Thief River Falls News-Press
October 14, 1915

Why Named Thief River Falls
By W. C. Smiley

Let no one point the finger of scorn at Thief River. It is an ancient name, hoary with the traditions of centuries, and was, without doubt, the proper title of this stream before Columbus discovered the new world. The first white men who set foot in this region found the lake and river so called and learned the Indian tradition of the origin of the name, learned how a grim Sioux murderer, long before his tribe had been driven out by the Chippewas, had concealed himself in the vicinity of this river, lived an outlaw's life of pillage and robbery, defying capture through surrounded by enemies.

About the year 1750 the Chippewas (Ojibways) drove the Sioux (Dakotas) out of Northern Minnesota, although for years thereafter, bands of Sioux warriors continued to roam this country as far east as Red Lake and to give battle to their hereditary enemies. The Chippewas translated the name into their own language but retained the meaning.

During this time the agents of the Hudson Bay company penetrated into this region and in 1800, Alexander Henry, a fur trader, writes of "Lac aux Voleurs" and "River aux Voleurs" that is in French "Lake and River of Thieves".

Major S. H. Long, of the United Sates army, in 1823, headed an expedition which explored the Red River as far north as Winnipeg. On the map accompanying his report of this journey he notes: "Thief R.", probably the first time the name was set down in the English language. Mr. Long did not, himself, see the river. This was left for an adventurous young man named Beltrami, Italian by birth, French by adoption and wanderer by choice, who deserted the party at about the location of the present town of Hallock, and struck across country, alone, to Thief River, which he descended in a canoe to the site of this city, Thief River Falls. Thence following up Red Lake River he crossed lower Red Lake, ascended Mud River to Mud Lake and portaged to a little lake which he believed to be the source of the Mississippi River and which he named in honor of his sweetheart in far off France, "Lake Julia". Thence following the Turtle lakes and river he paddled down to Cass lake and from there followed the Mississippi back to Fort Snelling. Lake Julia still bears that name and this group of lakes is called the "Julien sources" of the Mississippi.

Beltrami, in his book, "Pilgrimages in Europe and America", tells of this trip and mentions "Robber river so denominated because one of the Sioux, in his flight from the vengeance which had been denounced against him for murder, kept himself concealed, and robbed on this spot for many years, escaping the observation of his persecutors and enemies, by whom he was completely surrounded." The modern Chippewa name is Kemotake o cape, Kemota meaning "steal", kemotake "thief" and cape "river."

From time to time persons have arisen among us who have clamored for a change of this name. To some it seems entirely too suggestive of the wild and woolly west to be a proper title for an honest, law-abiding community. However, so long as Chicago prospers and grows apace in spite of its name, which is just plain Chippewa for "skunk.", we feel that old Thief River Falls can do more under its ancient title.

Return to Pennington County Page