Driftless Minnesota Place Names

Meanings about places emerge through the stories we tell. These stories may involve formative experiences or unique happenings, landmarks for direction, or points of inspiration and awe. Over time, places and their stories change. Names change. Even at the foundational scale of geology, change is always occurring. In the porous karst region of far southeastern Minnesota, with its deep history and precipitous bluffs of limestone, sandstone, clay and dolomite, there is a connecting thread woven throughout: The Root River.

The Root is fed by surface water run-off and countless snow-cold springs. Labyrinths of water and rock creep underground, fertile alluvial terraces trace deep-time histories, and remnant niche species — Laurentide remainders* — (i.e. refugia) like the Iowa Pleistocene snail and Northern Monkshood sequester on algific talus slopes. Plants, animals, rock and fungi — human and more-than-human communities — share the greater Root River watershed across six counties and 1,670 square miles of driftless riverine terrain.

The valley is a pluriverse: traditional hunting grounds for Dakota, Ho-Chunk, Sac & Fox, and Ioway peoples; refuge and retreat for leaders such as Dakota chief Wapasha I (who chose it as his dying ground in 1805–06) and, later, Ho-Chunk chief Winneshiek (aka Coming Thunder), who had a favored camp between present-day Houston and Rushford; the public lands of Richard J. Dorer Memorial Hardwood State Forest; cultivated land with fencerow-to-fencerow corn and soybeans; and sites of tallgrass prairie restoration, organic agriculture, and grass-fed livestock. Trout streams simultaneously host rich biodiversity and are threatened by overloads of bacteria, nitrates, and sediment. Places, and place names, are singular and plural. Histories, meanings, and ecocultural symbiosis capture attention in different ways, at different times, for innumerable reasons.

The Root has gone by many names — in Dakota, Ho-Chunk, French, and English. Historian Franklyn Curtiss-Wedge wrote in 1912 that the blufflands of southeastern Minnesota “generally… remained in the possession of the Sioux from some time before the days of the early explorers until the proclamation of their treaty of Mendota, February 24, 1853.” In practical terms, the traditional hunting grounds of the Root River valley were “under the domain of Wabasha’s band” of Mdewakanton Dakota, Curtiss-Wedge writes, but were also visited (and contested) by Ojibwe hunters from the north, Ho-Chunk peoples from the east, and “by the Sacs and Foxes who lived to the southward, and by the Iowas who lived to the westward.”

The Root has gone by its current name since about 1806–07. “Since that time the Root river has been a feature of every map of Minnesota,” writes Curtiss-Wedge. The waterway first appeared on a non-Indigenous map in 1703, as “R. des Kicapous.” Between then and “the time it assumed its present name,” Curtiss-Wedge details various mapped French-Canadian(and other) names given for the Root River: Quicapon, Quikapous, Quicabou, Quicapoux, Macaret, Quicapous, Yallow, Quicapoo, Yellow, and Carneille.

The most common etymology today connects “root” with the town and township name of Hokah. “The name of the town, and the village which is located at the first eligible point up the stream” is an Indigenous name for the river and town site, writes the Rev. Edward D. Neill in his 1883 History of Houston County. Hokah sits upon a high terrace and an ancient village site. Alluvial terraces are common through the river valley, higher than the flood plain but well below the 300- to nearly 600-foot-high bluffs nearby. Neill also notes that the village and the river are “said to have been also the name of a powerful Indian Chief whose village, before the disturbing elements of civilization appeared, was on the beautiful spot where now stands the village of Hokah.”

The City of Hokah echoes Neill in stating “the site of Hokah was, at its founding, an Indian village. The name of Hokah is derived from their leader, Chief Wecheschatope Hokah. The English translation is Garfish.” No references are given by the City, but the language is very similar to names found in Caleb Atwater’s 1829 recollection of travels through the old Northwest. Atwater’s first-hand account includes details of a Grand Council at Prairie du Chien with leaders from “the Winnebagoes, the Chippeways, Ottowas, Pottawatimies, Sioux, Sauks, Foxes, and Munominnees [sic].” In constructing a rudimentary “Grammar of the Sioux Language,” Atwater includes “Wecheschatope” as the listing for “Chief” and “Hokah” as meaning “garrfish.” As a research note, I have yet to find any other reference mentioning a “Chief Wecheschatope” but welcome any insights about the village site and its people, preferably from past or present-day Dakota or Ho-Chunk sources.

