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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato

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Clarifying Origin of City Name

Professor Emeritus William Lass says cartographer Joseph Nicollet called area "Mankato."

2015-05-26
Tim Krohn, Mankato Free Press, 5-24-2015

If you have any interest in Minnesota history you probably know William Lass, or at least his work.

The professor emeritus of Minnesota State University, Mankato taught more than 40 years and has written the book on state history. Many, many books and articles in fact.

His lifetime of knowledge on the subject is unparalleled.

To say he is thorough in his study of history is an understatement.

In an interview with Minnesota Public Radio, Lass talked of how he prepared for writing a magazine story on writings about the Dakota War, saying he read more than 3,200 pages from 13 accounts of the war. (By the way, he says the best account of the war is Kenneth Carley’s “The Sioux Uprising of 1862,” re-issued and retitled, “The Dakota War of 1862.”) So when Lass sent me a letter — yes a letter in the mail, not an email — giving his view on the topic of a column I wrote March 1 about how the name of the city of Mankato came about, I knew the issue was about to be settled once and for all.

The column was about the ongoing discussions and folklore about how the city got its name, including a persistent and popular version that says the name was a misspelling of the Dakota name for the area or sloppily misspelled off of an early map.

“As long as some Mankatoans perpetuate the myth that the name resulted from a misspelling, we can expect to spin in circles and never reach a definitive conclusion,” Lass stated his letter.

Lass said the name of the community dates to 1852 and that the founders would have heard the Indian name for the area from different Dakota. That Dakota name would have then been translated to written form by the settlers. “It is fallacious to assume that all of the Indians were in total agreement about the pronunciation of their own words.” And he said, the settlers would have had their own versions of how they heard and then wrote the word.

He noted that Minnesota has been spelled the same since 1848, but before that the Indian name was translated by settlers to Minnay-Sotor, Minasota and other variations.

“I do not think anyone today would care to contend that Minnesota is a misspelling,” Lass said.

Likewise, Lass noted that various explorers and writers had various written names for Mankato very early on, including Makato Osa Watapa, Mahkatoh and Makatoh.

It was, he said, cartographer Joseph Nicollet, who was best known for a highly detailed map of the Upper Mississippi River published in 1843, who called this area “Mankato.” Nicollet’s work was the definitive map for the government and the name Mankato was set in stone.

Lass said the fact there are versions of names (or any words) that crop up before people agree on a common pronunciation and spelling is far different than someone carelessly misspelling a word from one map to another.

The entire version of this story can be read online here or in a print copy of the Mankato Free Press. Call the Mankato Free Press at 625-4451 or (800) 657-4662 to find out how to purchase a print copy. The Free Press also prints select stories online at www.mankatofreepress.com.

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