Willard Glazier discovers the true source of the Mississippi… or not

Willard Glazier / Rand McNally & Company, MAP ILLUSTRATIVE OF CAPTAIN WILLARD GLAZIER’S Voyage of Exploration to the Source OF THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER Drawn from Delineations by his Indian Guide CHE-NO-WA-GE-SIC. Chicago, [1881-84?]
Lithograph map, 21”h x 33”w at neat line, hand-colored in outline. Verso with penciled note: “Glazier’s Fraud”. Old folds and minor soiling and discoloration, but very good.

A very rare early 1880s persuasive map by first-rate scoundrel Willard Glazier, depicting his alleged expedition to the “true” source of the Mississippi River at “Lake Glazier”, known then and today as Elk Lake and but one of several small ponds feeding Lake Itasca.

This remarkable map depicts the upper reaches of the Mississippi extending to Lake Itasca and beyond to the eponymously-named Lake Glazier. Since Henry Schoolcraft’s 1832 expedition Itasca had been accepted as the river’s source, but here Glazier attempts to rewrite the geographical record. To boost his case, “Lake Glazier” is shown as disproportionately large, while the numerous other little lakes and ponds feeding Itasca are omitted entirely.

Glazier’s highlights the route of his expedition in red, beginning at the town of Brainerd, Minnesota (off the map, to the south), passing through Leech Lake and a chain of smaller lakes and on to Lake Itasca, descending from thence along the northernmost stretch of the “Mississippi River” before hitting Lake on July 22, 1881 (The route indicates that Glazier explored several dead-end creeks leading out of Lake Glazier, giving weight to his claim to have exhausted all other possibilities for the source of the Mississippi.) The return takes him down the Mississippi, apparently ending in the Gulf of Mexico on November 15. ]

Adding visual interest and apparent veracity to the map is an inset view of the “Source of the Mississippi” at upper right. Adding a touch of romance and contributing yet further to the appearance of veracity is the attribution of the map to “delineations by … Indian Guide CHE-NO-WA-GE-SIC.” It all looks compelling, but whether Glazier’s alleged route or the view of Lake Glazier bear any relationship to reality, or whether he made the expedition at all, I cannot say. As will be seen below, his career certainly gives cause for doubt.

What cannot be disputed is that the map is very rare: I find no record of other examples having appeared on the antiquarian market, while OCLC locates a total of six holdings in institutional collections.

Willard Worchester Glazier (1841-1905)
Born in Fowler in upstate New York, Glazier enlisted in the 2nd New York Cavalry in 1861. He was captured by the Confederates in 1863 and imprisoned at Libby Prison, escaped, was recaptured and escaped again to serve out the rest of the war in the 26th New York Cavalry.

He wrote two accounts of his war experiences, Capture, Prison-Pen and Escape (1865) and Three Years in the Federal Cavalry (1870). He embarked on lecture tours of the mid-West, selecting attractive young ladies to accompany him to serve as canvassers for his books, his motives predatorial. In 1879, he was arrested at the behest of an outraged mother, accused of having impregnated and abandoned her fifteen-year old daughter, but the young woman refused to press charges and he was released (“Soldier, Historian, Roue”, in the Plain Dealer, July 10, 1879, p. 1) This is but one of several such stories about Glazier in the period press.

Glazier then set out on a ride from Boston to San Francisco, in 1876, giving lectures on route, his advertisements and canvassers claiming by turns that the funds raised were for the Grand Army of the Republic Relief Fund, more local military charities, and even for the Custer Monument (Glazier claiming that he was close friends with Custer). But it seems that the alleged beneficiaries knew nothing of the arrangement, while several news outlets claimed that he was a poor lecturer and that his material was only what could be found in any standard history. In one instance, the editor of the Iowa City Daily Press wrote,

“Now Captain Glazier may be a good lecturer, and it may be that some deadbeat is travelling under his name … yet all who heard him are under the impression that he is a monumental fraud, only one degree less of an idiot than Sergeant Bates [another touring lecturer] … and relies on the efforts of the two ladies who preceded him, and bore the general public with pitiful wails to buy tickets” (October 9, 1876)

In the course of his ride, Glazier disappeared. The editor of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat hoped that he had gone to give a lecture to Sitting Bull and his war band (November 28, 1876). But Glazier subsequently re-emerged, claiming to have been captured by Indians, with three of his companions burnt alive, but to have successfully escaped and outrun his pursuers. A report in the Cleveland Leader announced his escape under the heading “Pained to announce” and proposed a subscription to buy the Indians faster horses! (December 5, 1876).

