Lake Osakis Minnesota – City History
By Marj Schelfhout Osakis Area Heritage Center
The Osakis area is rich in Indian lore. The discovery of the remains of the Sauk Valley Man in 1938* indicates that the big game hunters found their way into this region. The remains were found in the gravel pit along the banks of the Sauk River just east of Osakis in West Union township. These remains along with those of the Minnesota Women and the Browns Valley Man substantiate the belief that people lived in or at least visited the west central area of Minnesota eight to twelve thousand years ago.
Archaic Indians who date from the time before Christ also lived in or visited this area. A copper spear point and other artifacts found in sites along the shores of the Lake and in other sites near the lake substantiate that claim.
The Lake Osakis area was home to the Dakota Indians as early as seven to eight hundred years ago. Evidence of village sites have been found at many sites around the lake.
When the Chippewas or Ojibwe Indians moved into Minnesota from the east they too, found Lake Osakis and its environs to their liking. Since Osakis lies right on the demarcation line between Dakota and Ojibwe territory, it became a battle ground between the two tribes. Skirmishes between the two tribes happened whenever the tribes met. One such skirmish is remembered by local people and gives rise to an interesting but false legend.
A small party of Ojibwe Indians were preparing supper on the point of land which we now know as Battle Point when they were surprised by a party of Sioux (Dakota). The Ojibwe were tomahawked and driven into the lake where all but one drowned. This brave swam the narrows of the Lake to Buck Point where he sought help from a white settler, John Rock. This part of the legend is true. Someone, however, gave a romantic twist to the story by having the Brave throw his hands into the air when he reached the Buck Point side of the lake and shouting Oh-sa-kis which supposedly meant, “Oh, save us!”, which gave rise to the legend of naming the lake.
The naming of Osakis has always been a matter of controversy among local people. Some subscribe to the story of the Indian brave who swam the narrows of the Lake shouting “Oh save us!” Others point to a camp of an Indian scout. He called his camp Sakis meaning place of danger. This, many claim, is the source of the naming Osakis.
The Dakota called the lake by the name, O-Za-Tee meaning fork in the road or river. The Ojibwe called the Lake Oh-za-kees which means “place of the Sauk”. The Sauk Indians roamed the area for a short time. When they left the Sauk Valley, five renegades were left behind on what is now known as Didier’s Corner. These people were often visited by the Ojibwe band from Pillagar, MN. On one visit, the five Sauk were murdered, apparently by the Dakota. All of this happened before the white settlement.
In the early 1800’s, the upper Mississippi river basin was explored by Nicolous Nicollet, a French geographer. When his map was published in 1843, the lake and the rivers leading into and out of the lake were labeled “Osakis”.
Another controversial fact of Osakis history is that of the Vikings. According to believers, the Vikings were in central Minnesota some 500 years before the first settlement. They point to the Kensington Runestone, the Viking Alters Rock and many mooring stones as evidence of Viking exploration. Non-believers counter these arguments with those of their own. It would appear that Viking exploration is a distinct possibility but definite proof remains to be found. The Kensington Runestone is still considered a hoax by many.
Not until 500 years after the Vikings were supposed to have come, did the first settlers arrive in Osakis, Minnesota. The first recorded white settlements is that of Mary Gordon and her family. She and her family settled on the Didier Corner in 1857. The family built a two story log house which served as an inn for other settlers who were in search of land. Legend has it that Mr. Gordon, the father, was tomahawked to death by an Indian as he stood in the yard of the inn. It was not long before the settlers followed Mrs. Gordon into the Osakis area. John Potter took a claim which eventually became the city of Osakis. The Gordon place became a stage stop on the military road from St. Paul to Fort Abercrombie. A blacksmith shop and a small store opened up near Mary Gordon’s place. Other settlers began to occupy land around the Gordon settlement.
In 1862, the Indian troubles began and the area cleared of white settlers. People fled to Sauk Centre and St. Cloud.
When the Indian troubles were finally over settlers began to drift back into the Osakis area. Donald Stevenson acquired the original Potter claim. He opened a grist mill, operated a freight line that ran from St. Cloud to Fort Abercrombie, had the village platted, and helped organized Douglas County. He was the first postmaster at Osakis and served on the first board of trustees of the Methodist Church. Stevenson did not stay in Osakis long. He moved on to Dakota territory where he continued his whirlwind activities in getting that territory settled.
The Stevenson grist mill was replaced by a roller mill which in its hay-day milled as much as 400 barrels of flour per day. Oh-Sa-Kiss flour was shipped to the east coast and some into Europe.
The Mill furnished electricity to the City from the late 1800’s until 1920 when Northern Electric put lines through the area.
When the Minneapolis milling companies became so strong that small mills could no longer compete, the Osakis Milling company ceased flour milling and milled only cattle feed.
The railroad came to Osakis in 1878. Thereafter, Osakis farmers had a way of getting their wheat, potatoes, and livestock to market. The railroad lost its importance to the area with the advent of trucking which continues to be the major method of transporting goods to market today.
Just as in other small communities in Central Minnesota, the church and school were the first public buildings erected. In the early years in Scandinavian settlements, one building served both purposes. School was held for a part of the year and bible school for the rest of the time. Today, none of the rural schools exist. The educational needs of the area are met by the Osakis Public School and St. Agnes Parochial School.
Six rural churches and five city churches continue to serve the religious needs of the people of the area.
In the early days, Osakis was a thriving trade center serving the rural farm communities. With the coming of the automobile and hard roads, the business center of Osakis has declined. Some successful businesses continue and a few new operations open from time to time.
Tourism has always been a major industry in Osakis and that continues to flourish. Efforts to curb pollution of the Lake are underway and efforts are being made to restore the lake to its original condition.
Osakis, which is the second largest city in Douglas County, lies partially in Todd County. The population of the area nearly triples with the influx of tourists during the summer months.
The entire Osakis area is made up of friendly caring people. It is a great place to visit and even greater place in which to live
* Jenk & Wilford. Discover of Sauk Valley Man of MN. Texas Archeological and Palenontologist Society. Abilene, Texas. Sept., 1938.