There is a place in northwest Iowa called Island Grove and in that place there is a lake. Carved long ago by a retreating glacier, the lake is small by most standards. A person can canoe from its shore to the small island near its center in a matter of minutes. Oaks with summer leaves a shade darker than the lake itself fringe the shoreline and crowd the island. At the lake’s southern end, its waters mingle with a slough which flows into another lake. Together, these three bodies of water—separated by narrow isthmuses—form a lopsided circle, enclosing the grove at their center as if it were itself an island. A long time ago, no one knows exactly when, the lake was given the name Mud.
Today, that lake is called a different name—Ingham. How often do any of us consider the significance of a name? We seldom realize that each name is a riddle, and invitation, a doorway. This story, like many others from this continent, is a story of loss, but it is also a story about the sacred act of naming: about names discovered, given, taken, and recovered.
Our story begins with the end of the ice. Thousands of years ago, a retreating glacier rumbled over the land, leaving behind rocky hills and bowl-shaped valleys where ice blocks stranded and melted into drift lakes, pools of clear water cradled in thick deposits of soil. Nearby, fertile bottomlands filled with flora and became sloughs, marshes, and peat bogs. Coniferous forests and wildflower meadows sprouted from the warming soil like the first signs of spring. As the land woke from its long hibernation, mammoth, mastodon, musk ox, moose, ground sloth, giant beaver, bear, and bison returned to roam Island Grove. Humans followed. We can only wonder if they gave the place a name.
Again, thousands of years passed. Ice Age animals went extinct; temperatures rose; the Holocene began. As the climate warmed, the forests left by way of the glaciers and retreated northward, leaving isolated timber groves near waterways. These became a refuges in changing world. In those days, the people migrated throughout the year, hunting bison, elk, and deer. In early spring, hunters drove herds of bison over the eastern embankment of the larger of the lakes in Island Grove. Stampeding over the edge, the animals fell through the ice, drowning in an explosion of shaggy hair and failing hooves as the ice ruptured and cracked like gunshots. When all was quiet—still as midwinter— their warm bodies were hauled out of the water and butchered on the shore. The hunters stripped away hides, separating meat from bone as steam rose from bloodied flesh. Season after season the hunt came with the first blooms of bloodroot, and the lakebed is still littered with bison bones.
I found the arrowhead at the base of a tree on the island and squatted to pluck it from the loose soil. From stem to point, its stout, gray body was as long as the gap between my knuckles and barely thicker than a wing on a pinecone. To study an archeological record is to grope for the edge of the past, reaching for a time before written language and history collided, but holding the fragile point momentarily dissolved the barrier between past and present. I held in between my fingers a piece of the Woodland period; a time when stone projectiles were bound to arrows with bison sinew. The stone’s triangular body tapered to a delicate stem characteristic of the Lost Island cluster, a group of projectile points named for a lake a day’s walk southwest from Island Grove. These points are a local variant of the popular Adena style that originated far to the east in the Ohio River Valley. What flung the technique out to Island Grove? No one can say with certainty; though stones were not the only arrivals from the east.
The people of gray snow revered islands. According to their stories, in the beginning the earth was flat, surrounded by water on all sides, and all people lived together on an island in the far east. As time passed, people left the island to seek good land, dividing themselves into tribes and traveling across the water in skin boats. When one group stopped on a sandbar at the headwaters of a large river, some people say a great wind blew dust on them. From these headwaters, the tribe divided and spread as tributaries flow, coursing farther west. It has been written by other people that a journey which began in the forests of the Great Lakes ended at edge of what would become Iowa Territory. Those people say that when the people of gray snow reached the fertile valley of the Iowa River, “they halted and cried out Ioway! Ioway! which in their language means this is the place!” When I read this story in a history book published over a century ago, I wanted it to be true. The story had a certain beauty to it—the idea that a name could affirm the rightness of a place.
When these newcomers arrived near Island Grove the Dakota living there called them ayuhwa, the sleepy ones. Overhearing this word, French trappers called them aiouez. However, the people of gray snow continued to call themselves baxoje, although some people said their name meant dust noses. By their English name was given to the expanse of land between the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, its origin in the gray snows of the northeast had been forgotten.
