Calhoun not the first lake with a controversial name

Lake Mendoza aka Lake Calhoun
Lake Calhoun, c. 1908. Lake Calhoun was also known as Lake Medoza and Lake Mendoza.
Courtesy of Library of Congress

Like Lake Calhoun, other bodies of water in Minnesota have drawn efforts to change their names.

After the shooting deaths of nine people at a black church in Charleston, S.C., drew attention to the continued use of Confederate symbols, an online petition to rename Lake Calhoun garnered more than 4,000 signatures.

It's an effort to stop honoring John C. Calhoun, a South Carolina statesman, former vice president, senator and secretary of state who was also well known for promoting slavery in the 1800s.

Minnesota has several lakes that have been renamed for various reasons over the years, but a few stand out.

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Until 1977, two Minnesota lakes went by the vile epithet known as the N-word.

According to a database from the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, Anoka County officials requested to change the offensive moniker of one lake to "Niger" in 1977. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources denied the request because it failed to meet "the intended purpose of eliminating the derogatory connotations of the existing name."

The DNR suggested using "Derigan," without explaining why the name was appropriate. Two months later, the county passed a resolution to rename it Burns Lake. It was approved in 1980.

The official name of Cross River Lake in northeastern Minnesota was the N-word before 1941. But it's not clear how widely used that name was.

At the time of the name change request in 1941, the U.S. Forest Service said the name Cross River Lake had already been used on maps since 1928 and was "generally accepted by people."

State climatologist Pete Boulay, who handles name change requests for natural features throughout the state, said it's typical for local lakegoers to use something other than official records.

"I'm not sure how [much in] common usage that old name was," he said of the former names of Burns and Cross River lakes. "It might have been the official name but I'm not sure what the local name that was in use and that's the case with some features."

About 270 miles west of Cross River Lake, a different name given to lakes, ponds and cities offended the Native American population.

A group of high school students launched a campaign in the 1990s to eliminate the word "squaw" from all geographic features. Their efforts convinced the Minnesota Legislature to pass a special law in 1995 that requires the DNR commissioner to rename all bodies of water containing the derogatory term.

The law removed the name from 19 geographic places but not civic features, something the students were also hoping to accomplish.

Minnesota law requires a tiered public process for the renaming of lakes and bodies of water. It starts at the county board level with a petition signed by at least 15 registered voters, who preferably live near the lake. If the county board approves the petition, the decision then moves to the DNR for consideration. The DNR sends its requests to the federal Board of Geographic Names for a final signature.

The U.S. Board of Geographic Names was created in 1890 and modified by public law in 1947 to maintain uniform geographic names throughout the country. The board addressed names after the Civil War when inconsistencies and contradictions became a problem for surveyors, map makers and scientists.

State law allows the DNR commissioner to sign off on name change requests for lakes in Minnesota except those that have existed for 40 years or more. Boulay said it's not clear who has authority to change a name in existence for longer than that time.

But he said the time limit only applies to requests from county boards. There are many cases where old lake names have changed with a county public hearing and followed by a decision from a DNR commissioner. The most recent example is the change from Mud Lake to Cuyuna Lake in Crow Wing County last August.

Burns Lake and Cross River Lake both went through that tiered process in the 1940s and 1980s.

"It's much better to go through the statute process than try to pass a [special] law," Boulay said. "Because passing a law means we are, as a state, trying to tell the locals what to do."

The online petition to rename Lake Calhoun asks the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board for action.

Although it doesn't have authority to do so, the board said it recognizes the issue's significance and plans to look into steps needed to rename the lake.

"While we know it is not something we can do out of hand, we are supportive of finding the best pathway for a citizens initiative to follow," president Liz Wielinski said in a statement. "We will have the superintendent report back no later than the first meeting of September."