Exploration of the upper Mississippi
Glazier’s notoriety was such that, when in 1881 he announced his plan to navigate the upper Mississippi to its source, the editor of the [St. Paul] Daily Globe entreated the residents of the region, “We have only to say to the untutored savages of the West, whose crimes are manifold … that you have now an opportunity to redeem yourselves. Prepare your shot-guns, and wait the coming of a careworn literary man in a canoe … Men of the Mississippi, do your duty” (June 26, 1881)

Whether Glazier actually conducted is expedition is unclear to me, but he claimed to have traveled by canoe, leaving Brainerd, Minnesota on July 12, 1881. From thence he purportedly paddled and portaged north and west to Lake Itasca and further upriver still to a small body of water he named “Glazier Lake” and claimed as the true source of the Mississippi. From thence he descended the great river, reaching the Gulf of Mexico on November 15, after a journey of 3184 miles over 117 days.

Glazier seems to have pulled out all the stops in promoting his “discovery”, publishing this map and a number of other works on the subject. Among other fortunate recipients of his attention was Justice Charles Patrick Daly (1816-99), President of the American Geographical Society, who received from Glazier a copy of this map accompanied by a long presentation letter. The letter reads in part:

“Dear Sir,
Assuming you to be interested in everything bearing upon the geography of our country, I take the liberty of sending you copy of a map showing my discovery, in June 1881, of the true source of the Mississippi River. I had long entertained the belief, in common with many American geographers, that Lake Itasca was not the source of the Mother of Waters, and in that year and month concluded to make an expedition to the head waters of the Great River with the view of, for ever, settling the vexed question. I did so, starting from St. Paul, Minn. and proceeding by canoe via Leech Lake to Itasca and thence in a southerly direction, until I reached beautiful lake hitherto undiscovered, which proved to be, without the shadow of a doubt, the true source of the Mississippi—as shown on the accompanying map. In the course of my voyage to Lake Itasca and beyond it, I also discovered and named several small lakes, which are delineated on the map.” (ALS from Glazier to Daly, June 16, 1884, held by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee)

The response of the geographical establishment was savage. In 1891, for example, the American Geographical Society published an evisceration by George Hurlbut bearing the title “The Pretended Discovery of the Source of the Mississippi River by Capt. Willard Glazier”. (Journal of the American Geographical Society of New York, vol. 23 (1891), pp. 378-385) That piece began with the assertion “that Captain Glazier’s claim was without foundation, and that the sources of the Mississippi were discovered by Schoolcraft, Lieutenant Allen and Nicollet.”

Many Minnesotans were personally aggrieved by Glazier’s pretensions, and their reaction was no better:

“People in Minnesota were shocked by the news and then, angered. Glazier’s lake had been on official maps for years and already had a name – Elk Lake. That its waters flowed into Lake Itasca wasn’t unknown either; the entire area has numerous marshy ponds that drain into Itasca. The Minnesota Historical Society sent General James H. Baker to investigate Glazier’s claim. He attacked Glazier in the press for his presumption, detailing the flaws in Glazier’s methods and findings. The Minnesota Legislature went to so far as to pass a bill mandating the use of Elk Lake for the disputed pond.” (“Captain Willard W. Glazier”, at CivilWarTalk.com)

Glazier was however undeterred by the reaction: In the following years he went on to publish Down the Great River; Embracing an Account of the Discovery of the True Source of the Mississippi (1887) and Headwaters of the Mississippi comprising biographical sketches of early and recent explorers of the great river, and a full account of the discovery and location of its true source in a lake beyond Itasca (1894).

In all, an apparently useful map by an appalling man, but fascinating in its use of persuasive techniques and for tapping into centuries-old fascination with locating the source of the Mississippi River.

OCLC 7187051, 82192033 and 857720227, between them giving institutional holdings at Buffalo & Erie County Public Library, Harvard, Minnesota Historical Society, Univ. of California-Berkeley, Wisconsin Historical Society and Yale (as of November 2021).