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Names of Douglas County lakes remain as visible history of indigenous people

For over a thousand years, indigenous tribes called the area of Douglas County home. As the area developed, much of their history was destroyed.

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This photo is believed to be of an Ojibwe camp.
Alexandria Echo Press file photo
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Editor's note: This story is part of an occasional series about the history of local lakes in the area and how they got their names.

DOUGLAS COUNTY — Before the formation of the State of Minnesota and the birth of Alexandria in 1858 — officially incorporated in 1877 with a population of 800 — the area of Douglas County was occupied by Native American tribes — mostly Sioux and Ojibwe.

After wars and treaties, some of the only visible history of the native Americans who used to cultivate the area we know as Douglas County are mounds of earth and names of lakes.

Lake Latoka

According to Brittany Johnson, director of the Douglas County Historical Society, Latoka likely got its name due to a mispronunciation or spelling of Lakota — one of the three prominent subcultures of the Sioux people — as there is no known historical or linguistic context for the word "latoka."

According to "What Does Latoka Mean?" by Darwin J. Casler on the website of Lake Latoka Property Owners Association, "the word Latoka, has appeared on numerous maps at least since 1879 as the name of our lake." Casler added that a map in 1913 had "Lake Lokta" listed as the lake's name but was then changed back to "Latoka."

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Lake Osakis

Osakis is an Ojibwe name meaning "place of the Sauk."

The story goes that a group of Sauk or Sak Indians took refuge on a piece of the shoreline in what was then Ojibwe territory after being banished from their own tribe. Allegedly, the Sauk were later killed by Dakota tribesmen.

"That was a story that allegedly came from the Ojibwe in the area. Not the Dakota in the area," said Johnson. "It may not have been murder. It could have been assimilation into the Ojibwe or Dakota tribe."

Chippewa Lake

Chippewa gets its name from the Ojibwe who lived in the Brandon area of Douglas County.

Johnson says Chippewa is an incorrect French-into-English translation of Ojibwe and according to some sources, Brandon settlers teamed up with groups of Ojibwe who lived in the area against some of the Dakota tribes.

"Those were from such a pre-history period that it is not super well documented. Just stories passed down," said Johnson.

History of the land

According to the book, "Images of America, Alexandria," by Barbara Grover, pioneers first settled in Alexandria and Douglas County in 1858 after the arrival of two brothers from Delaware, Alexander and William Kinkead — road surveyors in Minnesota who were seeking out prosperous land for their brother, George. They settled on the shores of Lake Agnes.

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A Douglas County Historical Society photo shows Native Americans at what is now Knute Nelson Memorial Field in Alexandria.
Contributed photo.

Like most lakes at the time, the waters were clear, and its fish were plentiful. Many pioneers who arrived around the same time as the Kinkeads would echo them by settling along the area's seemingly boundless shorelines.

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As years passed, more migrants moved west into the area now known as Douglas County. The land, however, was not wholly unoccupied. Many Native American tribes — mostly Sioux and Ojibwe — had claimed the area for hundreds of years.

Tensions first developed between the U.S. government and indigenous tribes in 1851 when The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux transferred ownership of most of the southeastern Minnesota Territory to the United States. And the Treaty of Mendota, which allotted millions of acres to settlers.

Those tensions rose when the government did not uphold treaty promises— supplies and rations were withheld, compensations owed never arrived, and Natives confined to their designated reservations began to starve. And with the breakout of the Civil War in 1861, some reservation land was revoked, limiting them within smaller borders.

In 1862, Dakota representatives were sent to the Bureau of Indian Affairs agency office to negotiate — most were turned away.

"We have waited a long time. The money is ours, but we cannot get it," said Little Crow (Taoyateduta), Mdewakanton Dakota, to agent Thomas Galbraith in 1862 — usdakotawar.org . "We have no food, but here these stores are filled with food. We ask that you, the agent, make some arrangements so we can get food from the stores, or else we may take our own way to keep ourselves from starving. When men are hungry, they help themselves."

The Dakota saw their hunting lands dwindle, and provisions promised by the government rarely arrived. The treatment they received from the federal government, local traders and settlers was strained and eventually led to a breaking point.

According to the US-Dakota War of 1862 website, https://www.usdakotawar.org/history/war/causes-war, "Four Dakota hunters killed five white settlers at Acton Township, Meeker County, on Aug. 17, 1862. ... Some Dakota seized that moment to declare war to reclaim their homelands from the whites who would not keep their promises. In the early morning hours of Aug. 18, they went to war."

