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Hoġan Wanḳe Kin before McKusick renamed us Stillwater

Recently, one of the area’s local history buffs asked us a question about a reference he’d seen to what Stillwater may have been called before the 1840s. Luckily, the library recently added a staff member who is also a bit of a history buff herself. She dug deep into the question. This is what she found:

Stillwater’s name is commonly attributed to pioneer lumberman John McKusick, who is said to have chosen the name both to reflect the settlement’s location on the “still waters of Lake St. Croix,” and in a nostalgic gesture to a same-named town in his native state of Maine.[1] Long before McKusick and company arrived in the early 1840s, however, the Dakota and Ojibwe had known the place by other names.

The Dakota called the place Hoġan Wanḳe Kin, an area which encompassed not only the St. Croix River but also Lake St. Croix as well as a large sandbar across from present-day Afton, Minnesota.”[2] The name, meaning “the place where the fish lies,” was derived from a legend in which a man was transformed into a giant fish (either a catfish or a pike, depending on the version) and then into a sandbar.[3] In English, Hoġan Wanḳe Kin has been variously rendered as Hogan-wahnkay-kin, Hogan-wauke-kin and Hogan-wan-kee.[4]

The Ojibwe name for the place was Giigo onh-zhagomod with the slightly different meaning of “where the fish floats.” [5] The Ojibwe origin legend is very similar, again involving a man transformed into a giant fish and found floating in the lake, with his ultimate transformation into “a piece of land crossing the lake there”[6] (i.e., the sandbar). In English renderings, Giigo onh-zhagomod is harder to recognize, appearing as Kee-go-shagewa-minnie[7] and Kegan-Shaw-Ga-Nut[8] but the phonetic similarities are apparent to the ear.

[1] Rev. Edward D. Neill, History of Washington County and the St. Croix Valley, Including the Explorers and Pioneers of Minnesota (Minneapolis, Minnesota: North Star Publishing Company, 1881), 500; and, Augustus B. Easton, History of the Saint Croix Valley, Vol. I (Chicago, Illinois: H. C. Cooper, Jr. & Co., 1909), 20.

[2] Gwen Westerman and Bruce White, Mni Sota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota (St. Paul, Minnesota: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2012), 73.

[3] Ibid. The sandbar at Afton is commonly known as “Catfish Bar,” which was also the original name of Afton, apparently owing to the town site’s location directly across from the large sandbar; see “Afton,” Washington County Historical Society (n.d),

[4] The former two renderings in Neill, History of Washington County…, 177 and 185; and the latter rendering in Robert Ormsby Sweeny, A Birch Canoe Voyage to Ka Ka Beeka or The Dalles of the St. Croix (Unpublished typescript held by Stillwater Public Library, 1867), [10-11]

[5] John D. Nichols, ed., “Nookomis Gaa-Inaajimotawi: What My Grandmother Told Me,” Oshkaabewis Native Journal 1, no. 2 (1990, Special Ed.): 52-55.

[6] Ibid, 55.

[7] Emma Glaser, “How Stillwater Came to Be,” Minnesota History 24, no. 3 (September 1943): 199.

[8] Sweeny, A Birch Canoe Voyage…, [11].

[Photo] The 1916-1917 photo of birch bark canoes is from the Minnesota Digital Library. It was taken by musician and music educator Stella Prince Stocker. She studied American Indian music among the Ojibwe people in Minnesota.