Dakota Datebook

Devils Lake Sea Monster

Monday, July 11, 2011


No lake in North Dakota reflects more mystery than Devils Lake. With waters 25 miles long and 5 miles wide, Devils Lake is massive and it keeps growing. The Indian name for Devils Lake was “Minnewaukan,” meaning “mysterious water.”

The salty, brackish water overflows with legends of sea monsters. Ancient native lore told of a “strange monster” that inhabited the lake’s middle island and devoured those who ventured near. Later Native Americans told of battles between the Dakota and the Ojibwe tribes and how the sea serpent swallowed a whole army of Dakota warriors to avenge slain Ojibwas after a territorial battle.

When the Great Northern Railway connected Devils Lake to the tourist trade in 1883, savvy town boosters resurrected the old sea monster legends to attract visitors. In 1894, news reports told of a group of picnickers from Larimore traumatized by sighting an amphibious serpent along the Devils Lake shore.

On this date in 1908, a Grand Forks Herald headline revived the legendary monster with a banner headline: “Monster Serpent in Devils Lake; Another Story of a Terrible Sea Serpent . . . Probably the Same One That Indian[s] Saw.” Tourists described “a large fish, only larger,” about twelve feet long, and black as pitch, with “sharp horns projecting from both sides of the serpent’s head.” Confused accounts arose because those who viewed it were reportedly “thrown into a fit and ran wild in horror of this fearful beast as it shot half of its body out of the water and then sank out of sight.”

The scary tale harkened back to old Indian legends and no doubt stirred interest in Devils Lake as a tourist destination. After all, Loch Ness Monster stories attracted visitors to Scotland. Maybe “Nessie” had a cousin in Devils Lake?

Interestingly, a commentary about Devils Lake in the Federal Writers Guide for North Dakota, written in the 1930s, noted that the waters of the lake, under the right atmospheric conditions, could “throw off a vapor through which birds swimming on the surface can be seen from a distance – highly magnified.” The magnified images could look like ships – or maybe even sea monsters – in the mysterious waters of North Dakota’s largest natural lake.

Perhaps the real monster is Devils Lake itself, for its rising waters are now swallowing houses and farmland rather than people, as it swells toward its historic high-water point.

Dakota Datebook is written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.

SOURCES: “Monster Serpent In Devils Lake,” Grand Forks Herald, July 11, 1908, p. 2.

“Devils Lake; Mrs. Slaughter Tells About the Origin of the Name of North Dakota’s Largest Body of Water,” Fargo Forum, September 24, 1902, p. 2.

“Larimore, July 21, “ Grand Forks Herald, July 24, 1894, p. 2.

C.M. Hartwick, “The Legend of Minnewaukan,” The Record, vol. 1, no. 3, July 1895, p. 15.

“Lake Minnewaukan,” Grand Forks Weekly Plaindealer, July 6, 1882, p. 3.

“Highways and Trails,” Guide to North

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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