You say 'Mankato,and I say 'Mahkato'

“How the city got its name has much more fiction and legend than

 actual facts”

By Tim Krohn

Free Press Staff Writer

MANKATO (MAHKAHTA, MAHKATO) - So just how, exactly, did Mankato get its name?

Was it a bad translation of Dakota Indian language? A misspelling from an early map? Or was it named for a nymph from a German legend? And what about Mankato, Kansas - what's the deal with their name?

A couple of weeks ago, this newspaper ran a story about how various Minnesota towns got their names and recounted the often-told story of Mankato coming about from a misspelling. That story prompted readers to question that account and resurrect other theories about the name's origin.

 One of the most common theories is that the name dates back to the Dakota Indian word "Mahkahta" or "Mahkato" which means, "blue earth."

The story goes that the "h" in Mahkato was mistakenly read as an "n," leading to the name Mankato.

But one reader sent a copy of an old newspaper article that gave a different theory.

German nymph

A story in the December 1895 Free Press said that in the late 1850s a meeting was called to select a name for the new settlement. Apparently the founding fathers argued for hours with no agreement.

Then, reportedly, D.A. Robertson suggested they read comments written by early French explorer Joseph Nicollet, who wrote a journal as he explored southern Minnesota.

Nicollet described the country at the big bend in the river as reminiscent "of an old German legend, where the scene is laid at a place called Undine because of its lakes and rivers and beautiful waterfalls. The setting of the legend was presided over by a nymph called "Mankato."

Thus, the newspaper story said, the city got its name.

But that version of events is suspect.

Historian Thos. Hughes had heard the tale of Mankato getting its name from the legend Undine. But in his book 1890s, "History of the Welsh in Minnesota," Hughes said the story was wrong. "Some maintain that the name came from that of the water-spirit in the German Legend of Undine. But the name Mankato does not occur in Undine."

Just for fun, we found the Legend of Undine on the Internet - We couldn't find a mention of Mankato either. (Although the legend is a good read - a racy story with dialogue like: "Give me a kiss you love sick shepherd.")

So, the story of Mankato coming from a romantic German nymph legend, appears just that, a legend. All of which goes to prove you shouldn't believe everything you read in the newspaper.

Mankato, Kansas

Our Mankato, is not the only one in the country. There is a Mankato, Kansas, as well.

Perhaps researching the origin of that city's name could help unravel the mystery behind our name.

The University of Kansas Web site on the history of Kansas gives this account of how the Kansas community got its name. The town had been called Jewell Center, but that name was confused with a nearby Jewell City, so the city founders decided to change the name in the early 1870s.

"It was christened, by the name it now bears - Mankato. This was given to it by H.R. Hill, who attended school at Mankato, Blue Earth Co., Minn."  Well, so much for that.

And another possibility

The Minnesota State University Web site on the history of Minnesota gives this account: The city's founders "chose the name "Mahkato," the Indian name for the Minnesota River. However, when the report came out, the "h" looked like an "n" and so the town officially became Mankato."

Then there's Cokato

Cokato, Minn., in Wright County, shares at least part of Mankato's name, so we next went looking there.

According to an account on the Minnesota Historical Society Web site, Cokato is the translation of the Dakota language, meaning "at the middle" - Wright County being, sort of, in the middle of the state.

No help, there, either.

A Dakota's theory

For a final thought on the matter, we called Clifford Canku, a Dakota Indian, language specialist and professor at Sisseton Wahpeton Community College in South Dakota.

He confirms that Mahkato means blue earth ("mahka" meaning earth and "to" meaning blue).

As for the other variation - Mahkahta - printed on some early maps, Canku guesses it was just a variation made in translation. "It might be that whoever was writing it had their own writing style. They probably did the best they could."

And Canku has a reasonable theory on how the name became Mankato. "Different Indians had different dialects. The Yankton Indians would have said it with an 'n' instead of an 'h.' They [Mankato's founders] could have heard it from the Yankton Indians who would have the `n' dialect," Canku said.


In the end, Canku said residents here shouldn't worry too much whether the spelling is Mankato, Mahkato or Mahkahta. "Really, they would all have similar interpretations, meaning blue earth. It just depends what dialect you want to choose."