Many of the male settlers in Douglas County were off fighting in the Civil War when the U.S.-Dakota War erupted—leaving those who remained to fend for themselves. Many fled to St. Cloud, and few returned.

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In 1866, after the wars ended, the U.S. Government developed Fort Alexandria, which acted as the town's center for people to do business and socialize.

According to Grover's book, the fort protected the residents from the remaining Natives as surviving U.S. soldiers operated it. And Douglas County began to grow, especially between the 1870s and 1880s, when railroad construction began to expand.

Burial mounds article
A photo from a 1963 Park Region Echo article shows two anthropology students from the University of Minnesota in the middle of excavating a Douglas County burial mound.
Contributed photo.

As Douglas County grew, so did the desire for waterfront properties.

Burial mounds

The excavation of shorelines led to the destruction of the sacred constructions formed by the indigenous people — burial mounds.

Mounds are the final resting places that tombed the dead and sacred artifacts.

"Once upon a time, the Douglas County actually had a lot of burial mounds. I think Otter Tail and Douglas County, if you use old maps, had some of the highest concentrations of mounds outside of the Mississippi River and Minnesota River areas," said Johnson. "Most of those mounds have been lost due to development."

Johnson says early stories from the original settlers often spoke of burial mounds. She added that most mounds around the state are found near bodies of water.

"Although we cannot know the exact connotation, it is one school of thought that the waterway —whether that was a lake or a river — was an important kind of highway or means for which the soul of the deceased would travel. It's very speculative. But, it is interesting because, of course, that is something that is in other cultures as well," she said.

Burial mounds article
An article provided by the Douglas County Historical Society explains that a burial mound was nearly destroyed during a sewer line expansion until the engineering company owner intervened.
Contributed photo.

According to an article from the Alexandria Post Newspaper from July 16, 1880, a dozen or so Alexandria men participated in antiquarian research — a study of past artifacts and heritage sites — by excavating an indigenous people's burial mound between Lake Carlos and L'Homme Dieu.

Digging nearly 11 feet into the earth, they discovered human bones burned before burial — arms, legs, pelvis, hands, feet and vertebra bones are listed in the article.

The mound was determined to be at least 100 years after the men counted 100 internal annular growth rings from a tree growing out of it. More mounds were eventually discovered in the area.

Johnson said the group hired a psychic who claimed the power of "seeing things invisible and believed psychological science was in its infancy." They held the bones to a forehead of an unnamed participant and proclaimed the mounds were built by a secret race of people who migrated from the south.

"Mounds in Douglas County were often opened," said Johnson. "There was kind of this sense very early on when people saw these mounds, that they were such large structures, something that had been built over so long, that they didn't think there could be any relation to the Native Americans of the day. That there was literally an unknown race of people, not Native Americans, but just unknown mound builders who must have built them. And it took the white scholars of the day some decades to accept that it was pre-historic Native American people but also sometimes contemporary because some Dakota did also continue carrying dead within the mounds."

Digging up mounds and collecting artifacts became somewhat of an attraction.

According to Johnson, relics from mounds have been documented in early settlers' private collections. And in 1904, a group of resorters from St. Paul were propositioned to go out and search for the mounds and collect "Indian curios." They discovered a mound over 20 feet high and extracted arrowheads and spear points before finding a complete skeleton.

"They referred to it as 'final resting place.' So, they kind of have knowledge of it as a grave, yet they bring up the skeleton anyways," said Johnson.

According to files from the Office of State Archaeologists provided by the Douglas County Historical Society, by 1944, four of the mounds were found to be "severely impacted" by looting and road construction.

Burial mounds article
A photo from a 1963 Park Region Echo article shows an associate professor of anthropology from the University of Minnesota and students at the site of a burial mound excavation north of Alexandria.
Contributed photo

According to the Minnesota Department of Administration State Archaeologist website, there are over 12,000 known Indian burial mounds in Minnesota. Their locations are kept private to protect them from modern looters and vandals. Under the Private Cemeteries Act, it is a felony to willfully disturb a burial ground.

What to do if you find an Indian burial on your property?

According to the Minnesota State Senate website, contact the State Archeologist at the Minnesota Historical Society. They are responsible for authenticating all burial sites, including pioneer and American Indian sites. If the site is an American Indian burial ground, it may only be relocated after the approval of the Indian Affairs Intertribal Board.

Thalen Zimmerman of Alexandria joined the Echo Press team as a full-time reporter in Aug. 2021, after graduating from Bemidji State University with a bachelor of science degree in mass communication in May of 2021.
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