The legend of Minnewaukan

Marvin Baker

As we consider unusual phenomenon in North Dakota’s history, Devils Lake has to be right up there toward the top.

We’ve heard a lot of stories over the years, most having to do with the lake’s continued rise that keeps swallowing up farmland and parts of surrounding communities and tribal property.

But what many people outside of Devils Lake may not know is that in 1934, Devils Lake was nearly empty and Pres. Franklin Roosevelt spoke at a spot that now has water nearly 60 feet deep. The deepest part of the lake that same year was 2 feet.

Imagine that, an average rise in the water level of almost a foot a year over the past 85 years. More amazing is that in reality, the lake started its rapid rise in 1993.

It’s no wonder the lake was dry in the ‘30s. After four straight years of drought, followed by four straight years of average precipitation, we can see why.

Local historians tell this high-water level period is the second rise of the lake in recorded history.

It is said that long before statehood, back around the time of the Civil War when Dakota Territory was being established, another such rise in the water level took place.

That time it was Cavalry scouts, railroad workers and surveyors who noticed the change. Before that it was the Sioux Indian tribe.

In fact, the name Minnewaukan, translates to “spirit water” or “mysterious water” and this is where the community of Minnewaukan got its name.

Devils Lake, on the other hand is so named because of the same “spirit water,” but when the area was being populated, settlers misinterpreted the name to mean “bad spirit,” naming the lake and the community Devils Lake, after the legendary “bad spirit.” So, there is good reason the lake is called “spirit water.”

Legend has it that a group of Chippewa were camped on the west side of the lake near present-day Minnewaukan. And since the Sioux and Chippewa were constantly at war, a war party of Sioux left the east shore of Devils Lake in a raft, crossed the lake, and routed the Chippewa.

When they got back to the water, they boarded their raft and headed for the east shore but a monster, much like the Loch Ness monster in Scotland,  rose up out of the water, capsizing the boat they were in. The legend tells us that the Sioux war party was swallowed up, not by the monster, but by the waves created by the monster. And they were drowned to avenge what the Sioux did to the peaceful Chippewa.

As the legend is described, it may have lost some of its translation over a period of more than 300 years. A timeline isn’t really identified except for reference of the story in 1641 in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. But the description of the sea monster coming out of the water in the fashion it did and creating the waves it did, would indicate a high water level to support such a large serpent, or some phenomenon of that magnitude.

When the railroad was built through Devils Lake in 1883, locals used the sea monster theme to attract settlers and tourists to the area.

An article in a 1908 edition of the Grand Forks Herald describes a large fish roughly 12 feet long, completely black with horns sticking out either side of its head. There’s a copy of that article hanging on a wall in a Devils Lake restaurant.

The sea monster, the fish, maybe just a violent storm, whatever it was, only reinforces what hydrologists have suspected. Ever since the glacial period some 10,000 years ago, that lake has risen and fell numerous times.

Regardless of legends of a sea monster, perhaps it’s the lake itself that is the “sea monster.”

The U.S. Geological Survey has records of the level of the lake dating back to June 1867 when it was at 1,438 feet above sea level. By 1890, the level had fallen to 1,424 feet and by 1934 it was down to its all-time low in recorded history, 1,402 feet.

If you think about the dramatic shift in water level since 1993, and the changes that were forced to be made to save North Dakota’s 10th-largest city, even in modern times, we could call Devils Lake “mysterious water.”

Most of us know the lake is essentially a large “salad bowl” so all water around it drains into it but doesn’t really have any place else to go, except into nearby Stump Lake.

What continues to baffle science is where is all that water coming from? Calculations are often made about rainfall and snow melt and even water pumped into the lake, but it doesn’t mathematically support the rise in the elevation of the lake. Mysterious water indeed. It will continue to baffle us.