The Stories Behind Common Last Names on Topo Maps

Pre­sum­ably, if your name is on a map, you must be impor­tant. A glance at the topo maps of wild places reveal a swath of names. Some are famil­iar, and many are puz­zling. Have you ever won­dered who these places were actu­al­ly named after, and why?

Need­less to say, these places already had names to the peo­ple who had lived beside them for mil­len­nia. But the names giv­en by white explor­ers tell a lot about what they val­ued. Some are obvi­ous, like Mt. Wash­ing­ton, Adams, and Jef­fer­son, on the crest of the Cas­cades. Oth­ers are endear­ing: Yosemite’s Mount Rit­ter was named by geol­o­gist Josi­ah Whit­ney for an old teacher and men­tor. Some are shame­less brown nos­ing: George Van­cou­ver named Washington’s high­est peak after his boss, Rear Admi­ral Peter Rainier.

But many are less obvi­ous, or less cheesy. And they reveal some inter­est­ing stories.

Mount Watkins, Yosemite Nation­al Park
Mount Watkins is a gran­ite mono­lith ris­ing just across the nar­row east end of Yosemite Val­ley from Half Dome. It’s named for Car­leton Watkins, one of the first wave of Amer­i­can pho­tog­ra­phers. He was known for his “mam­moth plates”, 18 x 22 plates that yield­ed mas­sive images with enor­mous detail. He trav­eled to Yosemite in 1861. When he returned to Wash­ing­ton D.C, his images con­vinced Abra­ham Lin­coln to sign a bill pre­serv­ing Yosemite Val­ley, begin­ning the idea lat­er became known as the nation­al parks.

But Watkins’ life was filled with hard­ship. He lost his first stu­dio, along with many of his images, to cred­i­tors who then repro­duced them with­out ever men­tion­ing Watkins as the cre­ator. Lat­er in life, he slow­ly went blind, and his inabil­i­ty to work led to him liv­ing in an aban­doned rail­road car in the 1890s. His sec­ond stu­dio, in San Fran­cis­co, burned down in the fire that fol­lowed the 1906 quake, along with the vast major­i­ty of his images, neg­a­tives, and plates. The image of a blind Watkins being led away from his burn­ing stu­dio is too sad for words.


William O. Dou­glas Wilder­ness, WA
Legal schol­ars will tell you that Dou­glas was the youngest per­son appoint­ed to the Supreme Court, at age 40, and that he served the longest, occu­py­ing the fed­er­al bench for 36 years. They’ll also tell you that he was a fierce defend­er of civ­il lib­er­ties. But his con­nec­tion to wild places was both legal and per­son­al. In 1972 he argued that inan­i­mate aspects of nature like rivers, air, trees, wildlife, and ecosys­tems should have legal stand­ing and that plain­tiffs should be allowed to sue in their name. He helped launch the first law review ded­i­cat­ed to con­ser­va­tion, Envi­ron­men­tal Law, pub­lished by Lewis & Clark Law School in Port­land. Out­side of the fed­er­al bench, he played a crit­i­cal role in the preser­va­tion of the Buf­fa­lo Riv­er in Arkansas and Kentucky’s New Riv­er Gorge. The con­nec­tion to Washington’s wilder­ness came from being a fre­quent guest at Spir­it Lake Lodge on Mt. St. Helens.

©istockphoto/Jeff Goulden

Bob Mar­shall Wilder­ness, Mon­tana
Bob Mar­shall was a climber in the Adiron­dacks, a wilder­ness trav­el­er in the Amer­i­can west and Alas­ka, and was lat­er the head of the For­est Service’s recre­ation pro­gram under FDR. He cement­ed his place among the mod­ern wilder­ness preser­va­tion move­ment by found­ing The Wilder­ness Soci­ety in 1935, and pro­vid­ed most of the fund­ing for the organization’s first few years. And he undoubt­ed­ly would have accom­plished even more had he not died young, pass­ing away from heart fail­ure at age 38.
Kirk Olson, CC by 2.0,


Math­er Point, Grand Canyon Nation­al Park
Stephen Math­er was the wealthy, self-made head of a borax com­pa­ny. At the time, that the US gov­ern­ment owned a ran­dom col­lec­tion of parks, mon­u­ments, and civ­il war bat­tle­fields, most­ly admin­is­tered by the Army. When Mather’s friend Ster­ling Yard cre­at­ed a new agency to admin­is­ter the parks, he tapped Math­er to be its head in 1916. He turned the new Nation­al Park Ser­vice into one of the most pres­ti­gious and respect­ed arms of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, pay­ing ini­tial staff salaries out of his own pock­et, launch­ing pub­lic­i­ty cam­paigns to increase aware­ness of the parks, and rais­ing funds from his wealthy friends for new park­lands. When the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment balked at the cost of Yosemite’s Mari­posa Grove and the right of way to Tio­ga Road, he bought them on the spot with his per­son­al funds and donat­ed them to the Park. He made the decision—appreciated by many, crit­i­cized by others—that parks should embrace the auto­mo­bile, democ­ra­tiz­ing vis­i­ta­tion beyond wealthy rail­road tourists, and intro­duc­ing the con­cept of the “scenic dri­ve”. The deci­sion brought new waves of inter­est in parks, and also opened the door to the crowds and devel­op­ment that would draw crit­i­cism decades later.


Frank Church Riv­er of No Return Wilder­ness, Ida­ho
The Frank Church Riv­er of No Return Wilder­ness is huge, encom­pass­ing the Mid­dle Fork of the Salmon Riv­er, and, along with the Gospel Hump Wilder­ness, much of the Main Salmon drainage as well. It’s fit­ting. A pro­gres­sive politi­cian from a con­ser­v­a­tive state, Church rep­re­sent­ed Ida­ho in the US Sen­ate, and put his stamp on most of the major con­ser­va­tion leg­is­la­tion of the 1960 and 70s. He was the floor spon­sor of the 1964 Wilder­ness Act and the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the cre­ation Hells Canyon Recre­ation Area, and the Saw­tooth Wilder­ness. In 1980, his final year in the Sen­ate, he secured the cre­ation of the Riv­er of No Return Wilder­ness, the largest wilder­ness in the Low­er 48, which now bears his name.
CC BY 2.0, Rex Park­er,


Ding Dar­ling Wilder­ness, Flori­da
This 2,600-acre wilder­ness in the Flori­da man­groves is almost cer­tain­ly the only Wilder­ness ever named for a car­toon­ist. Jay Nor­wood Dar­ling, who went by “Ding”, was a car­toon­ist from, of all places, Des Moines, where he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1924 and 1943 for edi­to­r­i­al car­toon­ing. A pas­sion­ate out­doors­man who became deeply con­cerned about the world’s ris­ing pop­u­la­tion and the strain it put on soil, water, food sup­plies, and wildlife, he penned a num­ber of con­ser­va­tion-focused car­toons, and ini­ti­at­ed the Fed­er­al Duck Stamp pro­gram. He also played a major hand in found­ing the Nation­al Wildlife Federation.