Adventuring with Willard Glazier: Afloat Down the Mighty, Muddy Mississippi

Into this setting paddled Captain Willard Glazier, something of a publicity hound, and eager to have his name linked with the likes of De Soto, La Salle, and surely most appropriately, Hennepin, as an explorer of the Mississippi. Glazier also wrote about Intercontinental horse travel.

Change was afoot back then in the closing third of the 1800s. In Paris, Joseph Oller, who began his career routinizing wagering at cockfights in Catalonia—previously a chaotic process— predicted the path of contemporary entertainment by opening the Moulin Rouge. Importantly, if perhaps less so, Charles M. Hall invented a cheap way to extract aluminum, precipitating a drop in cost from $5 a pound to 18 cents by the time it was implemented. Perhaps undone, but never outdone, back in the States the improbable Brooklyn Bridge was thrown across the turgid East River. Happily, Twain’sLife on the Mississippirolled hot and toasty off the presses of that day. In the thick stream of it all, explorer Willard Glazier announced he’d found the real source of the father of waters, the big muddy. The mighty Mississippi.  And his boat, Alice, is on display at the Madisonville Museum, in Madisonville, Louisiana, to this very day.

Down the Great River

Down the Great River, Glazier’s book covering his exploits, is constructed in diary form, so that each day’s journey is described in sequence. When action was short, geographic or social minutia came to fore. Readers are sometimes deluged by a storm of detail. With no radio or television, words were, at the time, ladled on by the pound, poured by the pailful in the flourishing popular press. 

Recall that “one effect of overseas expansion in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was the immediate popularity of travel literature” Robert Lindsay, an historian of discovery has pointed out. Over the years this compelling popularity grew to be almost an explosive force in publishing. As this time passed and readership increased, travelers continued to exploit the opportunities presented by what looked to be a limitless market.

The industrial capacity of the United States, which had previously been so bloodily effective on the Civil War battlefield was, following that harrowing conflict, being harnessed in the production of a vast surge of consumer goods. These goods included inexpensive, lavishly illustrated, commonly available books, including Twain’s work. The sanguinary struggle to keep the Union intact had engendered a furious curiosity about America itself. This commercial pressure and consumer’s desires helped bring about a curious controversy about the source of the Mississippi as the 19thcentury closed. 

It’s easy to understand the furor caused by Willard Glazier, a popular lecturer and author of the late nineteenth century. He merely told the nation that he’d found the true source of the Mississippi–the young nation’s heartline. Then, following a successful lecture tour, he published the whole story in his Down the Great River. Of course, the claim caused a sensation. 

After all, most Americans felt the discovery a fait accompliestablished more than a half-century earlier with Schoolcraft’s famous mission. Back then, at the time of Glazier’s fame a little more than a century ago, the country was still healing from a conflagration of awful savagery.

Captain Willard Glazier – Adventurer & Explorer

Into this setting paddled Captain Willard Glazier, something of a publicity hound, and eager to have his name linked with the likes of De Soto, La Salle, and surely most appropriately, Hennepin, as an explorer of the Mississippi. His income, and apparently his sense of spiritual well being, was invested in lecturing and publishing exciting details of an adventurous life, usually more‑or‑less his own. Though forgotten today, Glazier was a rage in the Gilded Age.

In the summer of 1881 Glazier and his small party paused briefly in Minnesota, just beginning a planned southbound Mississippi jaunt. With several adventure and travel books already to this credit, he now planned to journey by canoe from the Lake Itasca region all the long way down the great meandering water route to New Orleans.

Traveling under the tutelage of a Chippewa guide, the group, which included journalist Barrett Channing Paine, made passage of Lake Itasca toward its so‑called West Arm. Pressing through an overgrown, reedy corridor, they entered a second, apparently separate, body of water. In future, they would claim this as the source of the majestic waterway. 

Traveling under the tutelage of a Chippewa guide, the group, which included journalist Barrett Channing Paine, made passage of Lake Itasca toward its so‑called West Arm. Pressing through an overgrown, reedy corridor, they entered a second, apparently separate, body of water. In future, they would claim this as the source of the majestic waterway. 

Though they little knew it at the time, they also entered into a controversy which would outlast them all. The party proposed, according to the author’s description, that this “new” lake should be called Glazier. Willard’s emotions, perhaps stoked by the idea that he’d found the real source of the mighty river, may have led him to accept this excess of enthusiasm. For whatever reason, he acquiesced to the suggestion.  

