Calhoun, Mud Lake, and Pig’s Eye: A Brief History of Renaming Minnesota Places

Lake Calhoun is on its way to becoming Bde Maka Ska, but it’s only the latest in the history of Minnesota place renamings, which includes N-word lakes, Pig’s Eye, and a middle school almost named after Prince

Lake Calhoun/Bde Maka Ska sign
Photo Courtesy of Tony Webster/Flickr

What’s in a name?

Quite a bit, if the controversial Lake Calhoun is anything to go by. The name feels like a fixture on the Minneapolis landscape, but recent challenges have prompted a second look: Who, or what, is “Calhoun”?

As it turns out, John Calhoun was a senator from South Carolina and the seventh vice president of the United States. He was a strong advocate of slavery, and he authorized the building of Fort Snelling on land sacred to local native people. Because of this background, the Minneapolis Park Board recently voted to rename Lake Calhoun as Bde Maka Ska, Dakota for “White Earth Lake.” The name change isn’t final yet—the Hennepin County Board, the Minnesota DNR, and the U.S. Board of Geographic Names all have to approve the renaming before Lake Calhoun is a thing of the past. But it’s well on its way.

This change may seem needlessly disruptive to some. After all, many of us can’t stop calling the Mall of America’s amusement park Camp Snoopy, even ten years after the park and the Peanuts franchise parted ways due to licensing disagreements. People argue that no one remembers who Calhoun was, or that the change sanitizes history, or that people meeting for a bike ride around the Uptown lake will simply not start using the new name.

But this isn’t the first time a Minnesota location has been renamed. Take a brief look into the history of Minnesota renamings, and you’ll see why.

Several Minnesota lake names once contained outright racial slurs. Two lakes originally used the n-word, one of which was not renamed until 1980 (now Burns Lake near Elk River) despite a 1967 order from the Board on Geographic Names to remove this word from all place names. The same order resulted in Jap Lake becoming Paulson Lake, even though the original name came from the initials of pre-WWII residents James and Ann Paulson (JAP), with no connection to Japan.

A 1995 law ordered the renaming of Minnesota’s 19 Squaw Lakes and other waterways, since the term is considered offensive for its derogatory use against Native American women. These lakes have become Scout Camp Pond, Nightingale, Wahbegon, and others. The city by this name in Lake County, however, was exempt from the law, as a man-made structure, and has resisted changing the name used since its original post office was built in 1923. As a response, residents of the county unsuccessfully lobbied to rename their waterways “Politically Correct Creek and Bay.” 

Not all name changes come out of controversy, though. Some just want to see some naming variety in the state’s many, many lakes. There are nearly 200 Mud Lakes around the state, for example. Some of these uncreatively named bodies of water have become Mallard Pass (1991), Lake Camelot (2001), Lake Cuyuna (2014), and Golden Ponds (one in 1999 and another in 2007). Lake Minnetonka was known as Peninsula Lake until territorial governor Alexander Ramsey changed it in 1852, adapting a native term for “Big Water.”

And not all name change efforts are successful, as with Bullhead Lake (which remained the same after an attempt to make it a more inviting Bluebird Lake). An attempt to rename part of the Boundary Waters as Muppet Lake, following Jim Henson’s death in 1990, didn’t go through. You can read through the many attempts on the Minnesota DNR’s Public Waters Name Changes site records.

It’s not just lakes that get name updates, either. In June, the Minneapolis school board voted to redub Ramsey Middle School as Justice Page Middle School, honoring Minnesota’s first black Supreme Court justice and Vikings Hall of Famer Alan Page. The student-led campaign for change rose out of concerns about Alexander Ramsey’s involvement in the mass execution of 38 Dakota men during his term as state governor. Prince Rogers Nelson Middle School was also suggested as a replacement name.

The city of Savage was formerly Hamilton, after an Ontario city of the same name, but was renamed in 1904 to give it a more local connection. Though the word “savage” may raise eyebrows for its use as an anti-native slur, the city was actually renamed for Minnesota legend Marion Willis Savage. Savage trained the legendary racehorse Dan Patch, who set speed records that remained unbroken for more than 50 years.

And then there’s the big one: If not for the priest who founded what would become the Cathedral of St. Paul, the state capital might still be called Pig’s Eye, after Pierre “Pig’s Eye” Parrant, who founded a tavern in the early settlement and allegedly earned his nickname for being blind in one eye. Parrant’s tavern was a hub for local settlers, soldiers, and traders, but according to legend, Father Lucien Galtier was scandalized by Parrant’s reputation as a bootlegger and a troublemaker, and declared that the city should have the more wholesome name of St. Paul.

Calhoun is only the most recent (and prominent) name change, but it won’t be the last. Minnesota may yet see a Prince Middle School pop up in time. Just give it a few years.