How the Name Pelican Became so Common in the Northwoods

Oct 10, 2018

If you are familiar with Oneida County, you've probably heard the name Pelican more than one time.

This week on A Northwoods Moment in History, local historian Gary Entz tells us about the name Pelican and its history in the Northwoods.

Other than Indigenous place names, the name of Pelican is quite possibly the oldest place name in Oneida County.  The oldest maps of Oneida County have the name Pelican in them, and in fact the name Pelican was attached to the region even before there was an Oneida County.  There is a Pelican Lake, a town of Pelican, a part of the Wisconsin River known as Pelican Rapids, and a Pelican Street in Rhinelander just to name a few.  Pelicans are water birds more often associated with the seashore than with the Northwoods of Wisconsin.  So how did the name become so common in the area?

When loggers first started coming to this area, the name “Pelican” was already attached to Pelican Lake.  Alex McCrae, a Rhinelander pioneer who came to Wisconsin in 1880, used to comment that the lake got its name because “some fellow saw a pelican flying about the lake.”  He may be right, but back in the late nineteenth century ornithologists did document a nesting colony of white pelicans at what is now Pelican Lake.  In fact, the lakes of northern Wisconsin were part of the white pelicans’ historic range.  So what happened to the pelicans and why don’t we see them as often as our ancestors did?  William W. Carr, another early area pioneer, said he regularly saw pelicans out on Lake George in the early years but only rarely after World War I.  By that time most had been killed off by hunters.

Still the name endured.  Besides Pelican Lake, there is the small community on its shore called Pelican Lake.  When the Northwestern Rail Station built there it was first called Pelican Station then later Pelican Lake Station.  In addition, there have been two other Pelican Stations in Onedia County.  Two streams have carried the name and several businesses over the years have used the name.  The town of Pelican was established in 1882, and Rhinelander was part of Pelican Township before it incorporated in 1884.  Rhinelander was founded next to the Pelican Rapids of the Wisconsin River because it served as a source of power first for logging operations and later for the paper mill.

As late as 1994 white pelicans were a rare sight in northern Wisconsin, but since then the birds have been making a comeback and an Oneida County namesake may yet again be a common sight.

This story was written by Gary Entz and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Some music for this commentary came Podington Bear. The photo above is used with permisson from the Wisconsin Historical Society and can be found on their website here.

A Northwoods Moment in History is funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.