In the mid-1830s, the United States government dispatched French explorer Joseph Nicollet to survey and map its newly-acquired land, named after the people whom they sought to remove. The task would take Nicollet years to complete, and during his travels he would find the topography so unfamiliar to him that his native tongue would fail to express it. In his 1839 report, Nicollet wrote that he borrowed from indigenous languages and invented new phrases when making his map because neither French nor English contained words to accurately describe the terrain. “The first Frenchmen who explored it, and the British and Americans who followed them, were so forcibly impressed with this novelty in appearance of the topography, that they employed new names to designate it,” the document reads. When Nicollet arrived in a region of lakes and forested hills surrounded by a vast prairie, he was enchanted. Leaving formality aside, he wrote, “In attempting a faint description of this beautiful country, my thoughts and feelings are painfully brought back to it. Let me be permitted, as a relief, to transcribe [it].” On September 28, 1838, Nicollet traveled south along the Blue Earth River, crossed what is now the Minnesota-Iowa border, and camped at Okamanpeedan Lake twenty miles north of Island Grove. That night, Nicollet sketched the lake in his journal along with a route continuing southwest. I can decipher from the entry that Nicollet noted Okamanpidan (as he spelled it) meant little heron. That day, he named the region Undine.
Borrowed from German mythology, undines were a race of female water spirits who inhabited brooks, rivers, and lakes. In Nicollet’s retelling, Undine was the daughter of a prince and the niece of the mighty Mankato River, which rises in southern Minnesota. She lived in the forest near the Mankato where she was beloved by the water spirits who inhabited the many brooks and rivers. The report reads, “I do not know why I fancied an analogy between the ideal country described in the tale, and that of the one before me; but I involuntarily, as if it were, adopted the name.”
When my husband came into my office to coax me away from my computer at midnight, he found me crying. “What are you still doing up?” he asked. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” I shrugged.
He leaned over my shoulder and saw the computer screen split between scans of Nicollet’s journals and a digitized version of his map.
“What are you doing?”
“Trying to figure out if this French explorer has Island Grove on his map. I’ve been reading his descriptions of what everything used to look like, and it was all so beautiful. I just wish I could see it like that.”
“You should probably get some sleep,” he responded.
A week later, I hung a framed print of Nicollet’s “A Map of the Hydrological Basin of the Upper Mississippi River” on my wall. The sinuous contours of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers wind from their headwaters and run parallel to one another down the length of Iowa Territory with surprising accuracy. The interior is carefully marked with tributaries, lakes, and tribal boundaries. I see Lac o Spirit, the restless, sacred lake of the Dakota people a day’s walk from Island Grove. To its east winds a river marked with three names as it meanders across the map Inyan Shasha of the Sioux, Moingonan of the Algonkins, Des Moines of the French. Just beyond the river, the high plateau that Nicollet labeled mini-akipan-kaduza, Dakota for “water running to opposite sides” stretches in a half circle. Along this ridge rivers fall away from one another and flow either to the west to join Missouri River or to the east to the Mississippi.
I cross the slight rise of the mini-akipan-kaduza and I try to imagine what this mapmaker from two centuries ago saw as I drive west on Highway Nine, which follows the same path as the Chemin Des Voyageurs, an old French trade route. Fields of tender, neon green corn and reedy smudges of marshes clip by in my peripheral vision where trappers would have seen oceanic prairie—interrupted by places the Dakota called tchan witah or, wood islands—extending to the horizon where grass met hazy-bright sky.
Although Nicollet veered west and never caught site of Island Grove, a former member of Nicollet’s party named Captain James Allen made an expedition of his own in 1844 and his journals provide us with the place’s first written description. During the time of year when monarchs feast on the orange blossoms of butterfly milkweed and compass plants soar taller than a person’s head, Allen and his company of dragoon soldiers departed Fort Dodge, Iowa on foot to begin an eight hundred mile journey northwest. Following the Des Moines River, the men saw herds of elk numbering up to one hundred. They forded clear streams and found one bee tree with good honey. Cicadas must have buzzed feverously in their dreams. For the first week of their journey, the company averaged between ten and fifteen miles a day, marching through big bluestem and prairie cordgrass that soared five feet above their heads. However, as the men traveled further north, the prairie became wet and filled with dense stands of sedges, scouring rushes, and cup plants. Wagons wallowed in mudholes and a torrential storm only saturated the ground further. Their progress slowed to six miles. The following two days they remained camped near the lake now known as Five Island Lake.
