Lake Burgen or Burgan or maybe Burgan's Lake? The Minnesota DOT wants answers

Brittany Johnson, the Douglas County Historical Society director, was recently contacted by the Minnesota Department of Transportation on Aug. 23 about the correct spelling of the lake that rolls its waves directly south of Lake Victoria. Lake Burgen, if you go by the name of the road adjacent to the lake, Lake Burgan if you Google Map it, or Burgan's Lake if you look at the original township maps from 1866.

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Postcard from 1908 uses Lake Burgan. Douglas County native Katy Moore donated the card. (contributed photo)

Is it Lake Burgen, Lake Burgan, or Burgan's Lake? Evidence suggests the latter.

Brittany Johnson, director of the Douglas County Historical Society, was contacted by Karen Neinstadt, an outreach librarian from the Minnesota Department of Transportation, on Aug. 23 about whether the official spelling of the Douglas County lake is Burgen or Burgan.

Travelers along Interstate 94 in Minnesota may know the lake from the rest area between Alexandria and Osakis.

Johnson provided MnDOT with a series of plat maps that timeline the evolution of the name, which indicated the name was originally named Burgan's Lake, after William P. Burgan, a civil war veteran that resided on the south end of the lake.


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Brittany Johnson, director of the Douglas County Historical Society, researches all the name variations of Douglas County lake, Lake Burgen, or Burgan. (Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press)

In 1867, there was a man named William. P. Burgan, who lived on the south shore of, at the time, Burgan's lake. Burgan was a notable businessman who, along with family members, bought land throughout Hudson township. He was a farmer/stock raiser according to the 1886 patron's directory at the Douglas County Historical Society. He was also the treasurer of Hudson Township, a Methodist minister, the school board president for Union Lake school's first graduation class in 1894 and a veteran who served in the Dakota War of 1862 and the Civil War. Burgan served in Company H of Minnesota's 6th infantry unit.

"It is likely Burgan settled in Hudson Township after the war like many other veterans who expanded west," Johnson speculates.

According to an article in the Alexandria Post News from 1897, Burgan was one of the first to settle on the lake, with his only neighbors being the local Anishinaabe tribe that have called this land home for the last 1,500 years. Since Burgan was the "first" to settle along the lake, we can speculate that he called the lake "Burgan's Lake" when the 1867 township map was made.

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A map from 1940 naming it Burgan's lake. (Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press)

For almost 100 years, 1867-the 1960s, the lake was named Burgan's Lake or sometimes Lake Burgan (depending on the year). However, there was a moment in 1940 when county highway engineer Carl. I. Erickson wrote Lake Burgen on the township map. This was the first time we see this spelling variation. But, the county map from the same year had yet again, Lake Burgan.

Johnson says we often see various spellings in history because people didn't really care about the spelling.


"Spelling wasn't standardized for many years, especially with names. People usually wrote down things as they heard them. When you incorporate different accents and pronunciations, we often get misrecordings," said Johnson, "But, there is a long history of spelling the lakes name with an -an at the end."

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A township map in 1966 naming the lake, Lake Burgen. (Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press)

Today there are no lake markers that confirm either of the names. Only park and road signs suggest the name ended with an -en, and Google Maps and history says it ends with an -an.

Plat maps show how a purchased property is divided within an area. "They are the most frequently used historical sources," says Johnson, "They track how families have moved and clustered in an area."

With the information provided by Johnson and the Douglas County Historical Society, the DOT will go from there on what the correct name of the lake should be.

"Our job is to provide historical context. We pass on the information we have and the decisions go from there," remarked Johnson.


So, which is it? Lake Burgen, Lake Burgan, or Burgan's Lake?

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A map from 1886 names the lake, Burgan's Lake. (Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press)

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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