Mistaken Minnesota: The mapmaking errors that shaped our state’s landscape

Illustration by Jeff Nelson

It’s not hard to find Minnesota on a map. Drag your finger as far north as the continental United States goes. We are the one that looks like a bizarre “K.”

So how is it that we live in a country with states that are tidy rectangles and squares, and then states that look like West Virginia? (Seriously, go look at that thing.) As with anything old, there are layers to our state’s perplexing profile and the borders that have been drawn within it. 

From lazy surveying to armed conflict, many forces have had a hand in shaping how Minnesota looks today—most notably people in power relying on maps drawn by others who had never even been to the area. More or less, it all traces back to a massive game of cartographic telephone that naturally produced ample room for error. 

From the headwaters of the Mississippi River to the Northwest Angle, here are four notable examples of map-making mess-ups that exist within, or just outside of, our state.

1.  The Northwest Angle

Minnesota’s iconic shape wouldn’t be complete without the strange little fin/hat/whatever that is that juts up into Canada. This stylish spike is essentially an island of U.S. soil that can only be reached directly from the U.S. by boat or by land via two international border crossings. 

To understand this insane island of American independence, we must look at what some call the most important map in U.S. history: the John Mitchell Map. 

This map was made in 1755 by John Mitchell (duh), an American-born British botanist commissioned to make a map of the British and French territories. Never actually having been to this area—and also not being trained in cartography—rather than surveying the land, he instead used reports compiled by governors and explorers of the territories to map the area and subsequently draw French/British territory lines.

Thing is, Mitchell didn’t quite get Lake of the Woods right on his first go, making it rounder and smaller than it is. This became important after the Revolutionary War when Britain and the U.S. were negotiating a northern border, the designation of which was based on—you guessed it!—Lake of the Woods. Specifically, the treaty called for the border to be drawn from the northwesternmost point of the lake.

When the area was resurveyed in the 1820s, the lake was correctly placed and accurately drawn according to its actual shape and size. But the damage had been done, and because the U.S. had negotiated in the treaty for “the northwesternmost point,” they refused to give up the small piece of land forming the awkward nub that’s there today.

2.  Isle Royale, Michigan?

Why is an island that is so tantalizingly close to both Canada and Minnesota (15 and 20 miles away, respectively) in Michigan’s hands (over 50 miles away)? 

This, too, can be traced back to Mr. John Mitchell and his all-important map. 

The map depicts the island we know as Isle Royale as being much farther south than it is. When the Founding Fathers were negotiating territories with Britain after the Revolutionary War, Isle Royale became U.S. territory, although the British remained in control of the island until after the War of 1812. 

(In truth, Isle Royale was Ojibwe territory until 1842 when Ojibwe representatives ceded much of northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s upper peninsula, including Isle Royale, to the U.S. in the Treaty of La Pointe and the 1844 Isle Royale adhesion.)

In 1833, Ohio and Michigan began arguing over who would get to claim the Toledo strip (the first and last time anyone has ever fought over Toledo). Original surveys gave the piece of land to Michigan, but when the area was resurveyed, a former governor of Ohio in charge of the project redrew the line in Ohio’s favor. Michigan, which at the time was applying for statehood, was denied their request until they accepted the Ohio-sponsored version of the Toledo strip. 

Lots of hot air and chest-beating followed, during which time Michigan and Ohio raised militias and prepared to fight over the land. Eventually, higher-ups stepped in and Toledo was given to Ohio, while Michigan was granted the Upper Peninsula and Isle Royale. 

Because Minnesota wouldn’t become a state for another 20 years, it had no stake in this game of politics. 

3.  The Lost 40

What do you get when overtired surveyors are at the end of a three-month journey through the wilderness with limited supplies? Nearly 40 acres of untouched, old-growth woodland.

In 1882, Minnesota was being heavily surveyed—first for settlements and later for logging companies to lay claim to a slice of the wealth offered by the timber here. The task of mapping the then-unknown wilderness of northern Minnesota was given to Josiah A. King and a three-person team of surveyors. Forty miles away from the nearest settlement and a month into a three-town project, they made a mistake. While mapping Moose and Coddington lakes, the team accidentally placed Lake Coddington much farther northwest than it actually is. Maybe it was fatigue, maybe it was the meager rations, but this mistake mapped 40 acres of timber as a body of water, making it disappear from logging companies’ radars for the next century. 

The error was corrected in 1960, but by then the value of the old-growth site was realized and turned into a Scientific Natural Area. Today, the Lost 40 offers a unique look into how Minnesota’s red and white pine forests used to be and includes trees recorded to be over 300 years old—a happy ending for King and his crew pulling a “dude, where’s my lake?”

4.  The Headwaters of the Mississippi

When the United States bought the Louisiana territory from France in 1803, Thomas Jefferson wasted no time sending intrepid parties to explore the new land. The territory included much of the central United States, including land that makes up 15 current states and two Canadian provinces. The most famous of these Jeffersonian explorations was also the first: Lewis and Clark, who were tasked with exploring the Missouri River to its headwaters and following the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean.

The party assigned to explore the Mississippi River in 1805, on the other hand, was much less famous and much less successful. Headed by Zebulon Pike, the expedition began in St. Louis and continued north. The goal of the expedition was to locate the headwaters of the Mississippi so that the location could be used to draw the U.S.-British Canadian border, and to inform fur traders they were now located in American territory, not British. As a side mission, Pike was to identify sites fit for potential military posts. 

As Pike entered what we now know as Minnesota, he illegally negotiated a treaty with seven Dakota representatives (only two signed the agreement), which resulted in the U.S. government unilaterally granting itself 100,000 acres of land to build Fort Snelling, all for $2,000 in compensation, though Pike himself valued the land at $200,000. 

Continuing his expedition, Pike traveled farther up the river and eventually arrived at a fur trading outpost at Leech Lake. After spending three weeks there, he determined Leech Lake was the river’s source and officially claimed it as such. Wrong. It wasn’t until 1832 that Henry Schoolcraft, led by an Ojibwe guide named Ozawindib, would correctly site Lake Itasca as the headwaters. 

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