The politics of naming mountains can get contentious. Consider the mountain we now know as Mount Everest. Before we arrived at that eponym — named for a Welsh surveyor — the mountain at 27°59′17″N 86°55′31″E was known variously as Kangchenjunga, Dhaulagiri, Peak b, Peak XV, Deodungha, Chomolungma and Shengmu Feng. Which should we pick? Who decides which name to use? And most importantly, what does that name convey about the mountain and about ourselves?
These might seem like trivial questions. Some people are apt to say, Who cares about what we call them. The name doesn’t change anything about the mountain. But names have always held an almost uncanny power over objects. That’s why people have always argued so fervently over the names of mountains. Here are five of the most interesting, and sometimes the strangest, mountain naming controversies.
Captain George Vancouver sailed his ship through Puget Sound in May 1792 and was the first European to espy the 14,000 foot mountain at 46°51′10″N 121°45′37″W. He named it after his friend, Rear Admiral Peter Rainier.
He did this in disregard of the infinitely more interesting Native American name, Tacoma. (Since Native Americans have no alphabet, and pronunciation varied from tribe to tribe, the word has been transliterated into the Latin alphabet variously as Tacoma, Tahoma, Tacobah etc.) There are many interpretations regarding the meaning of the word Tacoma. Most of them note that the the word “co” means water in the Lushootseed language, and that Tacoma means “the mother of all waters.” The word beautifully evokes the mountain’s prodigious glaciers, which provide water to the many rivers and lakes in the area. One member of the Puyallup tribe says, “The Earth is our mother and Tahoma gives us drink, gives white water to the land.”
Another interpretation is that “Kobah” is the Lushootseed name for the nearby mountain we now know as Mount Baker, and that “Takobah” means higher than “Kobah”.
During the 19th Century, both “Tacoma” and “Rainier” were used to describe the mountain with equal frequency. But in 1890, the US Board on Geographic Names (re: the question of who decides which names are used, the answer in America is this federal body) ruled that all government maps and publications refer to it as “Rainier”, even though a nearby town was named Tacoma in honor of the mountain. There were some attempts in the early 20th Century to change the name to “Tacoma,” but none stuck.
Of all the controversies of mountain names on this list, the history of the names of the mountain at 3°04′10″N 151°00′27″W is by far the strangest. The local tribes, of the Koykon Athabaskan people, called the 20,000 foot peak Denali (or Dinale), meaning the great one. Other tribes named called it Tenada, Traleika or Doleika, all meaning roughly big mountain.
George Vancouver was probably one of the first Europeans to see it, but declined to name it.
A prospector named Frank Densmore, who mined for gold near the mountain, was an early proselytizer of the mountain’s majesty. The mountain became known to other prospectors as Densmore’s Peak.
Russian immigrants — probably feeling left out of the naming frenzy — called it Bolshaya Gora, “great mountain”, a translation of “Denali.”
Finally, there is William Dickey, another prospector who achieved the coup de grace of this mountain naming farce. He was digging for gold near the mountain, and wrote of his experiences in the New York Sun when he returned home. He named the mountain McKinley, after the then presidential candidate. (The story goes that Dickey favored McKinley, a strong advocate for the gold standard, over William Jennings Bryant, who favored a silver standard, for obvious personal financial reasons.) The name somehow stuck.
In 1896, the US Board of Geographic Names chose “McKinley” as the official name, in spite of the overwhelming preference in Alaska of “Denali”. Alaskans, and mountaineers, continued to call it Denali, despite the Federal Government’s proclamation otherwise. In 1975, the Alaskan Board of Geographic names renamed the mountain Denali, and Alaskan legislators sought to change it on a national level, as well.
Not so fast, said Rep. Ralph Regula of Ohio (R). President McKinley lived most of his life in Canton, Ohio, which is part of Regula’s district. Seeking to preserve the President’s legacy, the congressman blocked all legislation to rename the mountain.
Another absurd wrinkle entered this Kafkaesque parable in 1980, when the Mount McKinley National Park was incorporated into the larger and newly protected Denali National Park and Preserve. The entire park is called “Denali”, after its most prominent feature, while the actual mountain continues to be named “McKinley”.
Congressman Regula continued his campaign of legislative trickery to block any attempt at renaming McKinley, until his retirement in 2009. Alaskan Representatives, seeing their chance, once more put forth legislation to restore the mountain’s original name, but they were blocked again, this time by two new Ohio congressmen.
There are many stories about the origins of the mountain’s antiquated and racially embarrassing name. The way it’s most often told involves a skirmish during the French and Indian War in 1756. A US Army Colonel led a charge against a Native American force encamped on the mountain. One black soldier named “Nemisis” distinguished himself with his bravery, but died during the battle. The mountain was named “Negro Mountain” in his honor.
The name became controversial during the late 2000’s when a State Representative from Pennsylvania raised questions about the mountain’s name. A 2011 Maryland State measure to rename the mountain, along with the equally embarrassingly named Polish Mountain, failed to pass.
An active Colorado citizen one day decided that John Denver, the state’s native son, deserved a peak named after him. She decided on Mount Sopris, a 12,965 footer in Western Colorado, which has two unnamed peaks jutting out on top of it. Why not name one of those peaks after Denver?
This stirred up some controversy in the Rocky Mountain state. Many people saw it as the beginning of the commercialization of the wilderness. Or the kitschy apotheosis of a syrupy hack. The headlines weren’t very favorable: Mountain to be renamed after Tacky Singer Songwriter.
But the whole thing wasn’t nearly as bad as it seemed. The mountain was to remain named Mount Sopris (which was named after Captain Richard Sopris, explorer and Mayor of Denver); only one of the unnamed peaks was to be named after John Denver. Denver was a lifelong environmentalist and conservation advocate. He did more than most people to maintain the sanctity of the wilderness. And he penned Rocky Mountain High, which aside from being a badass song is also one of the official state songs of Colorado. He deserves a mountain named after him!
The movement stalled, and the peaks of Mount Sopris remain unnamed. But for at least one Colorado citizen, one of those peaks will always be named after John Denver.
The shape of the naming controversy of Aeolis Mons is familiar: People for whom the mountain was important named it one thing, while an official ruling body named it another. The only difference was that this occurred for a mountain on the surface of Mars.
In March 2012, NASA named the mountain on which the Curiosity rover was to climb “Mount Sharpe”, an 18,000 footer rising out of a massive crater. It was named in reverence toward Robert P. Sharp, an expert on the geological surface of Mars who died in 2004.
Everything was good until the International Astronomical Union — the official ruling body on extraterrestrial names that caused trouble when it demoted Pluto to non-planet status — named it Aeolis Mons (Aeolis is the name for a region in Asia Minor) instead. According to established naming conventions on Mars, only craters can be named after people, so a nearby crater was named after Sharp.
It’s important to remember that even the oldest names for mountains are infinitesimally young in relation to the mountain itself. What difference does it make that people named a mountain 100 years before someone else when that mountain is a million years old? A breathtaking vanity is evidenced by anyone who lays claim to the “real” name of any natural feature.