February 22, 2017

Photo by Bart-Flentje

This is the Land of 10,000 Lakes, or 15,291 lakes according to a 1968 state survey. The prevalence of lakes in Minnesota has generated many repeat names. For example, there are more than 200 Mud Lakes, 150 Long Lakes, and 120 Rice Lakes. So how did the lakes end up with duplicate names, and when and how were they named? We launched a full investigation to find the origin of northern Minnesota geographic names!

A good number of Minnesota lakes were named more than a century and-a-half ago, during the Millard Fillmore administration by the Dakota and Ojibwe tribes. An example would be “Bemidji, a shortened version of the Ojibwe name for the lake “Bemejigamaug,” meaning a lake with water running through it. More of the Native American heritage can be found through northern Minnesota locations such as Pimushe Lake (which means, “sail with the wind”), and Kitchi Lake (meaning “big lake”).

In other names, the nordic heritage can be found. East of Bemidji is Frohn Township, established in 1898 and named “Frohn” by a Norwegian settler, which means “pleasant view” in Norwegian.

Some names offer us a glimp into amusing stories in the past. Ten Lake Township, containing Lake Andrusia and parts of Big Lake and Cass Lake, got its name when someone started counting the lakes and stopped at ten. Minnesota’s hidden gem, the “Lost Forty” was named fittingly when the first Minnesota land surveyors marked Coddington Lake about a half mile further northwest than it actually lies, leaving behind 144 acres of virgin pine untouched by loggers.

Commonly, lakes are named after a feature. A big lake is often named Big Lake, and a lake with a lot of fish is often named Fish Lake.

And how does a lake get a name nowadays? First, signatures of 15 registered voters has to be collected. The county board then votes on it, then the DNR Commissioner, then the federal board. After that, a lake has a name, officially. This happens one to three times a year in modern Minnesota.

Are you a fan of interesting tidbits from the past? Visit the Beltrami County History Center in downtown Bemidji inside a restored railroad depot. The exhibit features historic displays and interactive touchscreen stations, highlighting Ojibwe history, fur trade, logging, family-friendly entertainment, and much more!

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