On August 25, the expedition entered Island Grove and “struck a large grassy slue or prairie stream connecting two lakes.” The men spent the whole day ferrying their supplies across the slough and then pressed on two more miles toward a grove of timber to make camp. Upon reaching the grove, they found a “large irregular glassy lake that seems to belong to a chain or series of small lakes.” Allen’s guide, a man named Jones, said that he knew nothing of the country and had never come so far north. With Allen acting as guide, the men spent another day searching for a passage between the lakes, advancing a total distance of six miles. In frustration, Allen remarked in his journal that “the grass of this country is tall and luxuriant, remarkably so for so high a latitude, but the whole country is good for nothing, except for the seclusion and safety it affords to the numerous waterfowl that are hatched and grown in it.” In Captain Allen’s report to the United States Army, he wrote:
so little was known of the true geography of the country to be passed over, that it was impossible to define the route beforehand with minute exactness…For the actual route passed over, I must refer to the accompanying map, which will show it more fully and completely than could be made by any other description. The map gives a very correct delineation of the country passed over…perhaps the most accurate on record.
This is a complete exaggeration. Rather, Lieutenant Potter’s map is a merely a crude copy of Nicollet’s riddled with inaccuracies. Most waterways go unnamed, including a chain of lakes branching from the west fork of the Des Moines River, presumably where the expedition became lost. The area surrounding the river is marked with the words small lakes and low prairies. These blank spaces look like the empty expanses of ocean on old European maps. They are terra incognita, uncharted oceans of grass.
It astounds me to imagine Island Grove as uncharted and impassable when a paved road cuts through it today. I’m nearly there. I turn off Highway Nine at a small town called Gruver and head south down a paved county road. A remnant wood island surrounding Swan Lake appears in the distance. The road dead-ends at a T intersection and I turn right, then left again at the corner with the small Lutheran church. A few more miles through the fields and the tallest trees come into view. This is what remains of Island Grove.
By the year Allen and his men arrived in Island Grove, the Iowa tribe had left the Undine and the Sac and Fox tribes had ceded their lands to the US government. Four Dakota bands, the Mdewkanton, Wahpeton, Wahpekute, and Sisseton, now found themselves in control of a land where their enemies once lived, but the United States was pushing further toward the Missouri river with each new railroad. Within a decade of the dragoon’s march, the first homesteaders arrived on the outer edges of Island Grove. Late in the summer of 1856, Thomas Mahar, John Rourke, and Patrick and Edward Conlan made land claims in Island Grove, and their families became the first people of European heritage to call the place home. Mahar built a cabin on the west side of Mud Lake, Rourke homesteaded on the shores of the other, and the Conlan’s on the northern edge of the slough. I’ve seen a yellowed, sepia photograph of Thomas Mahar: a stout man with a huge beard dressed in a dark coat, pants, and matching hat who stands in front of his log cabin with an expression I can’t quite make out.
Mahar and his scattered neighbors were incredibly isolated on the frontier, and traveling eighty-seven miles to Fort Dodge to purchase provisions could take over a month. When Chief Ishtahaba and his band of three hundred Sisseton arrived to make their annual winter camp, they provided the homesteaders with fish and engaged with them in trade. Without the Sisseton’s support, it is unlikely that Island Grove’s new inhabitants would have survived their first year. The winter that followed their arrival would become one of the worst on record. Historian Paul Norman Beck wrote, “On December 1, 1856, the pleasant fall came to an abrupt end with a massive blizzard. For three days and nights, the storm raged throughout northern Iowa, dumping more than three feet of snow over the area. The storm was followed by new blizzards, one right after the other, until there were snowdrifts of twelve to twenty feet and temperatures of -37 degrees. It remained cold throughout spring, with some snow drifts remaining until July.”
On March 20, 1857, a man named Morris Markham walked thirty miles across the snow-covered prairie, returning to the pioneer village at Spirit Lake. He had gone to Island Grove to retrieve his two escaped oxen and was enroute to the Thatcher’s cabin with the animals in tow. The trip took nearly the entire day, and he arrived just an hour before midnight to find the cabin ransacked and the family murdered. Markham retreated into the woods and emerged after a sleepless night to silence. He went from house to house, but there was no one left alive. Markham was the first witness to the aftermath of the Spirit Lake massacre: thirty-five people killed and four women taken captive by a Wahpekute band led by Chief Inkpaduta.
The members of the Wahpekute band who killed the pioneers in Spirit Lake had suffered hardships at the expense of the settlers leading up to the massacre in 1857. Years earlier, they were left out of treaty negotiations that transferred the ownership of their sacred land, the Okoboji-Spirit Lake region, to the United States government. In turn, the government parceled it out to homesteaders journeying to the places mapped by Nicollet and Potter. In the months leading up to the massacre, the harsh winter had left the Wahpekutes in need of provisions, but settlers in Spirit Lake had stripped them of their weapons, leaving them unable to hunt. These grievances exploded into the violence that Morris Markham stumbled upon.
