Minnesota, known as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” is a Midwestern state with a name rooted in the language of its earliest inhabitants. But what exactly does “Minnesota” mean and how did this landlocked state get a name associated with water?
The name “Minnesota” comes from the Dakota and Ojibwe words for “sky-tinted water” or “muddy water.” Native Americans originally used the phrase to describe the Minnesota River, one of the state’s major waterways.
There are a few theories about the more specific meanings behind the Dakota and Ojibwe words:
- The “sky-tinted” meaning may refer to the pale blue color of Minnesota’s lakes under certain weather conditions from minerals in the water.
- The “muddy” meaning likely describes the river’s brown, sediment-rich waters from seasonal flooding and erosion along the river’s banks.
- Some translations suggest the name means “somewhat cloudy” referring to the haziness or foam that develops on the river’s surface around rapids.
Naming the Minnesota River
The Dakota tribe, which has lived in Minnesota for over 1,000 years, did not keep written records so it’s unclear exactly when the Minnesota River became known as “Mní Sota.”
But the name, meaning “sky-tinted water,” was well-established by the time French explorers like Pierre Le Sueur first encountered the region in the late 1600s.
The French gave the river another name – St. Peter’s River (“Riviere St. Pierre”) – believing they had discovered it on the feast day of St. Pierre. But the Dakota name persisted.
According to the StarTribune, one of the earliest surviving written references to Minnesota appears on a 1702 French map of the Mississippi River area, which dubs the Minnesota River “Ouatebamenisouté ou Riviere St. Pierre.” This is the French interpretation of Mní Sota Wakpa — the latter word meaning “river” in Dakota, according to “Mni Sota Makoce.”
Establishing the Minnesota Territory
In 1846, Wisconsin Territorial Delegate Morgan Martin first proposed the idea of a “Minasota” Territory to Congress.
While some representatives suggested alternate names like “Itaska,” Congress ultimately passed the bill in 1849 establishing the “Minnesota” Territory. The state of Minnesota, created 9 years later, adopted the same name.
The Lasting Significance of Minnesota’s Name
So while Minnesota is now more associated with lakes, its name recognizes the indigenous people who called the land home for centuries before European settlement.
The name connects the state’s natural beauty – those hazy blue lakes – with the Dakota language that originally shaped its identity.