Aitkin County, Minnesota

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Geographic Naming History

Source: Minnesota Geographic Names
by Warren Upham, Saint Paul, 1920
transcribed by Mary Kay Krogman


This county, established May 23, 1857, and organized June 30, 1871, was named for William Alexander Aitkin, a fur trader with the Ojibway Indians. He was born in Scotland in 1785; came from Edinburgh to America in his boyhood; and about the year 1802 came to the Northwest, being in the service of a trader named John Drew. Aitkin married into an influential Indian family; was soon a trader on his own account; and rapidly advanced until in 1831 he took charge of the Fond du Lac department of the American Fur Company, under John Jacob Astor, with headquarters at Sandy Lake, in this county, adjoining the east side of the Mississippi river. He died September 16, 1851, and is buried on the east bank of the Mississippi, opposite to the mouth of Swan river, in Morrison county, where he had a trading post during his last nine years, after 1842.

The name of Aitkin county was at first erroneously spelled Aiken, with which it is identical in pronunciation, and it was changed to its present spelling in 1872 by an act of the legislature.


Information of the origins of township names was received from Thomas R. Foley, Jr., real estate and insurance agent, and Carl E. Taylor, court commissioner, both of Aitkin, during a visit there in May, 1916.

AITKINtownship bears the same name as the county. Its village, also bearing this name, was founded in 1870, as a station of the Northern Pacific railroad, which in that year was built through the county; and the next year, in the county organization, it was made the county seat.

BAIN township, and its railway station of the same name, are in honor of William Bain, the hotel owner, who is one of the proprietors of the station site.

BALL BLUFF township should be Bald Bluff, being for the conspicuous morainic drift hill so named, having a bald grassy top without trees, in section 32 of this township, at the east side of the Mississippi.

BALSAM township is from two species of trees that are common or frequent in this county, the balsam fir and the balsam poplar.

BEAVER was named for beavers and their dams, found by the earliest settlers on the head streams of Split Rock river, in the south part of this township.

CLARK township had early settlers of this name, one being Frank Clark, who removed to McGregor.

CORNISH was named for Charles E. and Milo F. Cornish, settlers in section 34 of this township, coming from southern Minnesota.

DAVIDSON is for A. D. Davidson, senior partner in the Davidson and McRae Stock Farm Company, of Duluth, and later of Winnipeg, owners of numerous tracts of land in this township. He died in Rochester, Minn., April, 1916.

DICK township was named in honor of Miss Mildred Dick, assistant in the office of the county auditor.

ESQUAGAMAH township derived its name from Esquagamah lake, crossed by its east side. This is an Ojibway name, meaning the last lake, given to it as the last and most western in a series of three lakes lying mainly in Waukenabo township, which is named for the most eastern of these lakes.

FARM ISLAND township is from its lake of this name, having an island of 29 acres, on which the Ojibways formerly had large cultivated fields.

FLEMING township has Fleming lake, in section 22, named for an early settler there. Glen bears a euphonious name selected by its settlers at the time of the township organization. Haugen township is named in honor of Christopher G. Haugen, former sheriff of this county.

HAZELTON is for Cutler J. Hazelton, a former county commissioner whose homestead was on Pine lake in this township. Cutler post office, on the south side of this lake, was also named for him.

Nichols post office, beside Mille Lacs in the southwest corner of Hazelton, was named for Austin R. Nichols, its postmaster, who settled there in 1879. A biographic sketch is given under the city of Austin, Mower county, also named in his honor.

HEBRON township was doubtless named by settlers coming from a town of this name in some eastern state. The original Hebron is a very ancient town in Palestine.

HILL LAKE township, and its village, named Hill City, as also its Hill lake, are all so designated from the prominent hill of morainic drift in section 25. This is the culminating point of a very knolly and broken tract of the same moraine extending into the adjoining sections, to which locality, and especially to its highest part, the Ojibways applied the name Pikwadina (or Piquadinaw), "it is hilly." Hence came the common name "Poquodenaw mountain," used by the lumbermen and given to this hill on the map of Aitkin county in the Minnesota Geological Survey.

IDUN township is named for a place in Sweden.

JEVNE township bears the surname of a Scandinavian family early settling there.

JEWETT township honors D. M. Jewett, a pioneer in section 20.

