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Time Passages: How Minnesota counties were named

The shape of America’s states and names of counties have many stories behind them, as in Minnesota where the outline of our state is believed to be formed like a sheaf of wheat.

Of course, my all-time favorite is the dancing Hamm’s bear mascot who always used to remind us in advertising promotions about its beer coming from Minnesota’s “Land of Sky Blue Waters.” Those old Hamm’s flowing water motion beer signs that used to hang behind the local bars are still the best.

Reminiscent of the early 13 colonies, there actually were nine counties formed in Minnesota even before it became a state. In October of 1849 the original nine included Benton, Dahkotah, Itasca, Ramsey, Mankahta, Pembina, Wabasha, Washington and Wahnata.

When Minnesota was admitted to the union as a state in 1857, 57 of the present 87 counties were formed. The last county to be created was Lake of the Woods County in 1923.

The names of many of the counties honor the long history of exploration, military and political leaders in this state. Over 10 counties recognize the state’s various Native American tribes, and another 15 are named after physical or geographic features, like rivers or lakes.

In the Sr. Perspective River edition readership area, Blue Earth County was named after the bluish-green earth found in the region. Brown County was named after Joseph Renshaw Brown, who was a member of Minnesota’s territorial legislature (1854-55) and a prominent pioneer.

Renville County is for Joseph Renville, interpreter and translator for the Dakota Indians. Renville County has the distinction of bordering a total of nine other counties, the most in Minnesota along with Beltrami.

Nicollet County is for Joseph Nicollet, who was a map maker of the upper Mississippi River. Sibley County is for Henry Hastings Sibley, who was the first governor of Minnesota (1858-60).

LeSueur County is for Pierre-Charles LeSueur, who was a French fur trader and early explorer of the Minnesota River Valley. McLeod County was also named in honor of a pioneer fur trader-Martin McLeod, who became president of the Territorial Legislative Council.

Meeker County is for Bradley B. Meeker, territorial legislator, Minnesota Supreme Court Justice and charter member of the Minnesota Historical Society. Wright County was named in honor of New York statesman and governor Silas Wright, while Carver County was for explorer and author, Capt. Jonathan Carver.

Waseca is a Dakota word (Wasecha) for Waseca County’s rich, plentiful and fertile soil. Another explorer/author was chosen for naming Hennepin County in Franciscan missionary Fr. Louis Hennepin, who was also credited for naming St. Anthony Falls in the Mississippi River.

A soldier was honored for Scott County in honor of General Winfield Scott, who served in the War of 1812, Mexican War and also was commander in chief of the U.S. Army for 20 years from 1841-1861.

Some other interesting county names that caught my eye include Lac qui Parle which is a French phrase meaning “lake which talks.” Clay County was named for Henry Clay, who ran for the presidency several times and was a Kentucky statesman who served as the nation’s secretary of state from 1825-29.

Other military names go to Cook County, named for Civil War veteran Major Michael Cook, who also was a territorial and state senator from 1857-1862. In addition, Pope County is for John Pope, who was an Army general during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. Wilkin County is for Alexander Wilkin, a Minnesota politician and soldier killed in the Civil War. Six Minnesota counties are named after U.S. presidents – Lincoln, Washington, Fillmore, Jackson, Polk and Grant. Newspaper editors/printers carried some political weight in those days too as James Goodhue and David Olmsted were honored with Olmsted becoming the first mayor of St. Paul as well.

Native American county names come in the form of Kandiyohi, which in the Sioux language means “buffalo fish.” Pipestone is, of course, for the sacred Dakota quarry of red pipestone rock found in that county. Wabasha County was named after M’dewakanton Dakota Indian Chief Wabasha III. Winona County is for Wee-No-Nah, cousin of Chief Wabasha.

Probably one of the biggest naming ego trips of all goes to Isaac Stevens, for Stevens County. He was a statesman who actually requested the county to be named for him, seven years after a clerical error denied him that honor in 1855 for Stearns County.

Too bad we don’t have a Bear County named after that dancing Hamm’s beer bear.

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