The Name “Otter Tail”

North East Otter Tail Lake
North East end of Otter Tail Lake

Before there were roads in the wilderness area, the best method of transportation was by water; and as the Leaf Lakes drain towards the Gulf of Mexico. Otter Tail Lake toward Hudson Bay by way of the Red River of the North.

The early explorer would portage from Leaf Lake (Leaf City) to Portage Lake to Donald Lake to Pelican Bay on Otter Tail Lake and be on his way through Canada to Hudson Bay.

The first explorers through this area about 1750 were a Frenchman and an Englishman. They met with a band of Indians on the shore of “Lac de la Queue de la Outer“, which roughly translates to “Lake of the Otters Tail“.

This is on record in the archives of Congress, and I would think that it was called that for many years before that as the name derives from the sand bar shaped like an otter’s tail where the Otter Tail River enters Otter Tail Lake (on the North East end of the lake) and now over two centuries later the otter’s tail sand bar is still there.

Did you know…

that all of the following spell “Otter Tail” with two words?

Otter Tail County
Otter Tail Lake
Otter Tail River
Otter Tail Township

There is only ONE official government entity that is a single word, and that is the city of “Ottertail”.


History & Settlement of Otter Tail County, MN

Native Americans used the survey area for hunting and fishing and had permanent dwelling sites. Two Native American tribes were in constant conflict. The Dakota (Sioux) were being pushed from their home area by the Ojibwa (Chippewa) during the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. Burial mounds and artifacts can still be found. Some of the oldest remains of Native Americans were found near Pelican Rapids, Minnesota. The remains, nicknamed Minnesota Girl (later named Minnesota Woman), were dated at about 11,000 B.C.

The first white men to enter the county were French and British fur traders. Efforts were made to set up trading posts on the Leaf Lakes and Otter Tail Lake. In the late 1800’s, most of the towns were built along the railroad lines. Lumber and agriculture were the major industries in the county at that time. The pine and hardwood forests, transportation system, and markets were instrumental in the development of Fergus Falls into a lumber center. In 1865 the first and one of the most interesting settlements in Otter Tail County was made near Clitherall Lake, in what would eventually become Clitherall Township.

By the late 1800’s wheat was the king of crops and in such demand that nearly 1,000 mills were operating throughout the state. Otter Tail County was considered a prime location for the construction of mills. An abundance of water power from the Red River (now known as the Otter Tail River) lured entrepreneurs with dreams of turning the county into the largest flour producing area west of Minneapolis. Some of these mills had tragic endings, but one of the most famous, Phelps Mill, is still preserved today as the one of the most iconic buildings in our area that symbolizes the old rural life. Otter Tail County purchased the mill and surrounding land in 1965 and it is now a popular destination and recreation site.

Phelps Mill, Otter Tail County, MN
Phelps Mill, Otter Tail County, MN

After more than 100,000 settlers poured into vast tracts of Dakota Territory in the 1850s, disputes over land and treaties combined with opposing cultural concepts of property ownership led to antagonism and occasional hostilities between European Americans and the Dakota. One of the largest “Indian Scares” in Minnesota history took place in the weeks following the defeat of the U.S. Army forces led by General George Armstrong Custer at Little Bighorn which prompted the construction of Fort Juelson just two miles East of current day Underwood, MN.  The fort was never attacked and today the site exists as a county wayside rest.

In 1870, the population of the county was about 2,000. At that time the principal languages spoken in the county were Norwegian, Swedish, German, and English. Otter Tail County was established in March 1858 by a legislative act. It was organized in 1868. The original county seat was Otter Tail City.

The people of Fergus Falls organized a new county named Holcomb. In 1872, a legislative act abolished Holcomb County, added additional townships to the west, and established Fergus Falls as the county seat of Otter Tail County, and built a new county courthouse. There are 62 townships in the county.

In the southern part of Otter Tail County is a collection of glacial features known as the Leaf Hills. The highest among them is Inspiration Peak, just west of Urbank. It rises 1,750 feet, about 400 feet above the surrounding countryside Making it the highest point in the county and one of the highest points in the state of Minnesota.



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