In 1883, Lafayette Bunnell wrote in his History of Winona County that the Root River was known to local Ho-Chunk people “as Cah-he-o-mon-ah, or Crow river, and not the Cah-he-rah, or Menominee river, as stated by some writers.” Bunnell writes that local Dakota peoples with whom he was familiar (which included the coterie of Joseph Wabasha, or Wabasha III) also called the Root River “Gah-hay Wat-pah, because of the nesting of crows in the large trees of its bottom lands.”

As Westerman & White note in Mni Sota Makoce, Indigenous place names record sense-of-place relationships in many ways — often by giving “descriptive names to special features of the landscape.” It is through such place names, stories, and experiences “that we understand the power of place” as plural rather than singular — sacred, pragmatic, historical, and contemporary — with a multiplicity of meanings shared across a range of worldviews.

The Root River empties into the Mississippi just below the town of La Crescent on the western shore and across and below La Crosse, Wisconsin, to the east. Prior to straightening and adding levees to the lower Root River — construction of “Judicial Ditch №1” in 1917–18 — the mouth of the river was reedy, with minimal flow; a marshy area adjacent to Broken Arrow slough and Target Lake.

In a footnote to his 1895 re-publication of Zebulon Pike’s 1805 (and ’06 and ’07) exploration of the Upper Mississippi River, Elliot Coues notes: “The slough on the Minnesota side above Root r. is called Broken Arrow — and this, by the way, is connected with a certain small Target lake.” There is “no doubt,” Coues writes, that “some actual incident gave rise to both these names.” Details of such an incident seem lost to time.

Keating’s 1824 account of Major Stephen H. Long’s “expedition to the source of St. Peter’s River” includes a reference to crossing the “Hoka (Root)” river in 1823 when the strawberries with their “fine fragrance” were “in a state of perfect maturity.” The riverine trenches or “sinks” within five to six miles of the Mississippi’s western shore prompted “greater difficulties than had been anticipated” across “extremely rough and hilly” terrain as Long’s expedition moved north through Driftless Iowa after crossing the Mississippi from Ft. Crawford at Prairie du Chien.

A Dakota guide, Tommo or Tammo, led Major Long’s party across prairie ridges and through transverse valleys to maintain access to fresh water. The forested slopes, Keating writes, “consisted principally of oak, basswood, ash, elm, white walnut, sugar tree, maple, birch” and aspen. A “thick undergrowth” of hazel and hickory were seen in the woods while, “wild rice, horsetail,” and “may-apple” were found in the bottoms. Wild rose charmed the eye and strawberries satisfied the palate, Keating writes, while a “large herd of Elk were seen… by the boys of the party… in search of the horses that had strayed during the night.”

Tommo, or “Tammo, Tamia or Tah-may-yay,” writes Lafayette Bunnell in 1897, “was a good guide, and from the description given of the route taken by Major Long from Prairie du Chien, it is clear that the most direct trail was taken where water could be had.” The party appears to have followed an ancient trail through what is now central Houston County. “From the crossing of Root river,” Bunnell writes, “the party came up Money Creek and down Pleasant, or Burns valley, to Winona.” South of the Root River, in Spring Grove township, settlers named Indian Trail Road (where present-day Houston County Highway 8 meets Highway 44, as recently noted by Lee Epps in the Fillmore County Journal). Moving north out of Houston, this trail follows the same trajectory as present-day Highway 76, up Money Creek valley and across the ridge at Witoka, before winding through Pleasant Valley (Winona County Road 17) towards the Mississippi, which flows west-to-east at Winona.