After reaching Elk or Glazier Lake, which the Indian guide freely showed to Glazier’s party, the expedition started its journey downstream. They began in birch‑bark canoes but later added a pair of sturdier, wooden vessels for the balance of the trip.

Headwaters of the Great River

Headwaters travel demanded paddling in single file. So the explorer recounts in detail for readers: “Moses Legard continued with me as pilot in the first canoe, which had been christened Discoverby Paine. My brother followed with Chenowagesic [the “Indian” guide], in the Alice, named after my daughter, while Mr. Paine, with Sebatise Lagard, brought up the rear in the Itasca.” Thus the long, difficult trip began.

As before, during his other arduous journeys, he stopped frequently to ply his trade of public speaker. His 117‑day transit was pocked with visits at farmsteads and river‑side burgs, villages, towns, and cities. Along the route, he lectured as often as opportunity offered, skillfully slipping between his roles as expedition leader, public orator, and freewheeling gladhander, hobnobbing with local notables. Willard added color to drowsy afternoons along the Mississippi valley when he discoursed on his contrary theory in churches, taverns, hotel common rooms, or beneath the leafy bowers of grand oaks in village squares.

Of course, folks were mightily surprised to hear of such a momentous discovery as the “real” source of the Mississippi. Enthusiastic, too, were the greetings the towns gave such a noble adventurer. If there was any question about the probity of claiming this distinction, Willard Glazier, perhaps with dim memories of the failed family farm, was reluctant to address it. With his pod of little boats moored at riverside, and his rough outdoor wardrobe, he seemed every inch an explorer, scrambling up the margin of the slippery banks and into the literal center of town hall, bearing important news.

Even back then there was a well‑formed folklore involving birch‑bark canoes and a legacy of trapper and voyager tales.  Admiration for these exploits is reflected in such contemporary endeavors as the medallions of explorers decorating Huey Long’s capitol, the replication of d’Iberville’s vessel, Pelican, planned in one Louisiana parish, and Walter Anderson’s wonderful mural in Ocean Spring’s community center. So, Willard’s readers were likely to be fairly familiar with the slender watercraft. Yet, confronted with his first real canoe, the explorer had, he claims, acted on impulse. He tells his audience that “curiosity led me to step into one of them, when from want of experience I was precipitated into the lake, much to my own discomfort and chagrin, and the amusement of the Indians.” The ensuing ribbing was good natured and all ended well: “Being unable to swim, I was congratulated upon a capsize in shallow water.”

At one point early on, the little flotilla shot out upon the bosom of Lake Winnibegoshish, “the largest and grandest of all the great lakes of the Great River.” Soon enough, the bosom was visited by the winds, and Glazier gives the reader another of his vivid, humorous scenes. “I shall not soon forget,” he begins quietly enough, “the peculiar sensations experienced when I realized that I was in a frail canoe in a heavy sea two or three miles from land,” and from here works up to lively recollection. “I felt several times that to get out of such a fix I would willingly fast six months,” Willard writes. 

“I would have given every dollar I had in the world to have been safely landed anywhere on the face of the earth. Finding that my pilot coveted such a hat as his Captain wore, I promised to keep him well supplied with hats for some time to come if he landed me safely in the village towards which we were paddling.” They did land safely and were “cordially received by a large number of Chippewas” with whom they stayed, gale-bound for three days, during which Glazier observed and described Native American life.

The adventurer reorganized his group and reconstituted his tiny fleet at Aitken, Minnesota. Two of the birch‑bark vessels were left behind, and two “modern” canoes, which had been previously set aside in Saint Paul, arrived by freightage and were added.  A.H. Seigfried, of Saint Paul, provided his own Rushton No. 93 whose “keel and stern were of oak, the ribs of red elm, and the sides of white cedar. Her length was sixteen feet, width at the bottom of the top streak thirty inches, and on the top twenty‑eight inches. The depth of gunwale was nine and one-half inches; between deck and floor, twelve inches, and the ends, seventeen inches. Her weight, without fittings, was eighty pounds.” 

All along the waterway, the explorer spoke about his adventures.

New, Stronger Canoes for the Trip

Glazier’s handsome new vessel, which had a seven-foot cockpit, was one of several Rushton American Travelersdesigns. The boat could be, the author tells us, “fitted with a leg o’ mutton sail and used as a sailing boat.” Perhaps wisely, he opted not to use this particular apparatus on the troublesome broad brown expanse of the Mississippi.

