Have you ever heard the name Lake Itasca? It’s a relatively small, not particularly deep glacial lake located in Minnesota. It also happens to be the headwaters of the Mississippi River.
Minnesota is both traditional Ojibwe and Dakota territory (Indian Affairs-State of Minnesota, 2007), so it would seem to make sense that Itasca is a name of Indigenous origin. However, Lake Itasca is actually a great example of why we need to be very cautious when working on place names and their meanings.
In 1820, a survey team was sent out to explore and map the area between Detroit and the Mississippi River. One of their goals was to locate the source of the Mississippi. Among those on the team was Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, a geologist who would later become an Indian agent for the United States government. It took two years, but Schoolcraft eventually found the source of the Mississippi with the help of the “local” Indigenous folks. According to Schoolcraft’s (1834) Narrative of an Expedition Through the Upper Mississippi to Itasca Lake: The Actual Source of This River, one of these local men, Ozaawindib, guided him straight to the source and even provided its name:
o- directional: go somewhere to do something
(Ojibwe People’s Dictionary, 2018).
Schoolcraft then made a decision, a decision which he had likely thought about for some time. He renamed the lake, and he used Latin to do it. Now Itasca itself is not a Latin word, but Schoolcraft seems to have used two specific Latin roots and then stuck them together to form a name which, he hoped, sounded Indigenous:
Itasfrom veritas, truth
Cafrom caput, head
After Schoolcraft’s journey ended, he became an married an Anishnaabek woman and became an Indian Agent in Michigan. He began to learn Anishnaabemowin and document ethnographic details of the Anishnaabek. Unfortunately, he also continued to create names and pass them off as Indigenous. No one really questioned his facts or translations until people started taking a closer look at his book Aboriginal Place Names of New York (1945). They started to realize that his morphology (basically, the bits and pieces of sounds that make a word, a word) was off—he was using a Western dialect of Ojibwe to translate the place names of the Eastern Ojibwe, and even names that weren’t even related to Ojibwe (like the languages of the Haudenosaunee, or Six Nations). Then they began to realize that there were no other documentations, or even mentions of, some of the names he wrote about. Not even the Indigenous people had heard of these names.
For about 70 years, Schoolcraft fooled a lot of folks. But in the end, he provided some valuable lessons: first, just because someone says “This name means this!” doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s true. If you really want to know what a place name means, you will have to go through a very precise method to determine the truth, and it will take both time and knowledge. You will have to know about the language and culture of the people that named it as well as the people who use(d) it. You will also have to know about the geography, landscape and waterscape. Above all, you will have to be very cautious about folk etymologies, the urban legends of place naming. And even then, you might not ever find out what a name means!
This blog is part of my journey through place names and it is specifically designed to be accessible to the public so that you can also learn about the connections between language and land.
Warren Upham’s (2001) Minnesota Place Names puts forth the claim that Schoolcraft’s Lake Itasca is derived from the Latin -Itas and ca-; Ruttenbur (1906) went so far as to claim of a separate name, “It is suspected that he coined the name, as he did many others.” Ruttenber, E.M. (1906). Footprints of the red man: Indian geographical names in the valley of Hudson’s river, the valley of the Mohawk, and on the Delaware their location and the probable meaning of some of them. Newburgh, NY: New York State Historical Association. Upham, W. (2001). Minnesota geographic names: their origin and historic significance. 3rd ed. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society.