Writing in 1920, Warren Upham summarizes the varied names given the Root River as:

…called Racine river by Pike, Root river by Long in 1817, and both its Sioux name, Hokah, and the English translation, Root, are used in Keating’s Narrative of Long’s expedition in 1823. With more strictly accurate spelling and pronunciation, the Sioux or Dakota word is Hutkan, meaning Racine in the French language and Root in English, while the Sioux word Hokah means a heron. Racine township and railway village in Mower county, and Hokah, similarly the name of township and village in Houston county, were derived from the river.

Hutkan is the spelling of the word used by Riggs (1852) and Williamson (1902) in their Dakota-English dictionaries, Upham writes, “but it is spelled Hokah on the map by Nicollet, published in 1843, and on the map of Minnesota Territory in 1850.” In the entry about the town of Hokah, Upham also declares it “the site of the village of a Dakota chief named Hokah,” though provides no direct reference — a common shortcoming of Upham’s tome Minnesota Place Names.

Heron, crows’ nests, and garfish; roots and rootedness; histories and present-day experiences coalesce into one simple name: The Root River.

Place names, like other pointing-and-naming, help us understand, categorize, remember and connect past to present and future. Place names have also been used to obscure and erase Indigenous ways-of-knowing, reconfiguring how, where, and why settlers encroached west in misguided pursuit of a supposed Manifest Destiny.

The stories of Minnesota — of Mni Sota Makoce — write Westerman & White, include “oral histories and oral traditions” and “are reflected in the place names of this region where Dakota people have lived for millennia and where they still maintain powerful connections to the land.” Settler stories in small towns throughout Minnesota often (and, yes, conveniently) forget about deeper pasts, fostering a disconnection to land and land-use while facilitating its domination, often leaving tainted soils and waters for future generations. Creating deeper connections to the lands and waters we Midwesterners call home — across eras, cultures, geographies, and ecologies — helps all who live in these special places acknowledge and appreciate the changes of our past, challenges of our present, and opportunities for the future.


Atwater, Caleb (1829). Remarks Made on a Tour to Prairie Du Chien: Thence to Washington City, in 1829. [archive.org]

Bunnell, Lafayette (1883). History of Winona and Olmsted Counties, Minnesota, together with Biographical Matter, Statistics, etc. Chicago: H.H. Hill & Co. [archive.org]

Bunnell, Lafayette Houghton (1897). Winona (We-no-nah) and its Environs on the Mississippi in Ancient and Modern Days. The Winona County Old Settlers’ Association. Winona, MN: Jones & Kroeger, Printers and Publishers.

Coues, Elliot (1895). The Expeditions of Zebulon Montgomery Pike, to Headwaters of the Mississippi River, Through Louisiana Territory, and in New Spain, During the Years 1805–6–7. Vol. 1. Memoir of the Author — Mississippi Voyage. New York: Harper. [archive.org]

Curtiss-Wedge, Franklyn (1912). History of Fillmore County Minnesota, Vol.1. Chicago: H.C. Cooper, Jr. & Co. [archive.org]

Hokah, City of (n.d.). History of Hokah. http://www.cityofhokah-mn.gov/documents/History-of-Hokah.pdf (accessed Oct. 2020).

Keating, William H. (1825). Narrative of an Expedition to the Source of St. Peter’s River, Lake Winnepeek, Lake of the Woods, &c. Vol. 1. London: Geo. B. Whittaker, Ave-Maria-Lane. [archive.org]

Neill, Edward D. (1882). History of Houston County, including Explorers and Pioneers of Minnesota, and outline of History of the State of Minnesota. Minneapolis: Minnesota Historical Company. [archive.org]

Upham, Warren (1920/2001). Minnesota Place Names. Minneapolis: Minnesota Historical Society Press. [archive.org — 1920 edition]

Westerman, Gwen & White, Bruce (2012). Mni Sota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota. Minnesota Historical Society Press. https://www.mnhs.org/mnhspress/books/mni-sota-makoce

*dibs on the band name “The Laurentide Remainders”

Place Writing. Musicking. Sauntering. PhD. Driftless Area, USA.