A lot of Minnesota’s lakes were named during the days of President Millard Fillmore (1850-1853.)  St. Paul’s Lake Phalen was named after a soldier at nearby Fort Snelling.

The Dakota and Ojibwe tribes claim naming rights to many of the state’s lakes.  Lake Bemidji is a shortened version of the Ojibwe name for it— “Lake Bemejigamaug,” which means a lake with water running through it. Other lakes with Native American names include Pimushe Lake, which means “sail with the wind,” and Kitchi Lake, which means “big lake.”

In 1851, Lake Minnetonka was originally named Peninsula Lake, but then Gov. Alexander Ramsey didn’t like it, so he changed it and combined two Native American words: “Minne” (water) and “Tonka” (big.)

Some lakes inspired Henry Longfellow’s 1855 poem “The Song of Hiawatha,” including Lake Hiawatha, Lake Nokomis and Minnehaha Creek.

Minnesota was also home to French traders — they named Lake Mille Lacs (“lacs” is Native American for “lake”).  Mille Lacs actually means “a thousand lakes.”

Other lakes have funny stories behind their names. “Lost Forty” was named when the first land surveyors in the area marked Coddington Lake about half a mile further northwest than it actually was.  This left behind 144 acres of pine forest in Itasca County which remained untouched by loggers.

Most common, though, are lakes named after a feature. Big Lake is so named because it’s big, and Fish Lake is named because, well, there are a lot of fish in it. A lake might be named Sandy Lake due to the sand along its shore or the sand along its bottom.

Many know that the state’s deepest lake is Lake Superior, which reaches a maximum depth of 1,290 feet. The deepest inland natural lake is Lake Saganaga in Cook County, which reaches a maximum depth of 240 feet.

Minnesota’s 10 largest lakes within its borders are:
Red Lake (both Upper and Lower): 288,800 acres
Mille Lacs Lake: 132,516 acre
Leech Lake: 111,527 acres
Lake Winnbigoshish: 58,544 acres
Lake Vermilion: 40,557 acres
Lake Kabetogama: 25,760 acres
Mud Lake (Marshall County): 23,700 acres
Cass Lake: 15,596 acres
Lake Minnetonka: 14,004 acres
Otter Tail Lake: 13,725 acres


►Cutfoot Sioux: Legend has it that in 1748, Native American tribes were at war over large parts of northern Minnesota. The Sioux came from the west to try and drive the Ojibwe or Chippewa (history is a little muddy) from the lake lands. There were several bloody battles near the lakes, and a few of them were named Battle Lake.  Following a specific battle, the Ojibwe discovered a lone Sioux at the brink of death.  He was battle weary, and his foot was nearly severed.  They named the lake Cutfoot Sioux after this Sioux brave.

►Dead Lake: In 1843, about 40 Ojibway women, children and older men were killed by a war party of Sioux along the eastern part of what is now called Dead Lake.  The lake and nearby river were named “Tchibegumigo” or “House of the Dead” after this event.

►Jack the Horse Lake: In the heart of the Chippewa National Forest near Marcell is Jack the Horse Lake. In the late 1800s, loggers used iced skid roads to pull huge loads of timber out of the forest — a wet, sticky snowfall could grind the sledge to a halt. One day, a horse died pulling a load out of the woods as a blizzard was blowing in. Wanting to beat the snowstorm, a member of the crew stepped into the empty harness and helped pull the sledge to the landing. That man became “Jack the Horse,” and the lake was named after him.

►White Bear Lake, which means “habitation of Great Spirit,” got its name from a Native American legend. The legend says that a Sioux woman fell in love with a Chippewa brave. The lovers usually met on nearby Manitou Island, and one day, as the brave arrived at the island, he saw a white bear attacking his love. He rushed to her rescue.  When the maiden was freed, she ran to her father, the Sioux chief, for help. Upon their return to the island, they saw the brave sink his knife into the bear, but it was too late. They were both dead. As they watched, the spirits of the brave and the bear rose above their bodies. It is said that as night falls, the spirits of the bear and the brave wander the island searching for each other.


Minnesota’s waters flow outward in three directions: north to Hudson Bay in Canada, east to the Atlantic Ocean and south to the Gulf of Mexico. Minnesota is also home to the Headwaters of the Mississippi, which begins as a trickle of water in Itasca State Park.

Known as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” Minnesota is actually home to 11,842 lakes (of 10 acres or more.)  A 1968 statewide survey found 15,291 lake basins, of which over 3,000 were dry. If all lake basins over 2.5 acres were counted, Minnesota would have over 21,000 lakes.

All but four counties — Mower, Olmsted, Pipestone and Rock — have at least one natural lake.  Ottertail County in northwestern Minnesota has the most lakes of any county in the country, with a total of 1,046 lakes. Combined, the state’s lakes make up 44,926 miles of shoreline, which is more than the combined lake AND coastal shorelines of California.

With that many lakes, there are bound to be some repeat names.  There are more than 200 Mud lakes, 150 Long lakes and 120 Rice lakes. Other common lake names include Bass, Round, Horseshoe, Twin, Island, Johnson and Spring.

Then there are those lake names that make you stop and ask yourself: “Where did they come up with that?”


With so many lakes in the state, believe it or not, there are still lakes without names. So how do you go about naming a lake?

Today, lakes are named a bit more strategically. To name a lake, you have to obtain signatures from 15 registered voters. Then the county board votes on it, followed by the DNR Commission, and then the federal board. Once a lake name passes those hurdles, it’s officially named. In Minnesota, a lake gets a name 1-3 times per year.


Submitted by: Caitlin Koenig

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