Having met a fellow canoeist and, by this happy accident, being put in touch with H. L Hinckley, “a gentleman largely interested in canoes,” and ultimately with Hinckley’s raft of boats on White‑Bear Lake, Glazier bought another boat for the expedition. This time he chose a Racine Saint Paul, built in the manner of Rob Roy.Of course, MacGregor’s feats afloat the Baltic Sea, the bays and inlets of North West Europe, as well as along the Danube, the Jordan, and the Nile were much more in the public eye of that time than today. The eventual choice of nickname was part hero worship and part savvy business acumen.

Glazier’s first canoe was designed not only to incorporate air‑tight chambers at each end (as the Rob Roypattern did), but, as Hinckley’s correspondence makes clear, an attempt was made to provide quick‑release mechanisms for their removal. In an age before Velcro, press-the-dot fasteners, and bungee cord, this elegant design innovation was difficult to bring to fruit. 

Unfortunately, Hinckley notes that “as to the Rushton canoe which I shipped to Aitkin for you, I found it difficult to arrange the air‑chambers so as to be promptly taken out and put in, as was my first intention. They can be removed by taking out a few screws, but this may be somewhat troublesome.” Thus accoutered, though with the air‑tight compartments apparently left behind, the down stream journey began again after a productive and useful ten-day visit to Aitkin.

The composition of the small group would vary during the expedition toward the Pelican State, but leaving Aitkin it included a pair of hired hands, or “pilots” in Willard’s romantic parlance. Glazier, with a pilot, lead in the birch‑bark Discovery, his brother followed with another pilot in the Ruston canoe Alice, and last came Paine in theItasca, rechristened Rob Roy. Later, now accompanied by “voyagers,” Glazier abandoned his birch‑bark Discoveryand took command of Alice,formerly his brother’s craft‑‑who’d retired from the expedition to act as advance man for the public talks while Paine crewed Itasca, shorn of its Rob Roynick name.                                                                             

The Crescent City Welcomes the Explorer

Though his stop at St. Louis was satisfying, it was at the nominal terminus of the mighty waterway that real success seemed in hand. The party achieved New Orleans on or about November 20, 1881—about the same time the enormous elephant was being installed in the Moulin Rouge, inventing the notion of drunks seeing pink pachyderms. At the Big Easy, a bustling port with a pervasive Caribbean tone, Glazier presented his canoe, Alice, to the local Academy of Science and addressed that august body. 

After hearing the canoeist’s claims regarding the absolute source of the majestic river, the group, according to an apologist biographer, claimed in turn that they would “cherish the vessel for ever, a reminder of Glazier’s superb qualities as an explorer and geographer.” The party’s second boat, the Itasca, was presented to the Missouri Historical Society and yielded similar praise.

Glazier always wrote with his audience, America’s mass of youthful readers, its legions of amateur naturalists, its echelons of armchair romantics, in mind. He knew that action and adventure was the pillow, information and education the punch; at a time not yet fully used to consumerist thinking, it was necessary to provide a good excuse for the expenditure of one’s penny. The result, while engaging, was sometimes a wee bit lax in its hewing to verisimilitude. Captain Glazier enjoyed an easy relationship with reality.

Accuracy being occasionally back seat to action, Glazier’s books are rich with details of close calls, daring do, and related scary, pulse-quickening events. While he is often clearly proud of his own accomplishments and now and then bluntly brags to the reader, he also characteristically heaps praise on companion and chance acquaintance alike. Unlike Will Rogers, Glazier did meet men he didn’t like and on those occasions he roasted them ’til well done on the coals of his hyperbolic prose. He seems anxious to paint the Indians he met with colors from Rousseau’s palette: noble savages, vastly skillful in woodcraft, honest, and, like Fred Burnaby, “true blue.”

At journey’s end, while Captain Glazier worked on his books, the controversy about the site and discovery of the source of the Mississippi slowly developed. Bits of communications, letters, and fairly long coverage began to show up in the professional journals. The ensuing conflict grew to include the trivial and the momentous, the banal and the significant. 

Conflict Pays the Rent       

Everything from the good taste of naming a lake after oneself‑‑and indeed just who it was who first called the body of water Lake Glazier‑‑to the question of what constitutes a river’s origin was hashed out in the press. We would be shocked today, but the folks in the fifth estate were hardly gentlemen even back in those days. Exploring was business, and covering them, in ink you could say, was even more of a going concern. Scientists and professionals by and large arrayed themselves against Willard Glazier’s claim. Brave or not, the rascal, the wiley bounder, was an outsider to both the academy and to proper society.

