A Sense Of Place: The Legacy of Names
By Greg Breining
If you're looking for a great Minnesota geographic name, it would be hard to beat Itasca. Euphonious and distinctive, it harbors a story. And like most good place names it tells something of the land.
Good place names are like that--they may describe a place's shape or the animals that inhabit it. They may tell stories, of the people who settled it, who shaped it, and who fought for it.
Of course, some names do just the opposite. They say nothing about the land. For every Itasca, there is a St. Anthony Falls (Father Louis Hennepin's patron saint). For every Kalevala Township ("land of heroes" to its Finnish settlers), there is a Soudan (named because its climate is unlike that of equatorial Sudan).
Our sense of place is richly expressed in our names for places. In this regard, Minnesota was fortunate to have Warren Upham, geologist, archaeologist, librarian, and pack rat of obscure facts. It would be hard to imagine anyone better suited to the task of accounting for thousands of state place names.
Born on a Massachusetts farm, Upham graduated from Dartmouth College in 1871 and worked on geological surveys in New Hampshire and, from 1879 to 1885, in Minnesota under state geologist Newton H. Winchell. During his first three years in the state, he traveled 11,000 miles on horseback. During the next two, he concentrated his efforts in Aitkin, Cass, and St. Louis counties. He wrote scores of papers and addresses on geology. Among his personal interests were simply the names of things. He gathered information on state names and published a book on the subject in 1920. The Minnesota Historical Society republished the work in 1969 as Minnesota Geographic Names: Their Origin and Historic Significance.
Despite its age, Minnesota Geographic Names is hardly obsolete or no longer of interest. County by county, Upham describes names of towns, hills, rivers, lakes, and other landmarks.
It is no accident that many of these names derive from the Dakota or Ojibwe, two groups with a long history in the region and an intimate knowledge of the land. French explorers and traders who occupied Minnesota long before statehood were generally more inclined than the British and Americans who followed to let Indians be Indians. And that is true of their names as well. Nonetheless, as Upham notes, many Dakota and Ojibwe names survive intact or by accurate translation. The most prominent examples are Minnesota (Dakota for "cloud-tinted water" after the sometimes turbid Minnesota River) and Mississippi (Ojibwe for "great river").
Many names are geographically savvy. The city and county of Pipestone were named for the pipestone quarry, known to tribes throughout the prairies and plains. Puposky, a tiny town site and a lake north of Bemidji, were named with an Ojibwe word meaning "the end of the shaking lands," in this case, the southern end of the Big Bog area to the north. Detroit Township and Detroit Lakes were named with the French word referring to the strait formed by the long point extending from the south shore, nearly dividing the lake into two basins. Blue Earth county and river were named for blue-green earth once thought to be copper ore, and long used by the Dakota as pigment. The name of Mankato comes from the Dakota Makato Osa Watapa, "the river where blue earth is gathered." Minneopa, the town, creek, and now a state park, is Dakota for "water falling twice" in reference to two waterfalls. Lake Traverse is a translation of the Dakota name that indicated the lake lay crosswise in orientation to nearby Big Stone Lake and Lac qui Parle.
Many features are named for their shapes--the numerous Round lakes and Long lakes. More distinctive shape names are these: Sawtooth Mountains; Ball Club Lake (translated from the Ojibwe for the shape of a lacrosse stick); Otter Tail lake and river (and later county), translated from the Ojibwe for the lake's long sandbar, shaped like an otter's tail; and Kettle River, translated from Ojibwe for the shape of the cliff-side potholes.
Even better than names that are descriptive, however, are names that add interpretation or commentary. Wuori Township, named for the Finnish word for "mountain," reflects not only topography, but also the ethnic make-up of this Iron Range enclave. Anoka is a Dakota word meaning "on both sides," applied to a city developed on both sides of the Rum River. Nemadji, Ojibwe for "left-hand river," says something about fur trade routes. When traders approached the west end of Lake Superior, the mouth of the Nemadji was on the left; to the right was the estuary of the St. Louis. Clearwater River in Clearwater County was so named by the Ojibwe because the clear water contrasted so noticeably with the bog-stained water in many streams of the region. The Pomme de Terre River translates from the French as "apple of the earth." The voyageurs referred not to the potato, but to the prairie-turnip (Psoralea esculenta), called in Dakota tipsinah. Finally is the well-known account of the Temperance River, named in assistant state geologist Thomas Clark's report in 1864 because it, unlike most North Shore streams, flows directly into deep water and thus has no bar at its mouth.
Many names aren't words at all--or they are many words. Itasca is the classic example. The name, a joining of the two Latin words veritas caput ("true head"), was coined in a conversation between explorer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft and his companion, Rev. William Boutwell, before Schoolcraft departed for the headwaters of the nation's most famous river. As historian William Lass observed, "Once he had the name he had only to reach the lake."