Markham fled to Springfield, Minnesota and military support was requested from Fort Dodge to track down Chief Inkpaduta and his band and to retrieve the captive women. Traveling north toward Okoboji-Spirit Lake in a spring snowstorm, soldiers from the Spirit Lake expedition camped in Island Grove on March 31, and John Maxwell recorded in his journal that “the Indians had kept a lookout in a big cedar tree that grew on the island in Mud Lake…they had built a platform forty feet up in the tree from which they could see twenty miles around.” If Maxwell’s estimation is correct, a person standing in the lookout could see nearly all the way to Spirit Lake. Did he believe those keeping watch were involved in the massacre? He doesn’t say.
Although they did not participate in the violence, the Sisseton left Island Grove and stayed in the upper reaches of the Undine. And despite the goodwill the Island Grove settlers had with the Sisseton, Patrick Conlan joined Morris Markham in Company C of the Northern Border Brigade, a division of the army established to protect settlers from “the Indian threat.” Company A was stationed in Estherville, Iowa, ten miles outside of Island Grove, where they constructed Fort Defiance under the leadership of their captain William H. Ingham.
In the following years, many settlers left the prairie lakes region, but most in Island Grove remained. One devised a business, charging a nickel to guide travelers through the maze of waterways that had frustrated Allen and his men many years before. Despite efforts to map it, the land was still treacherous to those unfamiliar with its topography. So, travelers had three options: pay Mr. Berge a nickel to guide them, get stuck, or spend three days going around the grove rather than through it. Berge’s business was a profitable one, and new settlers continued to arrive. In time, the Sisseton returned. Fort Defiance was abandoned before the Civil War. By 1859, the region surrounding Island Grove had attracted enough settlers to organize themselves into a county which they named Emmet after an Irish patriot. New maps reflected these changes. Potter’s rudimentary sketches of Iowa Territory were replaced by drawings of the county featured in atlases as a tidy grid of homesteads.
Underneath the plat, I see peat bogs set on fire, marshes drained, trees felled, passenger pigeons piled in heaps, bison populations decimated, wheat swaying in the wind where goldenrod once flowered. Outlines of Island Grove’s lakes—now named Mud and High—appear where Potter once wrote “lakes, marshes, and low prairie” over a blank expanse. As I trace Island Grove’s history forward in time I watch the lakes fluctuate with each cartographer’s hand. In 1875, the name High Lake appears on the lake with the bison jump where the Rourke’s settled. In 1904 the lake with the island where the Indian lookout once stood and where Thomas Mahar buried his mother, wife, and child after losing them to influenza is labeled Mud Lake, a name John Maxwell had known in 1857. These maps show me that Island Grove is not a place, but a continuum. For centuries, mapmakers have made vain attempts to preserve our world by cataloguing it in atlases. Landscapes are pinned down like insects mounted by collectors, and with each new map, a place is frozen in time. These old maps are windows to the past. Look at a map and you will see a fleeting glimpse of what we know now, or what we knew then. With time, continents drift apart; earth becomes round. Terra incognita vanishes, bit by bit.
In 1865, when the Civil War had ended and bison sightings had become rare, an immigrant family from Norway moved to the shores of High Lake to farm. According to local history, the Pederson’s were good friends with Chief Moon Eye, leader of the Sisseton, and invited him to stay in their white clapboard farmhouse on many occasions. It was 1895, at the time of year when May apples and trout lilies bloom that the Sisseton dismantled their winter camp and left permanently, forced out by the United States government. By then the woods had changed. The bison and elk had disappeared along with the much of the prairie. What remained were the names the Dakota left behind: wood islands, Spirit Lake, nesting place of the blue heron. But those were disappearing, too.
It happened first at Okamanpeedan Lake when two men laid homesteading claims on its shores. An argument broke out between them over whose name would be given to the lake, and the decision was settled by a fistfight. Mr. Tuttle won, but it was the herons who lost. Some years later, the slough in Island Grove took the name Cunningham. Then, on May 10, 1950, a local newspaper announced that, “Mud Lake in Emmet county was renamed Ingham Lake in honor of Captain William H. Ingham, pioneer, hunter, land surveyor and solider.” There is no record that William H. Ingham ever visited the lake that came to bear his name.
