What’s in a Name? Part 3: Minnesota Counties Named After People Who Came to Minnesota

Today, we wrap up a series we started last week on the origins of Minnesota county names. (Earlier posts on this topic were: Minnesota Counties with Indigenous Names, and Minnesota County Names Honoring National Figures.)

Nearly half of Minnesota counties are named for early explorers, settlers, soldiers, businessmen, and politicians who have some connection to this place. Some were named for historical bit players, others for wheeler dealers. Some county names have troubling back stories, honoring people who had institutional roles in grave mistreatment of American Indians; other county names have a more humorous background.

We’ll start on the lighter side.

Becker County is named for Brigadier General George Loomis Becker, a relative unknown. According to Wikipedia: “Becker was one of three men elected to congress when Minnesota became a state, but since Minnesota could only send two, Becker elected to stay behind, and he was promised to have a county named after him.”

Norman County: It is not named for anyone named Norman. It is named “after the early Norwegian (Norsemen or Norman) settlers,” according to the Association of Minnesota Counties.

Roseau County: It was named after Roseau Lake and River. So who was Roseau River named after? Good question. It seems to be lost in history. The name Roseau Lake and Roseau River appear on a 1737 map done by someone named Verendrye, according to one county history by visitnwminnesota.com. An 1814 map done by Thompson changed the name to Reed River. That was the English translation of the French name for the river, which in turn was the French translation of the Ojibwe name for the river: “Ga-shashagunushkokawi-sibi or the-place-of-rushes-river, or briefly, Rush River.” Somehow, the long lost Roseau got naming rights. How about changing the name to Ga-shashagunushkokawi-sibi County?

Some counties are named by some of the early Europeans to come to this place, such as:

  • Hennepin County, named for Father Hennepin, who is said to have brought Christianity to the area. (We have written a bit on Father Hennepin already as it relates to a painting in the Minnesota State Capitol showing the Father at the falls he named after St. Anthony.)
  • Le Seuer County, named for French Explorer Pierre Charles Le Seuer, who made his money on furs, but also tried (unsuccessfully) to cash on on what he thought was copper in the blue dirt of what is now Blue Earth County.
  • Martin County, named for Henry Martin, whose claim to fame was, according to the Association of Minnesota Counties, that he came here from Connecticut in 1856 and bought lots and lots of land.

Here are some of the troubling county names.

Cass County: It’s named after Lewis Cass. Here are a few things to know about Cass, according to Wikipedia. 1) He was Michigan’s territorial governor. His connection to Minnesota was an 1820 expedition where he was supposed to identify the Mississippi River’s headwaters. He misidentified the source as the lake which now bears his name: Cass Lake. (It took another 12 years to identify the source as Lake Itasca.) 2) Cass was Secretary of War under President Andrew Jackson, and played a major role in carrying out the President’s Indian Removal Policy. This resulted in the brutal expulsion of thousands of Native Americans from their homelands in the southeast to barren lands west of the Mississippi.

Pope County: Named for General John Pope, an explorer and soldier. According to Wikipedia, Pope suffered a bad defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run. He was sent packing west, where he commanded troops in the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862. “He engendered controversy by calling for better and more humane treatment of Native Americans, but author Walter Donald Kennedy notes that he also said ‘It is my purpose to utterly exterminate the Sioux’ and planned to make a ‘final settlement with all these Indians.'”

Ramsey County: It is named for Alexander Ramsey, Minnesota’s first Territorial Governor and the second Governor after statehood.  Ramsey was instrumental in the 1851 Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, in which the Dakota ceded most of their land. The treaty set the course for the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862. The Mitchell Hamline Law Review article: Minnesota Bounty on Dakota Men During the U.S. Dakota War notes how after the war, Ramsey authorized bounties for Dakota scalps. It started by offering volunteer scouts a daily wage plus $25 per scalp. Later, citizens were able to claim $200 for proof they killed a Dakota. This system lasted until 1868, six years after the war ended, when its constitutionality was challenged.

Sibley County: It is named for Henry Sibley, a partner in the American Fur Company who later became Minnesota’s first governor. Sibley’s first wife was Dakota, and they had a daughter. That relationship ended and Sibley remarried a prominent white woman. He placed his Dakota daughter with a missionary family. He played a prominent role, along with Ramsey, in negotiating the  1851 Treaty of Traverse des Sioux. As his fur company was in debt, the treaty became a financial windfall for Sibley. The government tricked the Dakota people into signing a second paper that let Sibley and other traders make claims against the treaty payments for debts they claimed they were owed by individual Dakotas.  As a result, Sibley received more money from the initial treaty payments than all of the Dakota combined, according to a story by This American Life. Of the initial $305,000 cash payment, Sibley got $66,000, and the Dakota got $60,000, less than 20 percent of the total. Seven years later, Sibley would become governor.

Stevens County: Named for Isaac Ingalis Stevens. He has a thin connection to Minnesota; he surveyed the rail route from Puget Sound to St. Paul. More significantly, he was the first governor of the Washington Territory. According to Wikipedia, he was controversial “for his role in compelling the Native American tribes of Washington Territory by intimidation and force to sign treaties that ceded most of their lands and rights to Stevens’ government.” Some of the treaties included Treaty of Medicine Creek, Treaty of Hellgate, and Quinault Treaty. He also had an ego. The Association of Minnesota Counties said Stevens requested Stevens County be named for him “seven years after a clerical error denied him that honor in 1855 for Stearns County.”

[Update: Renville County: Named for Joseph Renville, whose father was a French Canadian fur trader and mother was a Dakota woman named Miniyuhe, the Wikipedia entry said. Renville was an interpreter between white people and the Dakota; he also helped translate Christian texts into Dakota. “The hymnal Dakota dowanpi kin, was ‘composed by J. Renville and sons, and the missionaries of the A.B.C.F.M.’ and was published in Boston in 1842. Its successor, Dakota Odowan, first published with music in 1879, has been reprinted many times and is in use today.”

Did we miss an important county name story? Send us your comments!

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