What’s in a Name? Part 1: Minnesota Counties with Indigenous Names

We have spent a lot of time analyzing art in the Minnesota State Capitol and the people and historic events it honors. Now let’s shift gears and look at the names of Minnesota’s counties. What people, places and symbols do they honor?

Minnesota has 87 counties, so we will break this blog into several parts. We’ll start with the easy ones — the county names derived from the languages of Minnesota’s Native peoples, or names that are English translations of original Native names. These names help remember this state’s original inhabitants.

There are 13 counties named for Native people and/or use native words. Alphabetically, they are:

  1. Anoka County: The name is derived from the Dakota word anokatanhan meaning “on (or from) both sides,” referring to its location on the banks of the Rum River, according to the county’s website.
  2. Chisago County: Took its name from Chisago Lake, a name derived from two Ojibwe words meaning “large” and “beautiful,”according to Wikipedia.
  3. Chippewa County: Named for the Chippewa River. Chippewa (along with Ojibwe) are the anglicized words for the Anishinaabe people.
  4. Dakota County: Named for the Dakota people native to the area.
  5. Isanti County: Isanti is derived from the Dakota word meaning “knife” and refers to the Santee tribe,” according to Wikipedia. The county’s website says: “Isanti comes from a division of the Dakotas known as the Izatys, which may be translated to mean “Dwell at Knife Lake”, where they resided.”
  6. Kanabec County: “Kanabec (Ka-nay’-bec) is the Ojibwe word for snake. They gave this name to the river that flows north to south, winding its way through the county,” according to the county website.
  7. Kandiyohi County: “Kandiyohi County is named after a Dakota word meaning ‘where the buffalo fish come,'” according to Wikipedia.
  8. Koochiching County: The name “Koochiching” comes from either the Ojibwe word Gojijiing or Cree Kocicīhk (recorded in some documents as “Ouchichiq”), both meaning “at the place of inlets,” referring to the neighboring Rainy Lake and River, according to Wikipedia.
  9. Mahnomen County: Mahnomen means “wild rice” in Ojibwe.
  10. Wabasha County: According to the Wabasha County website: “Prior to 1826, the area of Wabasha was inhabited by the Sioux, led by chief Wa-pa-shaw, who would later give the county and city their names.” [Note the strange phrasing in this official description. It seems to imply that after 1826, the Dakota disappeared.]
  11. Waseca County: “Waseca is a Dakota word, which means rich, especially in provisions. In Dakota writing and books the word waseca … is used to mean fertile. The soil in Waseca County is very fertile. The name Waseca was first applied to the earliest farming settlement in 1855,” according to the county historical society website.
  12. Watonwon County: Named for the Dakota word for “fish bait” or “plenty of fish,” according to Wikipedia.
  13. Winona County: Wikipedia provides this history of the county’s name. It shows how fickle a place name can be: “On October 15, 1851 Orrin Smith became the founder of Winona, by landing his ship’s carpenter, Mr. Erwin Johnson, and two other men (Smith and Stevens) with the purpose of claiming title to the riverfront and surrounding prairie land. When the town site was surveyed and plotted by John Ball, United States deputy surveyor, it was given the name of “Montezuma”, as requested by Johnson and Smith. Henry D. Huff bought an interest in the town site in 1853. With the consent of Capt. Smith, Huff erased the name of Montezuma and inserted the name of Winona on the plot, a name derived from the Dakota Indian word “We-no-nah”, which translates to “first-born daughter”.

As an aside, while researching county names, we found this 1883 book titled: The History of Winona (900 pages plus). A quick scan of the introduction provides a painful reminder of the mindset of settlers and how the Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny appeared in our state. Here is the opening paragraph of Chapter 1:

A HISTORY of the first settlement of Winona county, and especially that of the city of Winona, requires that some notice be given to the Indian tribes that have occupied the territory in which it lies, … and also that some notice be given to the early efforts of missionaries and explorers to christianize and render the savages obedient to the wants of commerce and of French or English [ascendancy].  …

At least another eight county names come from English translations of the original native place names. They are:

  1. Big Stone County: “The name was a translation of a Sioux name for the outcrops of granite and gneiss found in the Minnesota Valley,” according to the county website.
  2. Blue Earth County: “The name Blue Earth is a translation of the Dakota Indian word “Mahkato,” meaning ‘Greenish blue earth,'” according to the county’s website. “The name of the city of Mankato would be “Mahkato” if a spelling mistake made when the name was chosen had not changed the “h” to “n”. The name has remained Mankato ever since.”
  3. Ottertail County: The county got its name from the Otter Tail Lake and River, the Ottertail County Historical Society said. In particular, there was a narrow sandbar “which the Ojibwe said gave the impression of the tail of an otter.”
  4. Pipestone County: “Named for the red pipestone, or catlinite, which was venerated and quarried by Indians,” according to the Association of Minnesota Counties.
  5. Red Lake County: “Named for the Red Lake River, named by the Ojibway for the river’s red sand and reddish water,” according to the Association for Minnesota Counties.
  6. Redwood County: “Named after a river believed to be named for a slender bush [red willow] whose red bark the Dakota mixed with tobacco for smoking,” according to the Association of Minnesota Counties.
  7. Traverse County: The county got its name from Lake Traverse. The Lake got named because it is orientated nearly transverse to Big Stone and Lac qui Parle lakes, according to the Genealogy Trails website. They are aligned to the northwest, while Lake Travers points northeast. “Williamson gave its Sioux name and meaning: “Mdehdakinyan, lake lying crosswise,” it said.
  8. Yellow Medicine County: “The county name is based on a plant which the native Dakota people used the yellow root of for medicinal purposes,” according to Wikipedia.

Other counties named for geographic features or characteristics are the following (they might have Indian name origins, but we haven’t found them yet):

  • Clearwater
  • Cottonwood
  • Crow Wing (named for a crow wing-shaped island at the confluence of the Crow Wing and Mississippi rivers)
  • Itasca (named for Lake Itasca, which got its name from a mash up of the Latin words veritas caput, (truth and head), a reference to the Mississippi headwaters)
  • Lac Qui Parle (French for “lake which talks”)
  • Lake (for Lake Superior)
  • Lake of the Woods
  • Mille Lacs (French for 1,000 lakes)
  • Pine; and
  • Rock (after large rocky outcrop).

All total, these 31 names account for more than one third of all Minnesota county names.

Next post we’ll take a look at the county’s named after famous people — and there some choices are more problematic.

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