Naming Medicine Lake, Part I

Naming Medicine Lake, Part I

According to the chapter on “Plymouth” in Edward D. Neill and J. Fletcher Williams’ History of Hennepin County and the City of Minneapolis (Minneapolis: North Star Publishing, 1881):

The lake derives its name from an Indian legend, which says that an Indian in his canoe was capsized by a sudden storm, and the Indians not being able to find his body, gave it the name of Medicine Lake.

This story was expanded in Neil O. Nielsen’s “A Brief Look at the Early History of Plymouth,” which explains:

Medicine Lake, its name derived from the Indian word MDE-WAKAN (meaning lake of the spirit), was named by the Wahpeton Sioux after a warrior overturned in his canoe and his body never recovered. The Indians believed the lake held a great spirit. The first settlers shortened the name to Medicine Lake.

Mde Wakan is also the Dakota name for Mille Lacs, one of the largest lakes in Minnesota and the ancestral birthplace of the Mdewakanton Dakota, “those who were born of the waters.” Would Medicine Lake really share a name with such a deeply spiritual place?

According to The Story of Mission Farms, Medicine Lake Camps, Conferences, and Conventions, a small booklet written by Dr. Franklin Curtis-Wedge (Minnesota Historical Records Survey, c. 1942), the answer to this question is yes.

Time was, when the Sioux had another Spirit Lake. For countless centuries many of their bands made their homes on the shores of the body of water that is now called Mille Lacs. Sudden storms, which often swept its surface, spoke to them of the mysterious working of the Great Spirit, and to His power they dedicated it. In time they proudly called themselves the Mdewakantons — the People of the Spirit Lake.

But about the middle of the eighteenth century, the Sioux villages at Mille Iacs [sic] were wiped out in a wild onslaught from the savage Chippewa who had obtained firearms from the French and had pushed their way westward from the Lake Superior country.

A few of the fleeing refugees established new villages along the lower Minnesota River.  One of the largest of these was the one headed by Chief Shakopee, on the site of the modern city which bears his name. From this point, the villagers ranged far and wide, hunting and fishing.

One of their principal trails led to the site of Anoka, on the Mississippi River, at the mouth of the Rum River which flows from their ancient home at Mille Lacs.

Midway, the trail skirted a beautiful lake, set amidst heavy groves of trees which constituted a part of the ‘Big Woods,’ a vast stretch of hardwood timber which occupied all this part of the present State, north and east of the prairies and south of the pineries.

On the banks of this lake, the warriors established a stopping place near the mysterious sepulchers of earth which their far-distant ancestors had fashioned in the dim reaches of antiquity. Brooding at this lake the homesick hearts of the Shakopee Sioux found in its waters a resemblance to the distant lake from which their enemies had so ruthlessly expelled them.

Then, one sunny afternoon, one of their warriors launched his frail canoe upon its placid waters. A sudden storm hid him from his comrades’ sight. Neither his body nor the canoe were ever again seen by his comrades. To them it seemed that he had gone up as by a whirlwind to the skies. (II Kings 2:11.) Surely the Spirit had come with them to their new home. Surely it was now this lake that was their Lake of the Spirit, and thus they named it.

To a Sioux, anything that is spiritual, mysterious, or supernatural is ‘medicine,’ and this was the word they imparted to the Whites as the equivalent for their ancient name. So to this day, the Lake is called Medicine.

The author’s intention was to root Medicine Lake’s history in spirituality, linking the inhabitants of its past with those of its present by referencing the Dakota’s history of loss, introspection, and enlightenment. Since 1928, Medicine Lake has been the home of Reverend William Paul’s experimental Mission Farms. Designed as a training and rehabilitation facility for unemployed and unskilled men, Mission Farms’ unique program served as a model for Depression-era Civilian Conservation Camps and, later, for pioneering chemical dependency treatments. Now called Missions Inc., the site is still providing housing and health care for individuals affected by chemical dependency, violence, chronic illness, or disability.

But is this tale of spirituality grounded in truth? We will continue to explore the naming of Medicine Lake in our next post.


To learn more about the history of Mission Farms, please see our May 2005 newsletter.

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