A Historian’s Perspective on Renaming Lake Calhoun

The following commentary is by Gary Brueggemann, a Minnesota historian and retired history professor.  It is excerpted from the KSTP-TV report on the September 2, 2015 MPRB meeting’s agenda item about the renaming of Lake Calhoun.

A Historian’s Perspective on Renaming Lake Calhoun

The current controversy originally erupted in the wake of the debate surrounding the removal of the Confederate flag from the Capitol building in South Carolina.

“You don’t have to like Calhoun. You can curse him. I, frankly, am not a fan of his later years. But I do believe in fidelity to history,” said Gary Brueggemann, a Minnesota historian and retired history professor.

Brueggemann said John C. Calhoun played a crucial role in the early development of the Twin Cities, bringing Fort Snelling to Minnesota. The lake has been his namesake since the 1820s, at a time when Calhoun when the Secretary of War and according to Brueggemann, a popular, prominent nationalist and defender of the United States.

But Calhoun later became a notorious defender of slavery, with a regrettable record on Native Americans as well.

“When the lakes were named — the officers named them — they honored their boss, John C. Calhoun. Little did they know that, fast forward in the future, he was going to be this old curmudgeon who defends slavery in the South. But that’s another time,” Brueggemann said. “People that are offended by Calhoun — well, then, let’s talk about it.”

Brueggemann also said potentially renaming Lake Calhoun could open up a host of other questions regarding the names of other Minnesota places. As an example, he pointed to Ford Parkway in St. Paul, named after both a towering pillar of American capitalism and a fairly well-known antisemite.

At the very least, Brueggemann said he’s pleased to see the current debate playing out, as it draws attention to Minnesota’s history and the deep roots of various groups in the state.