Admittedly, having a lake here in the North Star State — and in the city where Hubert Humphrey launched his celebrated civil-rights crusade — named after an infamous defender of slavery and the old South is both ironic and odd. But as a Minnesota historian, I would like to offer my perspective on the proposed renaming of Lake Calhoun.

History is filled with irony and oddities, and those are often the lures that draw us to a historical topic. For teachers of Minnesota history, Minneapolis’ Lake Calhoun offers a fabulous opportunity on several levels and perspectives, including dimensions of local, regional, national and international history.

Concerning the lake’s namesake, it may be helpful to consider the complex, controversial statesman as two different people.

There was the young John C. Calhoun — the Yale graduate and ardent patriotic nationalist who, as an idealistic congressman, was one of the “War Hawks” of 1812 who stood up for the defense of America against the aggressions of the British.

It was also the young nationalist Calhoun who, under President James Monroe, became one of the great secretaries of war and did more to affect Minnesota history than all of his predecessors combined. It was Secretary Calhoun who conceived and orchestrated the plan to secure America’s northern frontier by developing a network of forts in the far north — including the first American garrison in Minnesota, Fort Snelling. The Army officers who discovered the lake that the Dakota called Mde Medoza — lake of the loons — dutifully gave it the name “Calhoun” to recognize the official mostly responsible for the military even being there. That Fort Snelling proved to be the genesis of the Twin Cities and triggered a chain of events that led to the settlement and development of Minnesota is no minor matter.

But regrettably, there was also the old Calhoun. Tragically, the years after 1825 changed Calhoun from a strong nationalist to a hard, ardent sectionalist who unashamedly defended slavery, even at the expense of criticizing the Declaration of Independence. From a man as intelligent as Calhoun, the contrived and contorted justifications of slavery were pathetic. But circumstances of time and place put him in a desperate, defensive mood that never changed. Though he died 11 years before the Civil War began, his ideas on secession and in defense of slavery clearly contributed to the conflict.

Nevertheless, I would argue that Lake Calhoun was not named for that old, bitter senator obsessed with states’ rights and slavery. Rather, it was named for the young nationalist war secretary who was the driving force behind the establishment of Fort Snelling.

For 195 straight years, the lake has borne the name Calhoun. You don’t have to like the namesake or be an apologist for him to accept the hard fact that there was a time when he was deserving of the honor of having one lake in the Land of 10,000 Lakes named for him. Even though he never came here, Calhoun left a profound mark on this region that cannot be erased.

Those who are offended by the lake’s name can freely inform others about why the name is so controversial. Doing so would thus advance the historical knowledge of people — because far too few in Minnesota even know who Calhoun was. But learning about Calhoun is learning a critical part of American history — however disturbing some of it might be. If we change the name of Lake Calhoun, we will lose an old reminder of a controversial maker of national and regional history who represented a time we should never forget.

 

Gary Brueggemann lives in St. Paul.