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The Waterfall City: Why is it called Minneapolis?

why is it called minneapolis

What if I told you Minneapolis was actually named The Waterfall City?

It’s true.

Minneapolis is the combination of words from two different languages.

  • Minnehaha – A Sioux word which translates to waterfall
  • polis – A Greek word which translates to city

Today, we’re taking a dive into the crazy history of our city’s name.

When did Minneapolis get its name?

The city officially got its current name in 1852, but the naming of Minneapolis dates back to the wild story about its founders.

The earliest inhabitants of the land were the Sioux and Ojibwa indigenous peoples, but by the early 1800s, a crazy power struggle had broken out between the U.S. Military, random property squatters, and a guy named John Stevens. (More info about that wild story in our article about who founded Minneapolis.)

The cliff notes version is that John Stevens was running a ferry service from today’s Minneapolis, shuttling soldiers down the Mississippi River. In doing so, he built a house on the land in 1848. Soon, his house was joined by several other settlers, and the group was beginning to have a full-fledged village!

But the military kept trying to evict this village, so four years later in 1852, the settlers said enough is enough. To solidify their property rights, the group decided to form their own government. But one big question – what to call the place?

Previous Names of Minneapolis

Getting to Minneapolis’s current name was no straight path. 

According to the book History of the City of Minneapolis by Isaac Atwater, different groups of people campaigned for different names, with varying degrees of success:

  • The Dakota referred to the city as Bdeóta Othúŋwe, which translates to “Many Lakes City.”
  • The Anishinaabe called the city Gakaabikaang, meaning “At the Waterfalls.”
  • In keeping with the water theme, some preferred the name Lowell, possibly after the famous Francis Cabot Lowell who used water power to contribute to the Industrial Revolution.
  • Others wanted to preserve Indian heritage by naming the city Winona (a legendary Dakota figure)
  • The first settler, John H. Stevens, wanted to name it Hennepin. (After one of Minneapolis’s first explorers, Father Louis Hennepin.)
  • Some wanted to outdo their neighboring cities St. Anthony and St. Paul by using the name All Saints.

But the most serious contender was the name Albion, which initially gained so much traction that that the county clerk recorded it as the city’s official name in 1852.

However, this was short lived, because a local schoolteacher eventually developed a name that stuck.

How Did Minneapolis Get Its Name?

Historians credit Charles Hoag for coming up with the Minneapolis name.

Hoag was the city’s first schoolmaster, and he wanted to develop a name that was a combination of native syllables. But he couldn’t find anything that he liked, until… 

Indianapolis.

Hoag came across this name of another newly formed city 600-miles away, and the lightbulb went off. In a moment of inspiration, he decided to combine the words Minnehaha and polis together.

In a letter to the St. Anthony Express newspaper, Hoag wrote:

“The name I propose is Minnehapolis – derived from Minnehaha, “laughing water,” with the Greek affix “polis,” a city, meaning “laughing water city” or “city of the falls.” You perceive that I spell it with an “h” which is silent in the pronunciation.

This name has been favorably received by many of the inhabitants to whom it has been proposed, and unless a better can be suggested, it is hoped that this attempt to christen our place will not prove as abortive as those heretofore named. I am aware other names have been proposed such as Lowell, Brooklyn, Addies-ville, etc., but until some one is decided upon we intend to call ourselves—Minnehapolis.”

(Source: The Story of Minneapolis by Earnest Dudley Parsons)

The newspaper’s editors suggested dropping the silent h, and the rest was history.

Minneapolis had its name.

Wait, what does Minneapolis mean?

Of course, there was one tiny problem with Hoag’s description… the translation wasn’t 100% accurate. 

The Sioux word Minnehaha translating to “laughing water” is actually a frequent misinterpretation. In Dakota Sioux, the word mnihaha (English spelling Minnehaha) actually means “waterfall.”

On the other hand, polis is easy enough. It is in-fact the Greek word for city, and most Most people will recognize this suffix from its most common use – metropolis.

So more accurately, Minneapolis translates to “Waterfall City” or “City of the Waterfall.”

Final thoughts on why our city is called Minneapolis

Nearly 200 years later, Minneapolis is still rocking this “temporary” name. I guess it’s pretty catchy!

And while Hoag’s translation wasn’t totally accurate, his letter may have sold the name a little short. Considering Minneapolis was settled right next to St. Anthony Falls, the only natural waterfall on the Mississippi River, “The Waterfall City” makes even more sense.

As the St. Anthony Express editor, George Bowman, first responded in 1852, “It is as all names should be… descriptive of the location.”

P.S. – You might also enjoy this other trivia about our city’s names:

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