Lake Pepin

the water is clear, and very deep; and it yields the very best of fish in great abundance.” - Charles Lanman, 1847.

Above St. Croix River

The water is clear as crystal, and its bosom is generally covered with water-fowl, from the graceful snow-white swan to the mallard and wood-duck.”  - Charles Lanman, 1847.

Minnesota River

The river flowing through the land of the Dakotas, whose language abounds in pleasant sounds, and whose names of natural objects are often expressive of characteristic features, pleasing or otherwise to the senses of the the imagination, was named by them Minne-sota. Sota in their language means nearly clear of clouded. The whitish water of the Minnesota makes it appear very distinct from that of the Mississippi where the rivers join, the latter having an amber-tint and appearing quite dark where it is several feet deep.

The line where the two waters join and mingle is marked by little whirls and eddies, and by ascending and descending currents, imitative of gentle ebullition.Here the whitish water rising through the amber-colored has the pleasing effect of thin, every-varying clouds or curling smoke. It is altogether probably that this optical effect gave origin the name Minnesota, Cloudy-water.

This pleasing effect is only seen during the low-water stages of both rivers, the amber-tint of the Mississippi being derived from the drainage of forests and lakes containing decaying vegetation, and the whitish tinge of the Minnesota probably from minute particles of clay obtained from the Cretaceous or Tertiary deposits along its southern branches.” - Gouverneur K. Warren, December 1874.


  • Featherstonhaugh, George William. A Canoe Voyage up the Minnay Sotor; with an Account of the Lead and Copper Deposits in Wisconsin; of the Gold Region in the Cherokee Country; and Sketches of Popular Manners; &c. &c. &c. Volume 1. London: R. Bentley, 1847.
  • Keating, W. H. 1824. Narrative of an expedition to the source of the St. Peter’s River, Lake Winnepeck, Lake of the Woods, &c. &c. performed in the year 1823 by order of the Hon. J.C. Calhoun, Secretary of War, under the command of Stephen H. Long, Major US.T.E. Volume 1. comp. from notes of Major Long, Messrs. Say, Keating and Calhoun. Philadelphia, H. C. Carey & I. Lea.Lanman, C. 1847. A summer in the wilderness; embracing a canoe voyage up the Mississippi and around Lake Superior. New York, D. Appleton & company: Philadelphia, G. S. Appleton.
  • Pike, Z.M. An Account of Expeditions to the Sources of the Mississippi and Through the Western Parts of Louisiana…” (Philadelphia: C. & A. Conrad, 1810), Olin, 1-8
  • Schoolcraft. H.R. 1821. Narrative journal of travels through the northwestern regions of the United States extending from Detroit through the Great Chain of American Lakes, to the sources of the Mississippi River. Performed as a member of the expedition under Governor Cass in the year 1820. Albany: E. & E. Hosford.
  • Warren, G. K. 1874. An essay concerning important physical features exhibited in the valley of the Minnesota River & upon their signification. Washington Government Printing Office.