What's in a Name

For more than 150 years before the name "Minnesota" was officially adopted by congress in 1852, the river was also known as the St. Pierre or St. Peter River. It is commonly accepted that it was named to honor Pierre C. Le Sueur. This is questionable since the river was so-named prior to Le Sueur's famous copper mining expedition up the Blue Earth in 1700. One early reference suggests the original name was sans Pierre, without rock. This definition certainly fits the lower reaches, which were explored first.

Much more discussion and debate has surrounded the meaning of the word Minnesota. Sky-tinted (sota) water (minne) seems to be the most widely accepted definition. This debate is understandable when placed in the context of promoting the virtues of a young state, or even a 135-year-old one. For our purposes, however, it is much more important to get to a greater truth. The specific meaning of the word is ultimately unimportant. What is important is knowing that the erosion problem in the Minnesota River is not man-made and was here before us. Read the definitions given by those who were here before the pristine landscape had been ravaged, and make up your own mind.

"Its waters are transparent, and present a light blue tint on looking upon the stream. Hence the Indian name of Wate-paw-mene'-Sauta, or Clear-water-river." (Henry R. Schoolcraft-1820) note: 12 years later he referred to "that addled aspect of the water" termed sota.

"The river is called in the Dacota language Watapan Menesota, which means 'the river of turbid water.'" (William H. Keating-1823) He adds, "The name given to the St. Peter is derived from its turbid appearance, which distinguishes it from the Mississippi, whose waters are very clear at the confluence. It has been erroneously stated by some authors to signify clear water."

"The Indian name of the St. Peter's is 'Minnay Sotor,' or 'Turbid Water'; the water, in fact, looking as if whitish clay had been dissolved in it." (George W. Featherstonhaugh-1834)

"Minisota, turbid water, water not clear in which objects cannot be discerned, not transparent." (Samuel W. Pond)

"Some would render it 'clear water,' though it rightly signifies slightly turbid or whitish water." (Rev. Thomas S. Williamson)

"Sky-tinted water--neither white nor blue, but the peculiar appearance of the sky on certain days." (Gideon H. Pond)

Joseph N. Nicollet suggested the term "bleared," Dr. Warren Upham used "Somewhat clouded," and others hold resolutely to "clear," or even "sky-blue" water.

"For our purpose, the correct definition of "Minnesota" is almost meaningless. It is enough to know that, 160 years ago, the meaning, like the river itself, was unclear. If St. Peter's River was transparent, as the MPCA would now have us believe, no one would have questioned Schoolcraft's first report, and there would have been no debate.