Cuyuna, the name of a Minnesota iron range, has a similar lineage. It was named by its discoverer, prospector Cuyler Adams, with a combination of his name and that of his dog, Una. Minneapolis was compounded from the Dakota minnehaha (falling water) and Greek polis (city). Minnetonka meant "big water" in Dakota, but the lake near Minneapolis was apparently never known to the Indians by that name. And in Swift County, Swenoda Township was named for its Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish settlers.
A number of place names arise from a story. Thus, Cross River was named for the cross that itinerant priest Father Frederic Baraga erected at the river's mouth, in thanks for delivery from a sudden storm as he crossed Superior from the Apostle Islands. Lightning Lake in Grant County was named for a man struck by lightning and killed during an early exploration, as the story goes. The actual event, Upham discovered, apparently was not fatal and occurred many miles away.
Many of the stories behind the names arose in battle between Ojibwe and Dakota Indians over central Minnesota. Thus Cut Foot Sioux was the name given a lake by Ojibwe in reference to a Dakota warrior killed in battle in the mid-1700s. Boy Lake, Boy River, and Woman Lake are translations from Ojibwe names for boys and women killed in battle with Dakota a few years earlier. East and West Battle lakes were sites of yet another battle between Ojibwe and Dakota. In 1842 Ojibwe Indians sneaked up the ravine of what was later to be known as Battle Creek to attack Dakota Indians encamped just down river from St. Paul. Thief River and Thief River Falls come from the Ojibwe for "secret earth river" in reference to a small band of Dakota that lived secretly in the area, killing game the Ojibwe claimed. The Ojibwe name, through mispronunciation and misinterpretation, became "stealing earth river."
There is a story too to be found in animal names. No shortage of landmarks, especially lakes, are named for critters: Fox Lake, Eagle Lake, Pelican Lake, Wolf Lake, Chub Creek. Heron Lake in Jackson County was named by the Dakota Okabena, meaning "heron nests." The Ojibwe named Canosia Lake with their word for pike, Kego Lake for fish, and Namakan Lake for sturgeon. Kandiyohi is Dakota for "where the buffalo fish come." Similar in its origin is Buffalo Lake, in Wright County, named not for the mammal but for the fish.
More intriguing--and even forlorn--are the names that refer to animals that no longer exist where once they were common. Thus we have Pigeon River along the Minnesota-Ontario border where passenger pigeons flew until the late 1800s; several Caribou lakes across northern Minnesota, where caribou no longer roam; and Elk River, Elk Township, and several Elk lakes in central Minnesota, where elk were abundant until the late 1800s. A Buffalo Point is found as far north as Lake of the Woods. In what is now Clay County, the Ojibwe referred to Pijikiwi-zibi (Buffalo River) for the bison that wintered there. In Crow Wing County, at the confluence of the Crow Wing River and Buffalo Creek, Schoolcraft wrote in 1820, "the Buffalo Plains commence and continue downward, on both banks of the river, to the falls of St. Anthony." And in McLeod County, pioneers plowed up bones of bison near Buffalo Creek.
Some names would give meaning to the land except that they were so mangled in translation--unintentionally or intentionally. Well, they still give meaning, and some provide a story in the process.
Crow Wing River was derived from the Ojibwe for "raven's wing river." And the puzzling appellation of the Zumbro River derives from English speakers' mangling the French Rivière des Embarras, meaning "river of difficulties," for deadfalls blocking the waterway. The Embarrass River on the Mesabi Range springs from the same French name. The Cannon River was known to the French as Rivière aux Canots, "river of canoes." But English speakers deciphered the term as heavy artillery.
Those interpretations were mistakes. Not so the name for the river flowing out of Mille Lacs. The lake was known to the Dakota as Mde Wakan, "spirit lake." They called the river by the same name. But traders made a pun with the name of the spirituous liquor that caused such misery and destruction during the fur trade. On Stephen Long's map of his 1823 expedition, the stream was labeled the Rum River. And Mille Lacs was the scene of another geographical goof. Izatys, the Dakota name of the village on the shores of Mille Lacs where Father Hennepin was rescued by explorer Daniel Du Luth, was later misspelled. The Iz in Du Luth's script became K and ys turned to hio, giving birth to Kathio, the name of a township and a state park.
Finally, in Renville County, are Sacred Heart river and township. By one story, the mouth of the creek formed in the shape of a heart, for which a French priest named his mission Sacred Heart. But Upham was more inclined to believe the following: Sacred Heart was derived from the Dakota name for early trader Charles Patterson, called Sacred Hat Man for his bearskin hat.
But that is the beauty of the best geographic names. Whether they derived from careful observation, thorough knowledge of the landscape, or complete misinterpretation of cultural cues, they tell a story and, with patience, provide greater understanding of the land. The next time you hear "What's in a name?" remember the answer might be, "More than you think."
Minnesota Geographic Names will be reissued this year.
Greg Breining is Managing Editor of the Volunteer and author of Wild Shore: Exploring Lake Superior by Kayak.