5 Mountain Naming Controversies

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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.

Mount RainierMount Rainier
Oth­er Names: Taco­ma, Tahoma, Tacobah

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.

Mount McKinleyMount McKin­ley
Oth­er Names: Denali, Dinale, Tena­da, Tralei­ka, Dolei­ka, Bol­shaya Gora, Densmore’s Peak

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 ®. 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.

negro mountainNegro Moun­tain
Negro Moun­tain is not actu­al­ly a moun­tain, but a 30 mile long ridge in the Alleghe­ny range, tra­vers­ing through Mary­land and Penn­syl­va­nia. Its high point is Mount Davis, at 3,213 feet.

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.

Mount SoprisMount Sopris
Oth­er Names: John Den­ver Peak

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.

Aeolis MonsAeo­lis Mons
Oth­er Names: Mount Sharp

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.