What’s in a Name, Part II: MN County Names Honoring National Figures

We started a series of posts this week reviewing the significance of Minnesota’s county names. We started by reviewing county names with Native origins. Today, we look at county names honoring national figures. In some cases, their reputations don’t hold up in the light of historical knowledge and reflection, especially when using a Native American lens.

In some ways, county names are like Capitol art. You can walk by art and never really look at the symbols or consider its historic meaning; it’s just part of the background. Likewise, we rarely think about the symbolism of our county names.

There are 13 Minnesota counties named after national figures who have no  connection to this state. All honor men. Some names are tied to the Civil War, which erupted just after Minnesota statehood.

We don’t have ready access to the deliberations that drove civic leaders to choose their county names. Sometimes short background is available county websites. Here is some of what we now know about our county namesakes.

Let’s start with Lyon County, named for Nathaniel Lyon, the first U.S. General killed in the Civil War. He fought in the Second Seminole War and the Mexican-American War, but we focus on his military action in California. According to both Wikipedia and the Civil War Trust, Lyon participated in several Native American massacres, notably the Bloody Island Massacre.

Here’s the background: A group of Pomo Indians had been brutally treated by a group of settlers who had enslaved them, abused them, and starved many to death. When the Pomo finally revolted and killed two leading settlers, Lyon and his troops were sent to punish Chief Augustine and his men. Lyon came instead upon a group of Pomo women, children and elderly — and they killed many of them, estimated around 100.

Minnesota has two other counties named for generals — Scott County for Gen. Winfred Scott, and Grant County for Gen. and President Ulysses S. Grant.

General Winfield Scott (“Old Fuss and Feathers”) gets high marks from historians and became a national hero after the Mexican-American War. But Scott also led troops in the Second Seminole War and was put in charge of the Cherokee Removal to Indian Territory, also known as The Trail of Tears. Here is a link to Scott’s “Ultimatum” to the Cherokee people, which reads in part:

My troops already occupy many positions in the country that you are to abandon, and thousands and thousands are approaching from every quarter, to render resistance and escape alike hopeless. All those troops, regular and militia, are your friends. Receive them and confide in them as such. Obey them when they tell you that your can remain no longer in this country.

General Ulysses S. Grant is known his Civil War leadership, but as U.S. President he took many very harmful actions towards Native Americans. Grant’s Peace Policy (which replaced extermination as a policy) pushed for Native American assimilation: “Indians were to stay on reservations where they would receive government subsidies and training supervised by religious denominations,” Wikipedia explains. Also, Grant rejected laws that would have limited the slaughter of buffalo. This made room for ranchers to raise domestic cattle, and depleted food needed by the Plains people.

Grant is one of five Minnesota counties named for U.S. Presidents. The other four are: George Washington, James K. Polk, Millard Fillmore, Abraham Lincoln.

One Minnesota county is named after a 13th Century saint — St. Louis. According to AmericanCatholic.org, St. Louis’s biography includes military leadership. He “‘took the cross’ for a Crusade when he was 30.” It was an unsuccessful campaign. He was better known for his care for the poor: “Every day Louis had 13 special guests from among the poor to eat with him, and a large number of poor were served meals near his palace.”

Minnesota has two counties — Clay and Houston — honoring southern political leaders. Henry Clay of Kentucky was a U.S. Senator and Speaker of the U.S. House. Sam Houston was a Texas military and political leader.

Clay is known for his efforts to pass the Missouri Compromise, which brought Maine into the Union as a free state and Missouri as a slave state, keeping political balance in the U.S. Senate. Less known, he helped establish the American Colonization Society, a group that founded Monrovia (in what became Liberia) to establish a colony for free American blacks in Africa. The Society included both northern abolitionists and slaveholders, “who wanted to deport free blacks to reduce what they considered a threat to the stability of slave society,” Wikipedia said.

Houston is known for his leading military role in the “Texas Revolution” and bringing Texas into the United States.

One of our more obscure stories comes from Wright County and its namesake Silas Wright. According to the Wright County’s website, Wright was a New York lawyer and politician. From information easily accessible on the web, nothing particularly distinguished stands out. The county’s own website doesn’t bother to extol Mr. Wright’s virtue, and subtly acknowledges the odd choice by saying that Wright County was chosen as the name “after much debate,” and leaves it at that.

Last on the list of counties named for non-Minnesotans is Benton County, honoring Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton (not the painter). He was a champion of westward expansion and the author of the first of the Homestead Acts, which opened up cheap land to settlers and increased pressure and encroachment on Indian lands, supposedly protected by treaty.

[Update to original post: Since publishing, we found one more county that fits this category: Douglas County. It is named after U.S. Rep. Stephan A. Douglas of Illinois of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates.]

Were we naming counties today, how many of these names would still be on the list? Let’s admit that changing the name of a county would be 1,000 times more difficult than changing a Capitol painting (which itself is proving to be a difficult task). Still, these county honorifics are worth a history lesson and a conversation.

Comments welcome.

We’ve now covered 45 county names, slightly more than half. The next blogs will explore counties named after people who lived in or at least passed through Minnesota.

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