Beyond answering why a place is called as it is, researching place names can evoke the character of a people through the history, the spirit, and the concerns and triumphs reflected in the names chosen for their communities and resources.
The text below is excerpted from Warren Upham’s Minnesota Geographic Names, published in 1920 by the Minnesota Historical Society. For more thoroughly researched information, there is an updated print version available for purchase, and an online companion site from MHS. (The content below is from a pre-copyright publication.)
And don’t forget to check the NorwegianRidge.com Place Names Database, which is up-to-date and wide-ranging, and covers Houston, Winneshiek and Allamakee Counties.
Established February 23, 1854, this county was named in honor of Samuel Houston, who was president of Texas before its annexation to the United States and afterward was a senator from that state. He was born near Lexington, Virginia, March 2, 1793; and died in Huntsville, Texas, July 26, 1863. In his youth he lived several years with the Cherokee Indians, near his home in eastern Tennessee; later he served in the Creek war, 1813-14, winning the admiration of Gen. Andrew Jackson by his bravery in a battle, after being severely wounded; studied law, and was admitted to practice, 1818-19; was a member of Congress from Tennessee, 1823-7; and was governor of that state, 1827-9.
On account of an uncongenial marriage, he resigned the governorship, retired to savage life in the Arkansas Territory, whither the Cherokees had been removed, and again lived with them, becoming an Indian trader. In December, 1832, he went to Texas under a commission from President Jackson, looking toward its purchase for the United States. In 1835 he was elected commander-in-chief of the Texans, and in the battle of San Jacinto, April 21, 1836, he defeated the Mexicans and captured their general, Santa Anna, ending the war.
Houston was president of the Texas republic, 1836-8 and 1841-4. Texas was annexed to the United States in 1845, being admitted as a state, and Houston was elected one of its senators, which position he held by re-elections for thirteen years, until 1859. Later he was governor of Texas, 1859-61, being an opponent of secession.
In the years 1854-6, when antagonism between the North and South on slavery questions gave presages of the civil war, Houston aspired to nomination as the Democratic candidate for the national presidency; and in October, 1854, the general Democratic committee of New Hampshire earnestly recommended him to be “the people’s candidate” for the campaign in 1856. His popularity in Minnesota at that time is attested by the name of this county; and he is likewise commemorated by counties in Tennessee and Texas and by names of cities and villages in Texas, Mississippi, Missouri, and other states.
Several biographies of Sam Houston, as he always styled himself, have been published from 1846 to 1900.
Marble statues of him and Stephen F. Austin, sculptured by Elisabet Ney, of Texas, and erected as the gift of that state in Statuary Hall of the national capitol, were accepted February 25, 1905, with memorial addresses by members of Congress representing Texas, Tennessee, Missouri, and Arkansas.
TOWNSHIPS AND VILLAGES.
Information for the origins of geographic names in this county has been gathered from the “History of Houston County,” 1882, 526 pages; and from Charles A. Dorival, judge of probate, interviewed during a visit at Caledonia, the county seat, in April, 1916.
[Many townships were organized on May 11, 1858, which is the date Minnesota became the 32nd state admitted into the Union. — Eric]
BLACK HAMMER township, first settled in 1852, organized in April, 1859, received this name, meaning Black Bluff, from an exclamation of Knud Olson Bergo, an early Norwegian settler in the adjoining township of Spring Grove, on seeing a prairie bluff here blackened by a fire. It was the name of a bluff at his birthplace in Norway. Hammer, as a Norwegian word, has the same spelling and meaning as in English. Doubtless the name was suggested, both in Norway and here, by the shape of the bluff or hill.
BROWNSVILLE, first settled in November, 1848, organized May 11, 1858, was named for its steamboat landing and village, platted in 1854, by Job and Charles Brown, brothers, who came to Minnesota in 1848 from the state of New York. Biographic notes of both are in the M. H. S. Collections, volume XIV.
