The 330th anniversary of French people going into a river in Minnesota that the Dakota knew already

Three hundred and thirty years ago, give or take a year, on June 29, French visitors to the homelands of the Dakota people, traveled for the first time into the Minnesota River or Wakpa Mni Sota, as it was known to the Dakota. There were five Frenchmen in the group, one of them named Pierre-Charles Le Sueur, who had just come into the region of the Dakota. The Frenchmen named the river after the saint whose feast day was June 29: St. Pierre or St. Peter.

Pierre Le Sueur mentioned that entrance of the French in the Minnesota River many years later, in conversations with French map makers in Paris, while explaining the French name of the river. He said that the river was given the name because it was “discovered some time ago on St. Peter’s [St. Pierre] Day and because of the five of us at the time, a Jes[uit] & 4 adventurers, there were 3 named Peter [Pierre].” Le Sueur gave no year for this event except to say that he first came to the Dakota country in 1683.

Before this date, no Frenchmen had mentioned the Minnesota River. Even Father Louis Hennepin who traveled up the Mississippi River and the tributary Rum River all the way to Mille Lacs Lake in 1679 and 1680, failed to mention going by the mouth of the Minnesota River. This may be because of the location of the large island Wita Taåka, now known as Pike Island, concealed the mouth of the river. Hennepin and other Frenchmen may have thought the water flowing around the island was simply a backwater on the Mississippi.

R St Pierre

The Minnesota River or Rivière St. Pierre, known to the Dakota as the Wakpa Mni Sota (or in Pierre Le Sueur’s transcription, the “Ouatebamenisouté”) is shown at left on Guillaume DeLisle’s 1702 map of the region.

As a result of the “discovery” by the French of a river well known to the Dakota and other Indigenous people, Nicolas Perrot led a ceremony on May 8, 1689, at the French fort of St. Antoine, on Lake Pepin, taking “possession,” in the name of Louis XIV, of the entire Upper Mississippi region, one of many applications of the European colonialist Doctrine of Discovery. The details of the claim include a kind of inventory of Dakota groups, under names not well known later, and suggestions about where these groups were located. The document stated that the French had visited and thereby claimed
Pierre Le Sueur’s explanation for the meaning of the French name for the Minnesota River clears up a historical mystery about the origins of the name. William H. Keating, a geologist who accompanied the expedition of Major Stephen H. Long in the region in 1823 (Narrative of an Expedition, 2:335-336) wrote: “It has been, we know not upon what authority, suggested that the French name of the river, St. Pierre, was a corruption of the Sans pierres (without stones) said to have been given to it, because no stones occur along it bank for a considerable distance from its mouth.”

Regardless of the merits of this description of the river’s geology, Pierre Le Sueur’s account shoots this theory out of the water. As the editor of Zebulon Pike’s journals, Elliott M. Coues states, it was “too good to be true” anyway, though Coues also argued against the idea that the river was named after the saint at all, suggesting other more famous 17th century Frenchmen named Pierre or St. Pierre. Warren Upham, in his work Minnesota Geographic Names (page 3), was closer to the truth when he said that the French name was given in honor of Pierre Le Sueur himself. It is clear that he was only partly right.

For more information on Pierre Le Sueur’s accounts of his time among the Dakota, see Gwen Westerman and Bruce White, Mni Sota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota, published by MHS Press in 2012. The DeLisle map above is in the collections of the Library of Congress.

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