In 1854, Thoreau wrote, “A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.” What is the depth of our nature here on this continent if the full history of a place like Mud Lake meets its end in the name of a man who never swam in its waters?
Although the newspaper did not reveal who lobbied for Mud Lake’s renaming, I suspect the founders of the camp where I spent many summers had something to do with it. It seems an unlikely coincidence that Ingham Lake Bible Camp opened on the shores of Mud Lake the same year. Removed as I am from this decision, I can’t help but feel implicated in it, simply because I took the name for granted for so long. I never thought to question where it came from or what it meant. The year I learned how Ingham Lake got its name, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America approved a churchwide statement called “Repudiation on the Doctrine of Discovery.” Publicly, the ELCA lamented the genocide sanctioned, the violence inflicted, and—for the first time—apologized for the church’s complicity and support of the Doctrine.
How could one apology ever be enough?
What would it mean to extend an apology to Mud Lake itself?
To repudiate is to say no. No, I do not want to live in a world named for those men who participated in the systematic theft and destruction of the prairie bioregion, even if they are my own ancestors. A wealthy landowner himself, my great-great-grandfather served on the board of directors of the Kossuth County bank with William H. Ingham in 1886, but I refuse to see land as a commodity the way that they did. Not here, where waters teem with myth and meaning and unite people across generations and cultures. I choose to pledge my allegiance to this land of herons, of islands, of mud. The land of spirits. The stories behind these names are the ones I want to hear, to learn, to tell and retell. I believe this land—the only place I’ve truly experienced the presence of God—will still enchant those who listen.
I turn the corner and breathe the earthy aroma of the lake through my open windows and feel humidity give way to a cooler breeze. The road curves into an isthmus between a small slough and High Lake and I think about Mr. Berge guiding wagons over the same route as road it dips and rises to hug the curving shoreline where blue water gleams from behind a leafy canopy. Then it glides past a rusty swing set, a small beach, and the arboretum up the hill. Across from the neat rows of trees is a weathered wooden sign engraved with Ingham Lake Bible Camp. Opposite the camp is Wolden Park, named for a naturalist born to a pioneer family who once lived in Island Grove. He spent his life in the High Lake woods and and authored a complete list of their flora. Over a lifetime of tracking bird migrations and blooming times, he became one of those rare people who knew his place and those he lived among with great intimacy.
The trees open and a patchy meadow fills either side of the road where it forks and continues into a thin grey line suspended between Ingham and Cunningham Slough. A man named Bill Fisher opened a lunch counter near this fork in 1924 which served soft drinks and ice cream to visitors encouraged by the local newspaper to take a scenic drive through “one of the most beautiful spots in Iowa.” The main branch of the road stays southbound and passes the spot where a trail leads into the woods. Tucked along the shore of Cunningham Slough is a sign crafted by an Eagle scout, bearing the name “The Magic Place.” I picture it and wonder how he chose the name. Is it possible that across generations, he too heard the whispers of water spirits heard by Joseph Nicollet? Or is that only me, wishing for it to be true?
To the west is the Emmet County Nature Center where I sat with its director and listened to his stories about the Pederson family and Chief Moon Eye. The shoreline of High Lake climbs steeply behind the building, straight up to the old bison jump, now a campground. The road continues past a few houses toward the old Pederson farm with its red barns and white farmhouse, then it slips narrowly between the shores of Cunningham Slough and High Lake. Jack Creek Cemetery perches on a hill at the base of Cunningham Slough; the field of headstones etched with old Norwegian names is the last sight before the road straightens and empties into its delta, a sea of farmland. What took dragoon soldiers three days to ford and cost pioneers a nickel per wagon has taken me less than ten minutes by car.
I park and walk to the edge of High Lake where the sun spills orange into the water as it dips out of sight. One hundred and forty years ago, a man stood where I stand now and watched “as the sun sank low in the summer sky, its rays illuminating the shores of the lake to the east, the prairie resplendent with…purple phlox, tall orange meadow and prairie lilies, golden meadow parsnips, purple coneflowers, masses of the brilliantly orange flowers of the butterfly-weed.” He listened to the calls of the meadowlarks and the “bubbling, rapturous notes of the bobolink.” His name was Peter Wolden. Years later, his son, the naturalist Olaf Wolden, described his father’s memories and said, “There are probably those who will say; ‘All this is past. Why dwell so much on the scenes and sounds of a long since vanished past? We are living in a different age.’”
“But this is history,” Wolden replied. “And some history is still being taught.”