I began to think about counties with colors in their names as I investigated the etymology and history of Blue Earth County, Minnesota in further detail. My mind began to wander down this completely unrelated tangent. Soon enough I found myself hunting through a list of US counties for examples and plotting them on a map.
Feel free to open this image within another tab or window if you’d like to take a closer look. I’ve shrunk the map down to match size limitations of the blog template even though the underlying graphics file is considerably larger. I’ve also provided a public spreadsheet of my selections if you’re wondering what I discovered or if you’d like to check what I might have overlooked and offer any suggestions.
I made arbitrary decisions in some instances. Obviously something like Frederick County didn’t quality as red even if the letters r-e-d appeared sequentially within its name. How about Greenwood and Greenlee qualifying as Green? I decided to count Greenwood because green wood exists, while Greenlee, well some sources said it may have meant green field or green meadow once long ago. Nonetheless it didn’t resonate with me so I dropped it. I know! Completely unjustified. The arbitrator is a capricious jerk.
I bent protocols in the other direction, too. How about Cherry? That’s red. Vermilion? Also red. At that point I enjoyed my reacquaintance with the two counties bordering each other in adjacent states, one in Illinois (Vermilion with one "l") and one in Indiana (Vermillion with double "ll").
Finally, a big tip of the keyboard had to go to American patriot Nathanael Greene. He began the American Revolutionary War as a private and worked his way up to Major General, responsible for all Continental Army troops in the southern campaign. Historians credited him with wearing down British general Cornwallis in the Carolinas, driving the fight into Virginia where Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown.
What does that have to do with anything? A grateful new nation named an astounding number of places for the famous patriot. Every one of the 14 Greene Counties in the United States honored Nathanael Greene, as did the Green Counties (inexplicably dropping the final "e") established in Kentucky and Wisconsin. The collective Green/e counties greened the map rather nicely, don’t you think?
View Colorful Roadtrip in Minnesota in a larger map
It still seemed I couldn’t dodge the specialness of Blue Earth County. I noticed that Blue Earth formed a solid anchor for an amazing sequence of colorful counties. Extending along the southern bank of the Minnesota River, physically attached like a string of precious jewels pulled upriver: Blue Earth, Brown, Redwood and Yellow Medicine. I thought that would be a fantastic premise for any prospective county counter, traveling from blue to brown to red to yellow. I’ve not captured any of them yet. I see a trip to southern Minnesota in my future.
I had to know the etymology of this colorful coincidental progression:
- Blue Earth: Named for the Blue Earth river, discussed previously.
- Brown: Named for Joseph Renshaw Brown, and early Minnesota legislator.
- Redwood: Named for a variety of juniper found locally, Juniperus virginiana, also known as Red Cedar.
- Yellow Medicine: Named for a plant, reputedly Menispermum canadense (Common Moonseed or Yellow Parilla), used by the Dakota tribe for medicinal purposes
There is one additional colorful county in Minnesota worth mentioning although it’s located in a completely different part of the state than the magnificent contiguous four: it’s called Red Lake. That county was featured in one of the very first 12MC articles (article #7! November 2007!). As far as I can tell, it’s the only landlocked county with only two neighboring counties, cradled by Polk County on three sides and Pennington County on the remaining side.
After awhile experienced 12MC readers can sort-of guess where things are heading. I knew I ran that risk in the recent Blue Earth article. The early draft began to climb towards a thousand words and I still wanted to cover several more topics. Strategically, I split the article into two separate parts and wondered if anyone might call me out in the meantime. Sure enough, astute reader David Burrow commented that "Blue Earth is ‘famous’ locally for two things" (spoiler alert!). Well played, Mr. Burrow.
Indeed, the City of Blue Earth is well-known for two specific items that fit beautifully within the stated purpose of Twelve Mile Circle. The County of Blue Earth was also notable. I’ll discuss both the city and the county so maybe I’ll cover new material in there somewhere.
To recap briefly, Minnesota had a city and a county named Blue Earth although the city wasn’t located in the county. The city of Blue Earth was the seat of government in Faribault County. Mankato, an anglicized version of a Dakota Sioux phrase translating to Blue Earth, was the seat of government in neighboring Blue Earth County. That should clear things up.
