Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (March 28, 1793–December 10, 1864) was an American geographer, geologist, and ethnologist, noted for his early studies of Native American cultures, as well as for his discovery in 1832 of the source of the Mississippi River. His work on Native American legends formed the source material for Longfellow's epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha.
Schoolcraft was born near Albany, New York, the son of Lawrence Schoolcraft and Anne Barbara (Rowe) Schoolcraft. He entered Union College at age fifteen and later attended Middlebury College. He was especially interested in geology and minerology. His father was a glassmaker and he initially studied and worked in the same industry. He wrote his first paper on the topic, Vitreology (1817). At age twenty five, he forsook his family's glassmaking business and traveled down the Ohio River to Missouri.
In 1818-19, he led a small expedition from Potosi, Missouri to what is now Springfield, Missouri, and down the White River into Arkansas, making a survey of the geography, geology, and mineralogy of the area, which he published in 1819 in A View of the Lead Mines of Missouri. His journal from this tour was the first written account of an exploration of the Ozarks.
In 1821, he was a geologist on the expedition of General Lewis Cass to the upper Great Lakes, during which he made topographical surveys of upper peninsula of Michigan and today's northern Minnesota. Part of the purpose of the expedition was to discover the source of the Mississippi River, in part to settle the question of an undetermined boundary between the United States and British Canada. The expedition erroneously concluded that the Mississippi's headwaters were in Cass Lake. Schoolcraft published an account of the journey in A Narrative Journal of Travels...from Detroit through the Great Chain of American Lakes to the Sources of the Mississippi River.
He began his ethnological research in 1822 during his appointment as Indian agent at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. He wedded Jane Johnson, who was the daughter of an Irish fur trader and an Ojibwe woman named O-bah-bahm-wawa-ge-zhe-go-qua (or Obabaamwewe-giizhigokwe in the contemporary spelling) (The Woman of the Sound [Which the Stars Make] Rushing Through the Sky). From his wife, he learned the Ojibwe language and the lore of the tribe. Later he moved to Fort Mackinac, the new headquarters of his administration as an Indian agent after his area was greatly increased.
In 1832, he journeyed again to the upper reaches of the Mississippi in order to settle continuing troubles between the Chippewa and Sioux nations, and to talk to as many Native American leaders as he could in order to maintain the peace. He was also provided with a surgeon and given instructions to begin provision of vaccinations for smallpox among the Indians of the region. He determined that smallpox had been unknown among the Chippewa before the return in 1750 of a war-party that had gone to Montreal to assist the French against the British in the French and Indian War.
During the voyage, he took the opportunity to explore the region, making the first accurate map of the Lake District around western Lake Superior. It was also during this journey that he discovered the true headwaters of the Mississippi River in Lake Itasca, the name of which he coined from the Latin phrase veritas caput, meaning "true source". The nearby Schoolcraft River, the first major tributary of the Mississippi, was later named in his honor.
From 1828 to 1832 he served in the legislature of the Michigan Territory. In 1836, he was instrumental in settling land disputes with the Chippewas, and by the Treaty of Washington (1836), the United States came into the possession of vast territory worth many millions of dollars. Schoolcraft was engaged as Superintendent of Indian Affairs in the Northern Department in 1839, when he began a series of Native American studies later published as the Algic Researches. When the Whig Party came to power in 1841 with the election of William Henry Harrison, Schoolcraft lost his position as Indian agent and moved back to the East, where he continued to write about Native Americans. Much of his work was published in his Historical and Statistical Information Respecting...the Indian Tribes of the United States.
He is responsible for naming many of Michigan's counties and locations within the former Michigan Territory, and giving several of those established in 1840 faux Indian names. The names Algoma, Alcona, Allegan, Alpena, Arenac, Iosco, Kalkaska, Leelanau, Oscoda and Tuscola, for example, combine words and syllables from Native American languages with words and syllables from Latin and Arabic. "Itasca" of Lake Itasca, the source lake of the Mississippi River, is another example of his faux Indian names.
Schoolcraft County, Michigan, the village of Schoolcraft, Michigan, and Schoolcraft College in Livonia, Michigan, are named in his honor, as is Schoolcraft State Park in Minnesota.
In 1943, a United States Liberty ship named the SS Henry R. Schoolcraft was launched.