CALEDONIA, settled in 1851, organized May 11, 1858, took the name of its village, which was platted and named in 1854-5 by Samuel McPhail, who had served in the Mexican war and later was colonel of the First Minnesota mounted rangers in the Sioux war, 1862-3. This was the ancient Roman name of Scotland north of the firths of Clyde and Forth, and in modern use it is the poetic name of Scotland. Caledonia village was incorporated by a legislative act, Feb. 25, 1870.
CROOKED CREEK township, settled in 1852-3, organized May 11, 1858, was named for the creek which flows through it in an exceptionally crooked course, entering a western channel of the Mississippi at Reno. Its valley is the route of the railway from Reno nearly to Caledonia.
EITZEN, a village in section 32, Winnebago, was named for a place in Germany whence some of the early settlers came.
FREEBURG, a railway village in section 30, Crooked Creek township, was named by German settlers, for the city of Freiburg in the Black Forest region of Germany.
HOKAH township, settled in 1851, organized May 11, 1858, bears the Dakota or Sioux name of the Root river, which is its English translation. Hutkan is the spelling of the word by Riggs and Williamson in their Dakota dictionaries, 1852 and 1902; but it is spelled Hokah on the map by Nicollet, published in 1843, and on the map of Minnesota Territory in 1850. A part of the site of the village, which was platted in March, 1855, had been earlier occupied by the village of a Dakota chief named Hokah. This railway village was incorporated March 2, 1871.
HOUSTON township, settled in 1852 and organized in 1858, was named, like the county, for General Sam Houston, of Texas. The village was incorporated April 7, 1874.
JEFFERSON township, organized in 1858, received its name, on the suggestion of Eber D. Eaton, of Winnebago township, for Jefferson county, New York, whence he came to Minnesota. Jefferson village, on the west channel of the Mississippi, was at first called Ross’s Landing for John and Samuel Ross, brothers, who came here as the first settlers in 1847.
LA CRESCENT township, settled in 1851, organized May 11, 1858, was named, like its village, platted in June, 1856, in allusion to the town of La Crosse, Wisconsin, which had been previously founded on the opposite side of the Mississippi. That French name, meaning the bat used in playing ball and thence applied to the ball game often played by the Indians, had been given to La Crosse prairie before the settlement of the town, because the ground was a favorite place for their meeting to play this game. The origin and meaning of the Wisconsin name, however, were disregarded, if known, by the founders of La Crescent, who confused it with La Croix, the Cross. “Recalling the ancient contests of the Crusaders against the Saracens and Turks in their efforts to recapture the Holy Sepulchre, where the Cross and the Crescent were raised aloft in deadly strife, and being mindful of the fate that overtook those who struggled under the banner of La Crosse, they resolved to challenge their rival by raising the standard of La Crescent, and thus fight it out on that line.” (History of Houston County, 1882, page 426.)
MAYVILLE, settled in 1855 and organized in 1858, was named for Mayville, N. Y., the county seat of Chautauqua county, whence Dr. John E. Pope and others of the early settlers of this township came.
MONEY CREEK township, settled in 1853-4, organized May 11, 1858, and its village, which was platted in the autumn of 1856, received their names from the creek here tributary to the Root river. “Some man having got his pocket-book and contents wet in the creek, and spreading out the bank notes on a bush to dry, a sudden gust of wind blew them into the water again, and some of it never was recovered, so this circumstance suggested the name of the stream, after which the town was named.” (History, 1882, page 436.)
MOUND PRAIRIE township, settled in 1853-4, was organized in April, 1860. “The name of the town was suggested by Dr. Chase, an old resident, in remembrance of a remarkable rounded bluff in section four, surrounded by a wide val1ey on all sides.”
RENO, a railway village and junction in Crooked Creek township, at first called Caledonia Junction; was renamed by Capt. William H. Harries, of Caledonia, in honor of Jesse Lee Reno. He was born at Wheeling, West Virginia, June 30, 1823; was graduated at West Point in 1846; served in the Mexican war; was a brigadier general, and later a major general, of United States volunteers in the civil war; was killed in the battle of South Mountain, Md., September 14, 1862.