City of Blue Earth
I-90 Golden Stripe, Blue Earth, Minnesota
AA Roads’ Interstate Guide mentioned several Intestate 90 superlatives, most notably its impressive length, 3,020.54 miles (4,861.09 kilometres), or "approximately 3,100 miles if shared alignment with I-94 in Wisconsin is included." That made I-90 the longest segment of the entire Eisenhower Interstate System, spanning all the way between Seattle and Boston along the full width of the northern tier of the United States. That exalted status sometime elicited odd behavior. The residents of Wallace, Idaho, for example, declared the Center of the Universe to be next to "one of the last sections of Interstate 90 to open to through traffic."
However Wallace’s segment was a bit of an anomaly, marking not so much the completion of the route as much as the elimination of its final stoplight. Highway officials considered a segment outside of Blue Earth as the official completion point in 1978, where construction crews paving towards each other from opposite directions finally met. If that sounded a bit reminiscent of the transcontinental railroad story from 1869 (my visit), the same thought had occurred to people building this longest transcontinental interstate highway a century later.
Government officials celebrated the completion of Interstate 90. They placed golden concrete slabs across the separate eastbound and westbound lanes, a "Golden Stripe" invoking the famous Golden Spike of yore, accessible from rest areas on either side of the highway. Nothing lasts forever, however, not even something as awesome as a golden stripe. Road crews paved over the stripes as part of a highway maintenance project several years later. They painted golden marks along the shoulders at the original points (Street View: eastbound and westbound) to commemorate the earlier stripe so at least we still have those to remember the completion of the highway. A close-up photograph can be found on Roadside America.
The Jolly Green Giant – Blue Earth, MN by John Rife on Flickr
Via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license
The Green Giant brand of frozen and canned vegetables traced its origin to southern Minnesota. The "Valley of the Jolly Green Giant" referred to the nearby Minnesota River Valley. It began as the Minnesota Valley Canning Company in 1903, based in Le Sueur, and it still exists as an operating division within General Mills. Blue Earth commissioned a replica of the Jolly Green Giant in suitable gargantuan proportions and placed it along a highway on the edge of town in 1979. The Intertubes said it attracted over 10,000 visitors per year although I never found a citation. Approximately twenty-seven visitors per day? Yes, that sounded reasonable, maybe even a little low.
The city certainly loved its colors: BLUE Earth, GOLDen Stripe and GREEN Giant!
County of Blue Earth
More than half of Blue Earth County’s residents lived in Mankato so I focused a 12MC lens on that particular spot. As the City of Mankato explained,
Mankato also marked the southern and western edge of the “Big Woods” (from the French “Grand Bois”), an enormous area of mainly deciduous forest that covered much of central to southeastern Minnesota.
That triggered an ancient memory buried deep within my brain. Wasn’t Mankato one of those places mentioned in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series? Why, yes it was: "Mankato is a town in southern Minnesota where Charles Ingalls often had to make deliveries to. It is larger than Walnut Grove, a very bustling city." Except Mankato was mentioned in "Little House on the Prairie," not "Little House in the Big Woods." In Little House world, the Big Woods was Pepin, Wisconsin (12MC drove through Pepin). It’s all so confusing. Mankato did serve as the site of LauraPalooza though. Those Wilder fans sure know how to get wilder.
However, Mankato was probably better known for something much more disturbing.
Reconciliation Park, Mankato, Minnesota
The United States Army hanged 38 Dakota warriors in Mankato along the Minnesota River in 1862, which to this day remains the largest mass execution in US history.
Treaty payments due to Dakota Sioux were late again, another in a long string of indignities and broken promises by the US government. They’d already been pushed from much of their traditional hunting and agricultural grounds by that point, which were then logged, plowed and settled by new arrivals from the eastern US and Europe. Now the Dakota faced starvation after a crop failure and local traders refused to extend them credit. The drought and grievances combined to spark what came to be called the US-Dakota War of 1862 or the Sioux Uprising.
The city dedicated Reconciliation Park in the 1990′s on a small triangle of grass, hemmed-in by two busy roads and a set of railroad tracks, at the approximate location of the executions. A bison statue was placed there and finally in 2012 — the sesquicentennial of the troubling events — the Dakota 38 Memorial was dedicated in memory of those who were hanged after hasty trials and minimal opportunity to defend themselves against charges.
