Fact check: Was Lake Calhoun named after a racist statesman or not?

Stephen Long, the explorer who actually named the lake, wants you to get the story straight.

Stephen Long, the explorer who actually named the lake, wants you to get the story straight. Minnesota Historical Society

Opponents of changing the name of Lake Calhoun have a new crusade, calling on all Minneapolitans to open their eyes and realize how they’ve been duped into believing it was named after a 19th-century bigot.

A half-page ad in the Star Tribune last week, as well as a “Save Lake Calhoun” GoFundMe, are trying to make the case that the lake was not named for U.S. Secretary of War John C. Calhoun – the nation’s preeminent advocate for slavery of his time – but rather for a little-known Lieutenant Calhoun of the U.S. Army.

Save Lake Calhoun raised a single piece of evidence: an 1890 Star Tribune clipping in which the paper attributed the name to a “Lieutenant Calhoun of early days.”

It’s a statement that’s been debunked by the Star Tribune, as well as the guy who actually named the lake.

In 1817 and 1823, topographical engineer Major Stephen H. Long was sent on government-sponsored expeditions to present-day Minnesota. In a series of letters to military superiors, he proposed his own objective, to document important landmarks and learn about Indian customs so that the United States could expand its line of military occupation and establish fur trading centers. Secretary Calhoun validated Long’s every wish, issuing official orders that basically echoed his suggestions word for word.

Long kept a meticulous journal and wrote a lot of letters, which were collected by the Minnesota Historical Society and compiled in The Northern Expeditions of Stephen H. Long. One letter, addressed to the general who nominated him for the 1823 job, expressed his deep thanks for being appreciated and having the opportunity to go adventuring on the government dime.

“I hope the names of our friends in the Administration will remain as long as the perpetual hills and never be forgotten till the rivers shall cease to flow,” Long wrote. “Should I find any rivers, mountains, cataracts, caverns or fountains worthy to bear their names, I shall cheerfully assume the function of the priest, so far as to christen them.”

Minneapolis Parks and Recreation offered additional proof:

Geologist William Keating, who tagged along on Long’s 1823 expedition, later wrote a book in which he recalled coming across “A body of water, which is not represented upon any map that we know of, has been discovered in this vicinity within a few years, and has received the name of Lake Calhoun, in honour of the Secretary of War. Its dimensions are small.”

William Boudreau, a freelance writer who lives two blocks away from Lake Calhoun, pulled out his copy of The Northern Expeditions of Stephen H. Long after seeing the ad in the Star Tribune. All this history behind the naming of the lake had been pretty well established with the first attempt to change it in the 1990s, he says.

At the time, Boudreau was heading up a citizens committee promoting cleaner water for the Chain of Lakes. Spending so much time on Lake Calhoun led the task force to investigate John C. Calhoun, and they found some frightening things about his stance on slavery, Boudreau says.

So, the committee voted 17-4 on a resolution to rename the lake, citing Calhoun’s 1837 definition of slavery as “wages purchased in advance,” and his 1842 opposition to opening the Armed Services to African Americans unless they served as musicians or cooks because, “Such recruitment would degrade the feelings of white soldiers.”

The name change was ultimately left out of the committee’s recommendations to the Park Board because they weren’t prepared to wage a political war over it, Boudreau says. However, the vote itself is documented in a 1999 state-funded book based on their work, Recipes for Clean Water.

If he were alive today, Long might thank the Save Lake Calhoun people for defending his original choice. But as a man described by his contemporaries to be exteremely logical and intolerant of any "incompetence or irresponsibility," he probably wouldn't have appreciated their attempts to rewrite history.