The ice was finally off Lake Harriet Sunday night, so as I took in the sunset from my favorite sunset-watching bench facing South Beach, I decided to hold a séance and call up the lake’s namesake, Harriet Lovejoy Leavenworth. Lo and behold, the lady of the lake rose up from the swimming area and hovered over a freshly shorn tree stump on the beach. I turned on my recorder …
Jim: Whoa and wow! Good evening, Ms. Lovejoy.
Harriet: Happy sundown, Mr. Jim. Yet another beautiful one. Can you believe they tore down that tree? It hung over this lake for decades, but now the vista of the beach horizon is all the grander, and people have been using the stump as a prop for photos with the downtown skyline and lake.
Jim: So good to see and hear you! I must say I’m surprised you answered my call. I’ve tried to contact you in the past, but …
Harriet: That awful John C. Calhoun got so much publicity in the last few years that I felt it was about time I make an appearance. So much has been made about him being a racist and segregationist, but what you might not know is that, like a lot of men then, he made Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein look like choirboys.
Jim: I can imagine. I’m glad to finally get a chance to talk to you. You’ve always haunted this place. Your name is everywhere in Minneapolis, yet the history books barely mention you. You don’t even warrant a Wikipedia entry, yet the so-called jewel of the Minneapolis lakes and all her progeny are named for you.
Harriet: HIStory books. You said it. I was a woman and it was a man’s world. Times have changed, thank goddess.
Jim: You’re a woman of mystery, for sure. All we know is that you were the third wife of Henry Leavenworth, a soldier famous for fighting in the War of 1812 and alongside the Sioux Indians in the Arikara War of 1823 and building forts Snelling and Leavenworth. By all accounts your love was strong. It survived separation by the wars, and you were widowed in 1834. Everybody called you “Mrs. L.” Soldiers described you as a Florence Nightingale figure who helped heal the troops with courage and compassion — a fitting profile of this lake’s heroine. But there’s no record of why it was named for you.
Harriet: I have no idea. I’m not sure I ever even visited it. I suppose it was a way to honor … my husband? I guess I’m honored, but it’s sort of embarrassing. I hear there are streets, bars, beers and restaurants named after me?
Jim: Dogs, cats, guinea pigs, churches, songs, schools, florists, apartment buildings. You’re a freaking cottage industry here.
Harriet: It’s funny, because I only spent a short of time in Minnesota. Not even a year. I mean, my grave is in New York, which is where I’m from.
Jim: How do you feel about having this lake named after you?
Harriet: I thought it was strange then, and I think it’s strange now. The original Dakota name was Bde Unma. I had many Indian friends. I was the first white woman to trek the territory from Missouri to Wisconsin, accompanied on my and my daughter’s journey to be by my husband’s side by 14 brave and kind Indian warriors. What did the ancestral Native Americans think of these people coming in and changing the name of their lake to honor some white lady? What? I was supposed to be honored? They never even asked me. You should honor me now by mounting a campaign to change it back.
Jim: Hoo boy.
Harriet: “Bde Maka Ska” and “Bde Unma” sounds about right to me. “Harriet” is an old word from the old world. Meaningless. But I do like the idea that people might think it was named for Harriet Tubman.
Jim: It’s about time you got your long overdue and righteous due as a pioneer woman, feminist and healer. We need you in these times! Also: Love. Joy. “Lake Lovejoy” would be sweet.
Harriet: Dream on, young man. By the way, wish me happy birthday. I just turned 227 years old. I died in 1854, that big rock over there says “Established 1883.”
Jim: The only known image of you is a portrait painted in 1815. You’ve got a bit of Mona Lisa smile.
Harriet: I was thinking about how much fun it would be to some day come back to this world as a ghost.
Jim: The look on your face is one of kindness, something this world could use more of.
Harriet: So I hear. I try to impart it whenever I visit, which is often, at all times of the day and night. I eavesdrop on heartbreaking stories of love and loss, told with such passion, pain, and wisdom … all as you the living walk, run, ride, or drive around this medicinal lake. Sometimes I touch people on their shoulder and take their pain away. I learned that from Wim Wenders’ “Wings Of Desire.”
Jim: Speaking of which, sometimes I linger over the brick pavers in front of the bandshell: Lots of life and beautiful times commemorated and celebrated there. But nothing about you. You should at least have a brick, bench or plaque, for heaven’s sakes. Then again, not much is known about who you were …
Harriet: Typical. Let me tell you. I was one of the undocumented founding mothers of Suffragette City. Women didn’t win the right to vote until I’d been dead for 66 years. The word “feminist” wasn’t around until the late 1880s, but the truth is we worked hard to earn our privilege as pioneer women who cared for the sick and dying. We were strong women. Strong leaders. We fought for our rights every day. The segregationists were horrible people, much like the white racists of today. I had slaves who were my friends and slave families I loved like my own and we were at war and we were all raising our babies. People are people.
Jim: Happy Mother’s Day, by the way. I know you had four children, and that you lost your eldest daughter, tragically, not long after the death of your husband. Your life was not easy, but you persevered and after those deaths and after the war you became a teacher at what would become the Delaware Academy in New York. Go ahead and think yourself unworthy, but a lake named for a wife, mother, nurse, teacher and lover who gave so much of herself to others seems just about perfect to me.
Harriet: Well, thank you, but I hardly need your approval or certification. Not your ghost story to tell. Now it’s time for me to get out of here. You’re starting to creep me out with all your flowery accolades. Ahoy! It’s been lovely chatting with you. Maybe I’ll go put on my long flowing Lady Of The Lake sheets, hang in the pines and scare some ’mockers and crows.
Jim: I’ll look for you hovering in all the same old haunts around here. Please come again! When will I see you next? What should I tell your fans?
Harriet: Tell them not to forget me. Tell them I’ll be here. Tell them to look and listen for me. Let them know that I was more than somebody’s wife and that The Ghost Of Harriet is real …
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at j[email protected]