KIMBERLY township was named from its station established when the Northern Pacific railroad was built in 1870, in honor of Moses C. Kimberly, of St. Paul. He was born in Sandisfield, Mass., December 1, 1845; came to Minnesota in 1870, as a surveyor and engineer for this railroad; was during many years its general superintendent.

LAKESIDE township is at the east side of Mille Lacs.

LEE township was named in honor of Olaf Lee, a pioneer Norwegian farmer in section 18.

LE MAY township was named for Frank Le May, one of the first settlers.

LIBBY township is for Mark Libby, who long ago was a fur trader there with the Indians, on the outlet of Sandy lake.

LOGAN township was named for the long and narrow lakes, often shaped like a horseshoe or ox-bow, which lie in abandoned parts of the old channels of the Mississippi, occurring frequently in this and other townships. For these lakes of the alluvial land adjoining the river the name "logans" has been in common use in Aitkin county during the fifty years or more since the region was first invaded by lumbermen.

McGREGOR township was named after the station and village of the Northern Pacific railroad in section 31, which also became a station and junction of the Soo line.

MACVILLE township is for pioneer Scotch settlers there named McAninch and McPheters.

MALMO township is named for the large city of Malmo in southern Sweden, on the Sound opposite to Copenhagen.

MILWARD township was named for one of its early settlers.

MORRISON township was named for Edward Morrison, one of its pioneer farmers.

NORDLAND township bears the name of a large district in northern Norway.

PLINY township has the name of a celebrated naturalist of ancient Rome.

QUADNA (each syllable having the sound of a in fall) is shortened from the earlier name of Piquadinaw, first given to this township on account of its tracts of knolly and hilly drift extending eastward from the high hill so named by the Ojibways, as before mentioned, in Hill Lake township.

RICE RIVER township received its name from its being crossed by the head streams of the Rice river, named, like the large Rice lake, from wild rice (Zizania aquatica), which was harvested by the Indians as a very valuable natural food supply.

SALO township was named by its Finn settlers for a town in southwestern Finland.

SEAVEY township was named for a family residing in Aitkin, one of whom, Frank E. Seavey, has been during many years the clerk of the county court.

SHAMROCK was named by Irish settlers for the trifoliate plant long ago chosen as the national emblem of Ireland.

SHOVEL LAKE township and its railway station were named for Shovel lake, crossed by the south line of the township.

SPALDING township was named in honor of John L. Spalding, former treasurer of this county.

SPENCER township is for William Spencer, who was a druggist in Aitkin, but removed to Texas.

TAMARACK is a village of the Northern Pacific railroad in Clark township.

TURNER township is for L. E. Turner, formerly a county commissioner.

VERDON township and post office were named for Verdon Wells, son of E. B. Wells, the postmaster.

WAGNER township was named for a former assistant in the office of the county register of deeds, Bessie Wagner, who now is Mrs. Hammond, living in Montana.

WAUKENABO township (accented on the syllable next to the last, with the sound of ah) has the Ojibway name of the eastern one of its series of three lakes. Gilfillan wrote it with a somewhat different spelling: "Wakonabo sagaiigun, the lake of the broth of wakwug or fish milt, or eggs-broth lake; or Broth-of-moss-growing-on-rocks-or-trees lake. The Indians use the latter in case of starvation. Both the above explanations are given by different Indians."

WEALTHWOOD is a name proposed by Mrs. Daniel J. Knox, of Aitkin, for the lakeside summer resort platted in section 20 of this fractional township, which previously was a part of Nordland.

WHITE ELK township bears the name of the lake crossed by its east line, translated from its Ojibway name.

WILLIAMS township was named in honor of George T. Williams, of Aitkin, who during many years was the county judge of probate.

WORKMAN township is thought to be named for a pioneer settler there, who later removed from the county.


Nicollet's map, published in 1843, gives the following names of lakes and streams partly or wholly within the area of Aitkin county, as they have since continued in use: the Mississippi river, Willow and Little Willow rivers, West and East Savanna rivers, Lake Aitkin, Sandy lake, and Mille Lacs. Other names which survive with slight changes from that map are Prairie river, tributary to the West Savanna, called Little Prairie river by Nicollet; Mud lake and river, tributary to the Mississippi at Aitkin, which were called Muddy lakes and river; and Cedar lake, Nicollet's Red Cedar lake, which Pike in 1805-06 called the Lower Red Cedar lake (to distinguish it from the Upper Red Cedar lake, far up the Mississippi, renamed in 1820 Lake Cassina, now Cass lake).