Importantly, geographers pointed out that Elk Lake was well known in the region. In fact, the earliest written reference to it was in 1803, the same year the deal on the Louisiana Purchase was so cleverly closed, by William Morrison. Moreover, an entire survey had previously been done by the Federal Government. Because Schoolcraft’s choice of Itasca as “source” was, and remains, a good, practical one, in terms of clarity, there is little compelling reason to split hairs, keeping in mind the difficulty of distinction.

Eventually the explorer, along with his daughter Alice (for whom his canoe had been named), and a selection of academics, journalists, and scientists, journeyed to the Itasca and Elk or “Glazier” lake region to ascertain that, indeed, his source was above Itasca. Acting wholly in character, the result of this trek was, as we might have guessed, another book, Headwaters of the Mississippi. Released in 1893, it was destined to run through several more editions. 

Though Willard published and published, he still perished; the pugnacious writer died near the turn of the century, still duking it out with academics, though it’s fair to suppose that the Arctic grail had stolen the popular imagination by then. Even his death in 1905 did not end the controversy, although as the glamour of discovery faded the idea that a “watershed” constitutes headwaters came to fore.

Finding Alice Safe, High, and Very Dry

After the turn of the century a haze drops over the details of Glazier’s labors, especially following his death in 1905 when we are deprived of his own signal actions of self-promotion. However, slowly, in the late nineteen eighties, I began to piece together the story of his lost canoes.

One boat, intended for the Missouri Historical Society, apparently went astray. Luckily, a Society bulletin of the fifties ran text related to an autograph collector’s search. The signature was the same as on “a letter in which the swashbuckling Captain Willard Glazier presented to our Society a canoe, the Itasca, used by him [his own canoe was actually the Alice] in traveling down the Mississippi River in 1881, immediately following his ‘discovery’ of the source of that river. . ..” The bulletin goes on to say that, “Captain Glazier lectured on his discovery at the Mercantile Library Hall, under the auspices of our Society. The canoe was on the platform, and was accepted for the Society by Silas Bent, then our vice‑president.” But the Society was not destined to retain the canoe in its collection.

“The next evening,” according to the account, “General Tom Thumb gave an exhibit at the Mercantile Library Hall, and there fell in love with the canoe, for which he promptly offered us $100. The minutes of the Society record that some of the members wished to accept his offer, as there was already some doubt as to the authenticity of Captain Glazier’s claim to fame.” The minutes do not say, however, what became of the canoe. Nor do they record receiving the hundred dollars. At this point, with no further information available, we must assume that Itascahas been lost.

Willard Glazier’s own boat, happily, seems not only well, but well displayed as virtually the central gem in a small, tastefully maintained museum only a little off the beaten path in Louisiana. Accounts in newspaper clip files (including the News-Bannerof Wednesday, July 31, 1991) explain that the Alice, after spending some time in the storage area of New Orleans’s Confederate Museum (although obviously of historic value, the vessel related to the period well after the Civil War) was moved to its current setting in the Madisonville Museum. 

This community, situated near New Orleans, was incorporated in 1817; it grew well as passing generations eventually demanded new facilities to replace the tiny, 1911 courthouse (office above, jail below). The small but vital town refurbished its redundant courthouse as the Madisonville Museum to provide an example of late Victorian riverine civic architecture and, within, a general sample of artifacts representing area wildlife, the Civil War era, and regional Native American Culture. 

The Canoe, Safe and Sound

Glazier’s Alice, its dark wood glinting in the baleful shine of period light fixtures, its gold‑leaf expedition name and details worn but still readable, rests in a well‑crafted cypress cradle, mounted high on the old thick brick wall. Alicehas slumbered for over a hundred years, safe from the roiled café au laitwater rolling relentlessly to the Gulf. When Alicewas lifted so long ago from the sloping bank of the levee, canoeing was the grueling province of professional trappers, humping bales of lush winter pelts into market from beyond the beyond. Or it was the venue of a handful of progressive sportsmen and wacky would-be explorers. Now the still elegant vessel could look out—if it could look out—over a terrain thick and growing thicker with recreational canoeists and kayakers, gliding over the waterways of South Louisiana, or traveling in from points globe wide to paddle the sprawling Atchafalaya, a unique marvel of environmental complexity. Glazier may be moldering in that good gray clay, but his sense of adventure and wonder lives on in ever-larger numbers of folks called to travel by paddle. 

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