Eight ways to spell “Mesabi”

Spelling the Native American word has changed over centuries
The Duluth, Missabe and Northern Railway used one of the oldest spellings of “Mesabi.” Pictured here is the DM&N depot in Hibbing. Courtesy of the Hibbing Historical Society.

The Duluth, Missabe and Northern Railway used one of the oldest spellings of “Mesabi.” Pictured here is the DM&N depot in Hibbing. Courtesy of the Hibbing Historical Society.

Of all the significant place names in northern Minnesota, none is more confusing than the term “Mesabi.” The word is of Native American origin. The first European spelling of this name appears as Missabay Heights in a 17th-century map belonging to French explorer Jean Nicollet.

In 1848, pioneer American geological explorer Dr. Joseph G. Norwood described the area as Missabe Wachu, or Big Man Falls. In the 1853 Dictionary of the Otchipwe Language, Michigan missionary Bishop Frederick Baraga recorded the noun “Missabe” as signifying a giant. Another missionary, Rev. J. A. Gilfillan, cited an Ojibway legend in which a cannibalistic giant, Missabe, owned the rugged hills in north central St. Louis County.

It is to geological commentator Col. Charles Whittlesey, writing in the 1860s, that we owe the spelling of Mesabi, officially accepted by the United States Geological Survey. This spelling is also acknowledged by renowned Minnesota geologist Horace V. Winchell in his 1894 history of Minnesota mineral discoveries.

Inconsistencies do crop up:

• The Duluth and Iron Range Railroad
named a station Mesaba.
• The Duluth, Missabe and Northern Railway stuck to the original spelling.
• Professor Winchell occasionally used
Masabi.

• The Minnesota Steamship Company
managed by Pickands-Mather used Masaba for one of its new ore carriers during
the mid-1890s.
• State Archeologist Warren Upham, author
of Minnesota Geographic Names suggested still another spelling: Missabi.
• A reference to Missabay Hills can also be
found in early writings.
Thus, we have a speller’s nightmare. For
practical purposes, we may reduce current
usages to three:
• Mesabi—the official geographic spelling
• Missabe—the major railroad spelling
• Mesaba—part of the title of the Mesaba
Iron Company, antecedent of Reserve Mining Company

Submitted by the Hibbing Historical Society. The preceding information is from a series of historical essays donated to the Hibbing Historical Society by the Hibbing Parks and Recreation office.

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