“Minnesota Place Names: A Geographic Encyclopedia,” which weighs in at 718 pages (including a 67-page index of place names), was first written by Warren Upham in 1920 under the title “Minnesota geographic names: their origin and historic significance” . The Minnesota Historical Society published it and then put out revised and expanded editions in 1969 and again in 2001. The ’69 edition contained 15,000 separate entries of names and researchers bumped that up to 20,000 for the 2001 edition.
Among those 20,000 entries are the names, and the stories behind the names, of every township and county in the state. For example, if you live in Cottonwood County, you will likely know your county is named after the river of that name. What you may not know is Cottonwood is the English translation for the Dakota word waraju, which is what those first peoples called the river. The French called it by the same name; only they said it in their language, Riviera aux Liards.
There is more to the story of the history of the name of the place called Cottonwood County and there are similar stories for the other 86 Minnesota county names. What’s important to remember is this book is not a history of Chisago County, for example, but simply a history of its name. It’s worth noting that Chisago is two syllables of a three-syllable Ojibway word (Ki-chi-sago) which is what those first people called that area’s largest lake.
The book is organized alphabetically by county. Within each county are all its townships, which total 2,275 of them statewide. Goodhue County, for example, has 21 townships. Goodhue County’s Featherstone Township, to give another example, “derived its name from William Featherstone who, with a large family settled there in 1855,” the Encyclopedia writes. “A post office was located there in 1858 – 63,” the book continues.
The Encyclopedia catalogues hundreds, if not thousands, of these short-lived post offices sprinkled across Minnesota in places that continue today as small villages or crossroads with a house or two. But some of these places have disappeared altogether and their names may only be remembered by a few elders or forgotten entirely – except in the historical record of the Encyclopedia. There was, for example, a post office in a place called Harlin in Jackson County from 1892 to 1900. The place was in sections one and two, and was even platted in 1888. Does anyone in Jackson County remember anything about this place?
Some of the post offices, such as Elm in Enterprise Township in Jackson County, are just referred to as farmers post offices. The Elm post office was open from 1894 – 1901.
Elm is lucky in that record indicates roughly where it was. Egly, in Todd County, served as a post office from 1880 to ’84. But neither Upham nor the researchers that followed him could determine where Egly was. There is a hint in Todd County’s Streams and Lakes section (each county has one) because there is an Egly Creek in the north central townships of the county.
So, what is this 102-year-old book for? In my case, I learned more about my township and county by reading the sections dedicated to them. Knowing the names of places – even those that no longer exist – makes me more at home here. But the book has historical and research value as well. According to the Minnesota Historical Society it is “a rich reference for historians, linguists, geographers, folklorists, genealogists, and those interested in the origins of place names.”
Several years ago, Erik Moore, head of the University of Minnesota Archives, was cataloging the Department of Botany’s photographs of the flora of Minnesota which were taken between 1899-1903; and the Bell Museum of Natural History glass plate negatives, the first portion of which is dated 1898-1900. He found that a number of the photographs were described as having been taken at places no longer on current maps. He gives Holmes Station as an example. It’s not on the maps, but Upham has it in Polk County in the Red River Valley.
“If I ever lost my reference copy of this book, or if the companion website ever became inaccessible, my work on Exploring Minnesota’s Natural History grant would be extremely curtailed,” Moore wrote.
The web site is not currently available; but the hard cover book can be found in your public library, book stores, or the Minnesota Historical Society Press.