I ran across an interesting premise for a blog while researching Blue Earth County, a site called Every County. It’s written by a county-counter who realized he couldn’t visit every single county in person. As the author stated, "it’s as a computer-chair traveler that I will try to visit every county in as many states as I can." The site went live in 2012. I can’t believe I hadn’t discovered it earlier.
What is this Blue Earth they speak of in southern Minnesota? There is a county of Blue Earth and a city of Blue Earth, although the city is not located in the county, rather it’s the seat of government in neighboring Faribault County. The seat of Blue Earth County is Mankato which traces an etymological origin from a Dakota phrase(¹) for, um, blue earth(²). Was there any doubt?
By Kmusser (Self-made, based on USGS data.)
[CC-BY-SA-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
They were all named for the Blue Earth River (Street View) which included much of the area discussed within its greater watershed. The city of Blue Earth was founded at the confluence of the east and west branches of said river, which flowed onward through the county of the same name and past Mankato at the confluence of the Blue Earth and Minnesota Rivers. These were all merely twigs on a much larger Mississippi River drainage basin.
Fair enough, however what actually inspired the notion of blue earth that named the river?
I consulted several sources including Minnesota Place Names: A Geographical Encyclopedia that was published by the Minnesota Historical Society. Genuine blue earth existed at one time, or more precisely,
… a bluish green earth that was used by the Sisseton Dakota as a pigment, found in a shaley layer of the rock bluff of this stream about three miles from its mouth
Numerous sources described the efforts of French explorer, Pierre Charles Le Sueur, to exploit the so-called blue earth starting in the 1690′s. France was the first European nation to claim this area — not withstanding the opinions of Native inhabitants who happened to live there first — until France sold its interests to an expansionist United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Le Sueur believed that the unusual discoloration may have indicated the presence of copper. He brought a sample back to France upon his return in 1695. An analysis did in fact detect copper.
Le Sueur returned with a mining expedition in 1700 and built an encampment along the Blue Earth River which he named Fort L’Huillier. He supposedly returned to France with a substantial amount of the pigmented ore although historical records didn’t shed light on whatever happened to it after that point. Historians seemed to agree that the bluish green earth lacked any copper whatsoever. Otherwise miners probably would have returned to the site. Opinions diverged on the question of whether Le Sueur thought he’d found copper originally or whether he’d purposely fabricated the evidence.
One theory suggested an intentional ruse. France had formed a trading alliance with the Fox tribe while simultaneously suspending trade with the rival Dakotas as part of the deal. The mining operation, so the explanation goes, would have provided a convincing cover story. Le Sueur could establish a physical presence close to the Dakota so he could trade with them quite lucratively without competition.
Le Sueur departed Fort L’Huillier with his "ore" after digging for a year. He left a contingent behind to maintain his encampment.
… M D’Eraque and his little force of twelve men at Fort L’Huillier ran out of provisions and well nigh out of ammunition, and after waiting as long as possible, and having been attacked by the fierce Sioux and had three of their number killed in the woods, embarked all their merchandise in their boat, abandoned the fort and descended the rivers to the mouth of the Mississippi.
The site of Fort L’Huillier was thought to have been located on a specific bluff overlooking the Blue Earth River. Authorities eventually placed a marker near the supposed spot to commemorate its historical significance. However no archeological evidence has ever been uncovered. The search for Le Sueur’s fort continues.
As for the blue earth that inspired the name, every bit of it was excavated and removed centuries ago. This geological curiosity remains only in one’s imagination.
(¹) From Minnesota Place Names: A Geographical Encyclopedia: "In the language of the Dakota the same word, to, is used both for blue and green, and their name of the Blue Earth River is Makato (maka, earth; to, blue or green). William H. Keating wrote in the Narrative of Stephen H. Long’s expedition, 1823: ‘By the Dacotas it is called Makato Osa Watapa, which signifies the river where the blue earth is gathered.’ The Dakota name is retained, with slight change, by the township and city of Mankato.”
(²)This isn’t the first time 12MC has referred to the language of the Dakota Sioux for placenames in Minnesota. Remember "That’s Siouan for Water?"