A derogatory name has surfaced on a Washington County lake, leading to a government-led drive to change it.
For years, Forest Lake residents referred to the pristine wooded lake on the city’s eastern boundary as Sylvan Lake. Then the city’s zoning administrator, Donovan Hart, discovered the lake’s actual name on old maps: Halfbreed Lake.
Hart said the lake’s official name is both offensive and dated. So it’s become the latest Minnesota lake proposed for renaming because of racist connotations.
“Sylvan Lake is much more marketing-friendly,” said Hart, who doubles as the city’s community development director. “Halfbreed Lake is inward-facing. It doesn’t put the city’s best foot forward.”
The term halfbreed was once widely used to describe a person born to parents of American Indian and white European ancestry. But it doesn’t sit well with at least 15 residents along the lake, who signed a petition seeking a name change.
“In today’s society there’s an understanding that it’s a derogatory term,” said Jack MacKenzie, a 13-year lake resident. “All the other residents I contacted were surprised it hadn’t been changed from Halfbreed.”
A month ago, the Forest Lake City Council voted unanimously to move the proposal forward. It’s now scheduled for a public hearing at 9 a.m. on Jan. 24 before the Washington County Board at the government center in Stillwater.
Some maps show the lake as Sylvan, others show it as Halfbreed. The county’s deputy administrator, Kevin Corbid, told commissioners that Sylvan Lake appeared on a 1995 county highway map and a 1979 Minnesota state map.
But the U.S. Geological Survey has the lake’s name as Halfbreed, as does the public waters inventory list at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
Corbid told commissioners that state law requires the county to avoid using a duplicate lake name, if possible.
“I’m not quite sure how that will work with how many lakes we have in Minnesota,” he said. “I’m guessing we will find there is a second or third Sylvan Lake somewhere.”
Responded Commissioner Fran Miron, who represents the Forest Lake area: “We do have a number of Clear Lakes, we have a lot of Rice Lakes in Minnesota, so it’s possible.”
A search of the DNR database shows 10 Minnesota lakes named Sylvan, including one in Hennepin County. The state has 35 Clear Lakes, including one in Forest Lake, and dozens of Rice Lakes.
One of the most prominent debates over a lake name has occurred the last few years in Minneapolis, where it was proposed to drop the name of Lake Calhoun in favor of its Dakota name, Bde Maka Ska. The lake’s namesake, 19th-century politician John Calhoun, was an outspoken advocate for slavery in the South and forced the relocation of Indian tribes.
The DNR has approved changing some other lake names considered derogatory — Squaw among them — but many disputed names remain from an era when it was common to associate racial references with lakes and other places.
In Forest Lake, Hart said he doesn’t expect much opposition to renaming Halfbreed Lake. The Sylvan name, he said, may have come from a 1924 housing subdivision on the lake known as “Sylvan Shores.”
Sylvan, he said, “does seem to reflect well on the city.”