Names matter. They articulate the social geography of a community. They declare who is remembered and who is revered.
And this is why the body of water now known as Lake Calhoun needs a new name. Or actually an old name that can help us understand the complex racial history of the land that became Minneapolis.
One of the jewels in the crown of the Minneapolis Parks, Lake Calhoun got its current name from a team of U.S. Army surveyors mapping the military reservation around the newly established Fort Snelling in the early 19th century. When they came to a lake that local people called Bde Maka Ska, which translates from Dakota to mean “white bank lake,” they paid no mind to established nomenclature. Instead, they designated the lake as “Calhoun” on their map to honor their patron, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun. This move planted the American flag on the region’s cultural terrain. It also curried favor with a powerful politician who would ultimately serve in both houses of Congress and as Vice President and Secretary of State. In this way, a South Carolinian was written into the landscape of a place he would never visit.
Over the 20 years that followed, John C. Calhoun established himself as the nation’s most passionate proponent of race-based slavery. While many of his contemporaries defended slavery as a necessary evil, Calhoun declared that race-based bondage was “a good.” In a 1837 speech he asserted that “never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually.”
In the officers’ quarters at Fort Snelling, Calhoun’s fiery oration was likely met with an amen chorus. Many officers owned slaves, since the U.S. Army provided a financial incentive for them to embrace the institution of human bondage. They drew bonus pay if they employed a “private servant,” a policy that encouraged them to buy and hold slaves at military installations across the country. Slavery was forbidden in the Northwest Territories, which included the land of the Dakota. But laws did not change the conditions for Courtney, Eliza, Mary, Louisa, William, Peter, some of the men and women we know labored in slavery at Fort Snelling.
Their stories are largely forgotten by Minnesotans, who think the bloody history of slavery hangs only around the neck of the South. But a group of Minneapolitans are challenging how our community pays homage to white supremacy. Mike Spangenberg started a petition on Change.org that calls on Minneapolis Park Commissioners to remove the Calhoun name from this Minneapolis lake. This petition builds on the efforts of Park Commissioner Brad Bourn, who has been demanding this change for years.
Spangenberg was inspired by the move in Alabama, South Carolina and Mississippi to remove the Confederate battle flag from public buildings. If South Carolina can discard a bitterly contested symbol of white supremacy, Lake Calhoun can become Lake Bde Maka.
Peeling away the Calhoun appellation would honor the early Minnesotans whose names have been lost to history. Courtney, Eliza, Mary, Louisa, William, Peter would have likely decried any attempt to describe their conditions of labor at Fort Snelling as “civilized” or intellectually elevated. And restoring the original name of the lake provides an opportunity for Minneapolitans to recognize that they live in the homeland of the Dakota.
This 1835 map drawn by Indian agent Lawrence Taliaferro shows the Dakota village on the shores of Bde Maka Ska. Led by Mahpiya Wicasta, or Cloud Man, this settlement was an agricultural experiment that melded Native American lifeways with farming practices championed by American settlers. This was the place where the Dakota language was first systematically recorded on paper by missionaries Samuel and Gideon Pond.
Though successful in many ways, the village was abandoned in 1839 after hostilities flared between the Anishanabe and Dakota. Now there is a small marker to the Pond brothers but nothing to indicate the historic presence of the Dakota people.
Proponents of retaining the Calhoun name argue that it illuminates the sometimes uncomfortable history of the land that became Minneapolis. I say that we can do better. We need a name for our urban commons that inspires us to imagine an inclusive community that is ready to grapple with the histories of race that lie submerged in the city of lakes.
The Historyapolis Project seeks to bring fresh attention to the history of Minneapolis and is working to unearth stories that can explain how the city took shape. For more details visit www.historyapolis.com. This project has been made possible by the Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, which is administered by the Minnesota Historical Society. Find it on FB at www.facebook.com/TheHistoryapolisProject