The name “Bear Lake” appears on an 1843 map drawn by Explorer J.N. Nicollet, who followed the fur trade route through the region. White Bear Lake is taken from the Dakota word “Mahto-mde,” which roughly translates into “Bears Lake.”

Future newspapermen, resort owners and visitors would come to call the entire area “White Bear Lake” because the lake was the largest reference point in the vicinity. The lake would also become well known for its legend in which the spirit of a white bear haunts Manitou Island. There are several versions of the “Legend of White Bear Lake” the most popular of which was made famous in humorist Mark Twain’s 1883 book, Life on the Mississippi.

In 1846-47, French Canadian families, including those headed by Jean Vadnais and Jean Garceau, loaded their household goods onto ox-carts and walked north from St. Paul’s Landing, on the Mississippi River, to the shores of Lake Vadnais. The settlers built a small log schoolhouse near the Little Canada and St. Paul Road. The first teacher was Eliza LaBarre, who taught the students in French.

The first English-speaking settler in White Bear was Mexican War Veteran Hugh Vance. In 1851, he selected 220 acres southeast of Bald Eagle Lake, erected a cabin, planted crops and lived with his family. In 1861, when the Civil War broke out, he and his two sons joined the Union Army. They were all killed in Missouri the following year.

Also in 1851, Villeroy B. Barnum selected a 175-acre tract of land on the southwest of White Bear Lake. He built a cabin that would serve as a hotel and boat livery. The Panic of 1857 shattered the hopes of many land speculators and settlers. Despite the economic bust that gripped the nation, John Lamb purchased the Barnum Hotel and began to make improvements.

Lamb’s Hotel was host to an historic meeting on May 11, 1858, when residents organized White Bear Township. That meeting set the cornerstone for grass roots democracy that has endured for over 150 years. Twenty-seven votes were cast in that first Town election. James F. Murray was elected Chairman of the three-member Town Board with Moses LeMay and Gaspard Moosbrugger elected as Supervisors. In addition, George W Schnabel was elected Clerk, Joseph LaBarre as Collector and Villeroy B. Barnum as Assessor. James R. Clewett and Alex Pepin were elected as Justices of the Peace, Joseph Pepin and W.F. Park as Constables and Louis Bibeau became Overseer of the Poor.

Over the next 20 years, European-American settlers of mainly German, Swedish and French-Canadian ancestry would travel north from St. Paul to settle near Lake Vadnais, Bald Eagle Lake and White Bear Lake. The Homestead Act of 1862, which offered settlers 160 acres of free land in return for five years of residency and land improvements, attracted a steady stream of immigrants to the Township. That stream turned into a river once the railroad arrived in 1868.

Source: “White Bear: A History,” by Catherine Carey, 2008