This area was first referred to as the “Four Lakes” in a manuscript in 1817. In 1833 a team of
surveyors led by Orson Lyon moved through from the south and, starting with Lake Kegonsa, naming
the lakes First through Fourth as they encountered them. Their map showed what now is Lake Wingra
as a pond, and left it unnamed. Because settlers believed Wingra had no outlet, it was commonly
called Dead Lake as early as 1840.
In 1849 Simeon Mills
, one of Madison's first settlers, employed
Frank Hudson of Philadelphia to plat the University Addition. Hudson, familiar with Indian legends,
suggested the names Monona and Mendota be applied to Third and Fourth lakes respectively. Mendota,
a Dakota name, means “confluence of rivers.” Monona, a Sauk-Fox name, was translated as “fairy.”
In 1854 Governor Leonard Farwell
decided all of the lakes
should have Indian names. Lyman Draper
found two Ojibwa names for
First and Second lakes; Kegonsa “little fish” and Waubesa “swan”. The Legislature made the names of
all the lakes, including Wingra, a Ho-Chunk name meaning “duck,” official on February 14, 1855.
A year earlier Horace Greeley had created a map of the Four Lakes for Farwell to use in his
promotions, showing these names in print for the first time (although Greeley spelled Monona
“Menona”). Other features familiar today were also named, including Picnic Point, which to that
time had been called Gooseberry Point, and the Yahara River, an Ojibwa word for “catfish,” also
chosen by Farwell.
Other place names included Peena “good water” Creek, today Pheasant Branch; Tarporah “breast bone”
Creek, today Nine Springs Creek; Neosho “containing water” Creek, today Six Mile Creek.
Wintertime on Madison's Lakes
Both lakes have frozen over every winter since researchers began keeping records in 1855.
Ice can be from 12 to 18 inches thick. The ice near shore is usually about three to four inches
thicker than the center.
The average length of time they remain frozen has dropped. From 1999 to 2008, Mendota was frozen
over for an average of 82 days a year, about 20 days less per year than from 1899 to 1908.