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Wonderfully nerdy Minnesota 'fantasy' map traces cities' names back to origins

Chris Engelsma

Chris Engelsma

Chris Engelsma lives in Houston, so it made sense he started his 50-state map drawing project with Texas.

Colorado, his home state's near-neighbor, wasn't a big leap for a second state to choose.

For the third, though, Engelsma wanted something "a lot different" than those two. So he looked north. All the way north, to Minnesota, a state he'd visited twice when his sister attended the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, but about which he still knew little.

Engelsma's quest: To create comprehensive "toponymical fantasy" maps of all 50 states. In case "toponomy" isn't in your daily (or annual) vocabulary: It covers the origins and meanings of the names given to places. 

Engelsma starts his work by digging up maps of the state he wants to draw --  "forestry, drainage basins, rivers, pop density, topographic" -- so he can create an accurate physical representation. Then he starts researching the names of that state's cities, tracing their etymology back through the sometimes obscure (or senseless) labels locals slapped on them long ago.

For this state, that means Minnesota becomes "Land of the Cloudy Water" -- an accurate translation of the Dakota Sioux term for this land, but hardly the kind of phrase we'd want to slap on our "Welcome" signs at the borders.

It could be worse: Iowa, in Engelsma's rendering, is called "Land of the Pale-Faced People." (Eh. Fair.) 

A quick key to Minnesota's map:

  • Bemidji and Mankato become "Lake with the Crossing Waters" and "Blue Earth," close translations of those city's names from the Ojibwe and Dakota languages, respectively. 
  • Duluth, named for a French explorer, is rechristened "City of the People" on Engelsma's map.
  • Minneapolis is "City of Waterfalls," for combining the Dakota word for "water" (Minne-) with the Greek for "city" (-appolis).
  • Rochester, Roman by way of English, is now "Bridge Fort." 
  • Moorhead, from the Scottish word describing landscape, becomes "Head of the Upplands." 
  • Willmar is changed to "The Resolute One," based on that German male name's meaning.
  • The name Paul can also mean "humble or small," so Engelsma renames our state capital "The Small Saint." 

Most curious of all is St. Cloud. The central Minnesota city is named for the French of the same name, which is itself named for Saint Clodoald, a sixth-century hermit who was later named the patron saint "against carbuncles" (do not Google image search) and "of nail-makers" (only if you are bored).

On Engelsma's map, St. Cloud is called "Nail-Maker Sanctuary." Has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?

Engelsma, a 30-year-old software engineer, spent a couple days using Photoshop and a stylus to create this new, more fantastical Minnesota. Once it was done, he uploaded it to Reddit's image sharing site, imgur, and moved on to Maine.

"I've always been a history nerd, especially the history of wars and revolutions," he says. "I also make comics in my spare time, so this is another illustrative outlet."

Engelsma wanted a long-term project that would teach him while exercising his creativity, one that would, in the end, come together in one big piece like a puzzle. Unwieldy, yes. At points beautiful or poignant, at others, laughable or inexplicable, and in the end complete. Kind of like the real United States.