Newspaper Ad Questions Origin of Lake Calhoun Name

Newspaper Ad Questions Origin of Lake Calhoun Name Photo: KSTP/File

December 14, 2017 05:48 PM

A prominently-placed ad in the Star Tribune Thursday questioned the origins of Lake Calhoun's name.

The ad, placed by the organization Save Lake Calhoun, which opposes the lake's rechristening to the Dakota Bde Maka Ska, highlights a claim made in an 1890 Minneapolis Tribune editorial that the lake was named not for "the Great Nullifier" John C. Calhoun, but "in honor of a Lieutenant Calhoun of early days."


The Hennepin County Board last month approved the name change. The move came after objections to the fact former vice president and secretary of war John C. Calhoun was involved with treaties that removed Native Americans from their land. There were also objections to the fact Calhoun was a slave owner, and an ardent supporter of the practice.

An archive check on the Star Tribune website confirms the Lt. Calhoun name claim was written in the newspaper on Dec. 21, 1890. It was part of an editorial annotating the previous day's Minneapolis park board meeting.

RELATED: County Board Approves Name Change for Lake Calhoun

But a Star Tribune article of June 28, 2015, written by Ben Welter, referenced the same Dec. 21, 1890 editorial, and suggested the writer probably conflated John C. Calhoun with "the leader of an Army unit dispatched in 1823 to survey the region."

Welter's story says the editorial writer in 1890 "incorrectly reported that the lake was named for a 'Lieutenant Calhoun of early days.'" 

A page 16 story from the same 1890 edition mentions C. M. Loring, then-president of the Board of Park Commissioners, said that the lake had been named for a Lt. Calhoun of the Army, and that Lake Harriet had been named for the lieutenant's wife. 

According to a March 13, 1904 Star Tribune column on the naming of lakes Calhoun and Harriet, the latter was named for "Mrs. Harriet Leavenworth, wife of Lt. Col. Henry Leavenworth." The column cites a volume pulled from the Minnesota Historical Society called "Floral Home: or First Years of Minnesota," written by Harriet E. Bishop and published in 1857. 

Asked to comment, Adam Smith, of Save Lake Calhoun, said via email there is powerful evidence the lake is not named for John C. Calhoun, though he did not provide anything beyond the references in the1890 edition.

But there are potential Lieutenant Calhouns for whom the lake could have been named.

Perhaps the most well-known is James Calhoun, a lieutenant in the Union Army from Cincinnati who died in the battle of Little Bighorn, at least according to Wikipedia and the Jefferson County Library History Rescue.

But he wasn't born until 1845, and the lake was already named on maps by then. So he's out.

A nephew of John C. Calhoun's was a Lieutenant Calhoun who graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1850. His name was William Ransom Calhoun. But, again, he's too young.

And then there's the 'astronomist' James Calhoun, who was a part of the expedition to the region in 1823 led by Stephen Long.

RELATED: Park Board Votes to Change Name of Lake Calhoun

The astronomist Calhoun was also a nephew to the secretary of war and later vice president James C. Calhoun, who ordered the expedition (the elder Calhoun also ordered Long to lead an 1817 military expedition to the area that led to the establishment of Fort Snelling, according to Hennepin County Library archivist Ted Hathaway). 

Hard evidence on the origin of the lake's name is hard to come by. But Long's journal from that 1823 expedition perhaps provides the most accurate scenario for how the lake was named.

Long's notes were turned into a book called the "Narrative of an Expedition to the Source of St. Peter's River" published in 1825.

In chapter seven, page 315, Long wrote "A Body of water, which is not represented upon any map that we know of, has been discovered in this vicinity within a few years, and has received the name Lake Calhoun, in honour of the Secretary at War. Its dimensions are small." 

He described the lake as a few miles above a cascade that falls into the Mississippi River, which likely is Minnehaha Falls. 

Asked about the 'false narrative' referenced in the ad in Thursday's Star Tribune, Smith responded via email:

"It's a false narrative to say that those who want to keep Lake Calhoun are honoring a racist and therefore are white supremacist," his email read. "We don't even truly know for sure who the lake is named after, and EVERYONE who supports keeping Lake Calhoun has divorced Lake Calhoun from the origin of the name, regardless of who the lake was named after 200 years ago; there are no plaques or memorials. It's just an iconic name.

"The false narrative is that the name change discussion is about racism and slavery. The truthful narrative is that the name change is all about reparations and guilt, regardless of how the name change affects the rest of us Minnesotans."

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will make the final decision to rename the lake. 


Michael Oakes

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