The history of the region is largely a history of the lake. The Sioux called the lake "Mini-Wakon," thought to mean "Spirit" or "Holy Water." Influenced perhaps by Indian legends of drowned warriors and massive waves, early explorers translated the phrase as "Bad Spirit." The name later became Devils Lake.
The first known white settler was Captain Duncan Graham, who arrived shortly after the War of 1812. The Scot trader and trapper, for whom Grahams Island State Park was named, married Hazah, twin sister to Sioux Chief Way-A-Given Agee.
In 1839, the U.S. Government sent Joseph Nicollet and John Charles Fremont, "The Pathfinder," to make topographical maps of the area. Fremont wrote in his journal, "Enchanted Waters is a beautiful sheet of water, the shores being broken into pleasing irregularity by promontories and little islands."
Fort Totten, on the lake's south shore, was established in 1867 to patrol the International Boundary, control liquor traffic, and protect settlers and residents of the Fort Totten Sioux Reservation. Today, Fort Totten State Historic Site is open to visitors interested in learning more about this period of history. Considered one of the best preserved military forts in the trans-Mississippi west, 16 original structures used by the military from 1868-1890 remain.
Immigrants, primarily of Irish and Scot descent, settled the region. The lake supported commercial fishing with pickerel caught by pitchfork and "stacked like cordwood in wagons and shipped east." Grahams Island, a triangular piece of land that becomes an island during high water, was permanently settled by the 1880s. Chief sources of island income were from wood and cattle. Other communities sprang up around the lake. In 1882, the city of Devils Lake was founded by H.M. Creel and originally named Creelburgh.
The lake served as a means of transportation for settlers. In 1833 a Mississippi River steamboat operator, Edward Heerman, launched a small sidewheel steamer, the Minnie H, on Devils Lake. His boat provided transportation between the north and south shores for several decades. From 1883-1886, Irvine Church operated a flat-bottomed ferry across Mauvais Coulee. The town of Churchs Ferry takes its name from this short-lived business venture.
North Dakota water resources comprise an irreplaceable and valuable component in the state's agricultural economy. To address this issue, a dam was constructed on the Missouri River near Garrison in 1957, and in 1965 Congress authorized the Garrison Diversion Project. The project included plans to divert water to eastern North Dakota. Several prime recreational areas associated with construction of a canal route were identified, including those on Devils Lake.
The Garrison Diversion Conservancy District, working with the Bureau of Reclamation and the Tri-County Park Board, established two county parks. In 1988, the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department assumed management of a system of four state parks and recreation areas on Devils Lake. Rising lake levels necessitated the closure of the Narrows State Recreation Area in 1995 and Shelvers Grove in 2004.