A name can easily be taken for granted. For a city, a name is one of its most defining characteristics, inseparable from the city itself in the minds of its inhabitants. But even old New York was once New Amsterdam and Minneapolis is not the first or the second name by which people have called the city. Perhaps it will not even be the last.
Reyataotonwe is unlikely to have been the first name for the Dakota village that stood along the shore of Lake Calhoun, but it was the village’s name when missionary Gideon Pond arrived and is the oldest known name for any settlement on the land where Minneapolis now stands.
One could possibly argue that the cluster of teepees that made up Chief Cloud Man’s community is hardly the same city that would later house half a million people and raise buildings taller than any tree, but it was a beginning. Many towns in Minneapolis kept the names the Dakota had originally given the places, so while this article is about the history of Minneapolis, if history had been spun out differently, it could easily have been the history of Reyataotonwe.
It might be easier to argue that Minneapolis started as St. Anthony, named by the explorer Father Hennepin after his patron saint. St. Anthony sat on the east bank of the Mississippi River, unable to expand into the Indian reservation to the west. Main Street, the oldest street in the city today, was built in St. Anthony and the falls still bear that name. For a while, however, St. Anthony existed as a separate city at the same time as Minneapolis before the latter expanded across the river to absorb it.
The name Minneapolis itself didn’t come into being until 1852 and only after a string of other names, including All Saints, Brooklyn, and Winona, had been discarded. It was the result of the amalgamation of two languages history never meant to combine, something a proud schoolmaster might come up with to peacock his knowledge (which is, of course, exactly what happened).
Minne, or Mni, comes from the Dakota work for water while polis signifies a city in ancient Greek. Charles Hoag, the pompous schoolmaster himself, originally spelled it Minnehapolis, combining Minnehaha (as in the waterfalls since Longfellow’s literary Minnehaha wouldn’t exist for three more years) and polis, but the ‘h’ was quickly dropped leaving us with our beloved Minneapolis as we know it today.
For Further Reading See: Naming of Minneapolis, Mdewakanton Band of Dakota Nation