The very elaborate "Historico-Geographical Chart of the Upper Mississippi River," published by Dr. Elliott Coues in 1895 with his annotated edition of Pike's Expeditions, includes interesting notes of successive geographic names and their dates in Aitkin county. Willow river was called Alder river by Schoolcraft in 1820 and likewise in 1855. It flows through a nearly level and largely swampy area, which bears abundant willows and alders. Its Ojibway name is translated Willow river by Gilfillan.

West Savanna river was so called in 1820 by Schoolcraft. The Savanna rivers, West and East, retain these names as given by the early French voyageurs; but this word, nearly equivalent to prairie, was originally of American origin. It was a Carib word, and was introduced into European languages by Spanish writers near the middle of the sixteenth century. By the Ojibways the East Savanna river was named Mushkigonigumi sibi, "the marsh-portage river," having reference to the very marshy portage made on this much used canoe route in passing to the West Savanna river and Sandy lake.

The early French name of Sandy lake was Lac au Sable or du Sable. The French and English alike translated it from the Ojibway name, recorded by both Gilfillan and Verwyst as Ga-mitawangagumag Sagaiigun, "the-place-of-bare-sand lake." The Northwest Company established a trading post on the west shore of this lake in 1794, which was visited by David Thompson in 1798 and by Pike in January, 1806; but before the time of Aitkin's taking charge there in 1831 the old post had been abandoned for a new site at the mouth of the outlet of Sandy lake, on the narrow point between the outlet and the Mississippi river.

Rice river and its tributary Rice lake (named Lake Dodge by Nicollet, probably for Governor Henry Dodge of Wisconsin), also another Rice lake, of very irregular outline, lying close south of Sandy lake, received their names, as before noted in connection with Rice River township, from their large and valuable supplies of the excellent native grain called wild rice. The Ojibway name of the wild rice, Manomin, is applied to this stream on Nicollet's map, in the common form of its spelling as given in Baraga's Dictionary. Another form is Mahnomen, given to a county of this state. Its French translation is Folle Avoine, meaning in our language "false or fool oat," nearly like the name, "Wild Oats river," used for this Rice river by Beltrami in 1823.

White Elk brook or creek, like the township of this name, is so called, in the Ojibway usage, for the lake of its source.

Moose river, tributary to Willow river, is translated from its Ojibway name, given by Gilfillan as Moz-oshtigwani sibi, Moosehead river. It receives the outflow of several small lakes, of which the most eastern, called Moose lake, in Macville, has been mainly drained.

Little Willow river is named, like the larger stream that often is called Big Willow river, for its plentiful willows.

Sisabagama lake (accented on the middle syllable, with the long vowel sound) and the outflowing creek or river of the same name, close east of Aitkin, have had various spellings. Gilfillan spelled and defined this Ojibway name as Sesabeguma lake, "Every-which-way lake, or the lake which has arms running in all directions"; but such description is not applicable to this lake, unless it be considered to include the group of several neighboring lakes which together are tributary to this stream.

Snake and Little Snake rivers, having their sources in the southeast part of Aitkin county and flowing south into Kanabec county, are translations from their Ojibway names, as is noted in the chapter on that county, which bears the aboriginal name of the Snake river.

Cowan's brook, in Williams township, tributary to the Snake river, was named for an early lumberman there.

Pine lake and Big Pine lake, in Wagner, the latter extending east into Pine county, gave their name to the outflowing Pine river. These lakes and great areas around them, in both Aitkin and Pine counties, originally had majestic white pine forests.

Dam lake and brook, in Kimberly, received this name from the low, ice-formed ridges of gravel and sand on the shores of this lake, especially at its mouth.

Sandy river, flowing west and then north into the lake of this name and outflowing by a very crooked course of more than two miles, though its junction with the Mississippi is only about a half mile from the lake, follows the Indian rule of nomenclature, that a lake gives its name to the stream flowing through it or from it.

Prairie river, like the West Savanna river, which unites with it, received its name from its small open spaces of grassy and bushy land without trees, in this generally wooded region.

Savanna lake, adjoining the old portage of the fur traders, and the Lower Savanna lake, through which their canoes passed to Sandy lake, also have reference to such small savannas, which are more commonly called prairies excepting in the southern states.

Tamarack river, flowing into Prairie river, was named for its plentiful growth of the tamarack, a very graceful species of our coniferous trees (the only one that is not evergreen).

