It seems like a no-brainer: The Whitefish Chain was called the Whitefish Chain because it has a lot of whitefish swimming within it. And it's true, the lake was named for the fish that live so abundantly in the water, but the story is more interesting than you'd expect.
The name goes back more than 200 years (it seems the lake has always been named for good fishing!). In the early 1800s, greater Minnesota including the Whitefish Chain was not well known. Only the American Indians and the trappers and traders knew the area. Fur trading was big at the time, as European trade goods were brought west and traded to American Indians in exchange for furs. The Northwest Company was king in the fur trade for many years, and had a temporary trading post set up on the north shore of Whitefish Lake, near Arrowhead Lake, which was built in 1801. That's before the dam was built, so the structure of the lakes looked much different back then (though the bones of the chain was still there. Read more here). Historical accounts from explorers say that the post later burned down.
There were two main American Indian tribes living in the area at the time: the Dakota and the Ojibwe. They often fought over territory and fought one locally famous battle on Moonlite Bay.
It was these trappers who guided explorers through Minnesota as they mapped the area and its waterways. The area was explored by famous explorers like Zebulon Pike, Aitkin and Morrison. You may recognize the latter two as the namesake for the area's neighboring counties.
It's the American Indian tribes who we have to thank for the name of the Whitefish Chain, but we can also give some credit to Joseph Nicollet, who trained in France as an astronomer and later emigrated to the United States. As he journeyed the Mississippi River by canoe, he recorded the translated name of the lake from the natives. The name was "Kadikumagokag," or "Lake Where There are Many Whitefish." Nicollet recorded the name on his maps and so the native's name has lived on to modern day.
The story is that Nicollet, led by Ojibwe guides, journeyed north from Upper Hay Lake, to Lower Hay Lake (which is located to the north, though it is downstream), to Upper Whitefish. The group camped near the mouth of the Pine River. On August 14, 1836, Nicollet recorded acres of water lilies and his delight at watching the northern lights from camp. He later passed across the chain through Rush Lake and Cross Lake.
So, while the name of the Whitefish Chain seems inherently simple, there is a deeper story. We love our Kadikumagokag, or Whitefish Lake.
Information for this post came from "A Taste of History," a compilation of area history by the Crosslake Historical Society. The comprehensive, fascinating book is available from Judy's House of Gifts in Crosslake, and the perfect library addition for anyone who loves the Whitefish Chain.