RICEFORD, a village in section 6, Spring Grove township, platted in 1856, was named in honor of Henry M. Rice, of St. Paul, who also is commemorated by the name of Rice county. He visited this place in 1856, following an Indian trail and fording the creek here, which thence is called Riceford creek.
SHELDON, settled in June, 1853, organized May 11, 1858, took the name of its village, founded in 1854-7, of which Julius C. Sheldon, who came from Suffield, Conn., was one of the proprietors.
SPRING GROVE township, settled in 1852 and organized in 1858, received the name of its first post office, which was established in 1854 at the home of James Smith, the earliest settler, beside a spring and a grove.
UNION township, settled in 1853, was organized April 5, 1859. Thirty other states have townships and villages of this name.
WILMINGTON, first settled in June, 1851, organized May 11; 1858, has a name that is likewise borne in fourteen other states by townships, villages, and cities.
WINNEBAGO, settled in March, 1851, organized May 11, 1858, is drained by Winnebago creek, which, with the township, received its name from the Winnebago Indians, many of whom, after the cession of their Wisconsin lands, in 1832, were removed to northeastern Iowa. Their hunting grounds then extended into this adjoining edge of Minnesota, until they were again removed in 1848 to Long Prairie, in central Minnesota.
The head chief of the Winnebagoes, Winneshiek, for whom an adjacent county in Iowa is named, lived and hunted much in this county. “His principal home was about seven miles west of the village of Houston, on the Root river, Houston county, Minnesota; here he lived, during the winter, in a dirt wigwam.” (History of Winneshiek County, Iowa, by Edwin C. Bailey, 1913, vol. I, p. 34.)
YUCATAN, settled probably in 1852 and organized in 1858, was at first called Utica; but to avoid confusion with other places of that name, which are found in sixteen states, one being Utica township in Winona county, it was changed to the present name of somewhat similar sound, which is used nowhere else in the United States. It was taken from the large peninsula of Yucatan, forming the most southeastern part of Mexico, and from the Yucatan channel, between that country and Cuba.
LAKES, RIVERS, CREEKS, AND BLUFFS.
Houston county lies in a large Driftless Area, exempted from glaciation and therefore having none of the glacial and modified drift formations by which it is wholly surrounded. This area also includes parts of several other counties of southeastern Minnesota, but its greatest extent is in Wisconsin, with small tracts of northeast Iowa and northwest Illinois. Its length is about 150 miles from north to south, with a maximum width of about 100 miles. It is characterized by absence of lakes, excepting on the bottomlands of rivers, where they fill portions of deserted watercourses. Such lakes occur in this county along the Mississippi and Root rivers, one of which, two to three miles southeast of La Crescent, is named Target lake, from former rifle practice there.
The preceding pages have noted the origins of the names of Crooked creek, Root river, Money creek, and Riceford and Winnebago creeks.
Pine creek, flowing through La Crescent to the Mississippi, has here and there a few white pines on its bluffs, this region being at the southwestern limit of this tree.
Tributaries of the Root river from the north are Storer, Silver, and Money creeks; and from the south, in similar westward order, Thompson creek (formerly also known as Indian Spring creek), Crystal creek, and Badger, Beaver, and Riceford creeks. Thompson creek was named in honor of Edward Thompson and his brother, Clark W. Thompson, the principal founders of Hokah, for whom biographic notices are given in the M. H. S. Collections, volume XIV.
A prominent bluff of the Root river valley at Hokah is named Mt. Tom.
Wild Cat creek flows into the Mississippi at Brownsville, and Wild Cat bluff is a part of the adjacent high bluffs forming the west side of the Mississippi valley. These names, and those of Badger and Beaver creeks, tell of early times, when the fauna of this region included many furbearing animals that have since disappeared or become very scarce.