Aitkin lake, in sections 19 and 20, Turner, was named like this county for William A. Aitkin, the fur trader, who very probably often fished and hunted there.

Bald Bluff lake lies at the southern base of the hill of this name.

Birch lake, in section 19, Hazelton, is named for its yellow and paper birches, the latter being the species used for the Indian's bark canoe.

Blind lake, in T. 48, R. 27, is mainly inclosed by a large swamp and has no outlet, as its name implies.

Cedar lake, before mentioned, was named from the red cedars which in scanty numbers are found on its hilly shores and islands.

Clear lake, in sections 28 and 33, Glen, is exceptionally beautiful, with very clear water and inclosed by high shores.

Elm Island lake, at the center of Nordland, has a small island bearing elm trees.

Farm Island lake gave its name to that township, in allusion to the farming by Ojibways. The outflowing Mud river passes in the next two miles through Pine, Hickory, and Spirit lakes, which in the latest atlas are shown to be connected by straits, so that they might be termed a series of three bays continuous with the first named large lake.

Fleming, French, Jenkins, and Wilkins lakes, in Fleming township, are probably named for early settlers, trappers and hunters, or lumbermen. A larger lake of this group, now named Gun lake, was formerly called Lake Manomin (i. e., Wild Rice).

Hanging Kettle lake, translated from its Ojibway name, in sections 13 and 14, Farm Island township, is connected eastward by straits with Diamond and Mud lakes.

Horseshoe lake, in sections 23 and 24, Shamrock, is named for its curved shape.

Island lake, in sections 11 to 14, Turner, has a large central island.

Lone lake, in sections 29 and 30, Nordland, has no visible outlet; but it probably supplies the water of large chalybeate springs which issue close south of the road near the middle of the south side of Mud lake.

Mallard lake, in section 2, Hazelton, formerly called Rice lake, is named for its mallard ducks.

Nelson and Douglas lakes, section 23, Clark, now drained away, were named for M. Nelson and E. Douglas, owners of adjoining lands.

The name of Nord lake, in Nordland, is of similar origin with the township name, meaning north and given by Norwegian settlers.

Pine lake, named for its pine woods, in Hazelton township, was earlier known as Hazelton lake or Echo lake.

Portage lake, section 6, Davidson, was at the end of a portage on a former canoe route.

Rabbit lake, in Glen township, has high shores of irregular outlines, an excellent hunting ground.

Rat lake, in Workman, and Rat House lake, in sections 26 and 35, Cornish, are named for their muskrats.

Sugar lake, in Malmo, is named for its sugar maple trees, this species having been much used by the Ojibways for sugar-making.

Twenty lake, in Malmo, is named from the number of its section.

Vladimirof lake, mainly in section 10, Nordland, was formerly known as Section Ten lake, but has been renamed for a settler who owns lands close north and east of the lake.

This county also has the following names of lakes, which are of frequent occurrence elsewhere.

Bass lake, in section 28, Aitkin; another of this name in section 10, Farm Island (lately renamed as Hammal lake); and a third Bass lake in section 19, Turner.

Long lake, in Glen township.

Mud lake, in Nordland; another in the north part of Logan; and a third and fourth in section 10, McGregor, and sections 14 and 23, White Elk.

Otter lake, in section 34, LeMay; and another in section 9, Logan.

Pickerel lake, in section 27, Aitkin.

Round lake, in section 31, Hazelton; another in Jevne; a third, crossed by the line between Haugen and Shamrock; and a fourth between Waukenabo and Esquagamah lakes.


Glacial Lake Aitkin. In the village of Aitkin and westward a beach ridge of gravel and sand, having a height of three to five feet, marks the south shore of a glacial lake which existed during a geologically very short time in the broad and shallow depression of this part of the Mississippi valley. It was first described and mapped by the present writer in Volume IV of the Final Report of the Geological Survey of Minnesota, published in 1899, being then known to extend from the edge of Crow Wing county eastward and northward in Aitkin, Spencer, and Morrison townships.

Later and more detailed examinations, by Leverett and Sardeson, show that this glacial lake reached northward along the Mississippi to the mouth of Swan river, in the north edge of Aitkin county (Bulletin No. 13, Minnesota Geological Survey, published in 1917). The length of Glacial Lake Aitkin was about fifty miles, but it had only a slight depth of water, nowhere exceeding twenty feet, above the Mississippi, Willow, and Rice rivers, and above the Sandy river and lake.

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