Denali Alaska – What’s In A Name?

Who decides what a mountain should be called or officially named. Internationally there is no recognized system of naming that is universal. Most countries have adopted an official form for naming landmarks, like mountains and rivers with a majority of names being simply passed down from historic names.

In America as with most things, it’s bureaucratic. Most decisions on approving or denying geographic names falls to a board of government officials from several federal departments that include the Government Publishing Office, the Library of Congress, and the U.S. Postal Service. It’s called The Board of Geographic Names and it only responds to proposals from federal agencies, state and local governments (many of which have their own boards), and the public to either approve or deny requests in an effort to create a national standard.

Through the late 19th century there was no official system and names assigned to things could include a number of different titles. In 1890, President Harrison, at the request of the superintendent of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, created the Board of Geographic Names for the purpose of standardizing “unsettled questions concerning geographic names,” adding that “the decisions of the Board are to be accepted as the standard authority for such matters by the U.S. government.”

For years in Alaska the accepted name for the tallest mountain on Earth* was Mount McKinley. The mountain was named by William Dickey, a gold prospector, working the Susitna River in June 1896. His account appeared in The New York Sun on January 24, 1897 titled “Discoveries in Alaska”. In the story he wrote, “We named our great peak Mount McKinley, after William McKinley of Ohio, who had been nominated for the Presidency, and that fact was the first news we received on our way out of that wonderful wilderness”. Several accounts implied the name was political; Dickey had been in conflict with several silver miners who promoted Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan who supported a U.S. silver standard. He named the mountain McKinley because he was a proponent of a gold standard.

The name of the highest mountain in North America* became a dispute in 1975, when the Alaska Legislature formally asked the U.S. federal government to officially change its name from “Mount McKinley” to “Denali” as it was the common name used in the state. The name Denali is based on the Koyukon name of the mountain, Deenaalee (‘the high one’). The Koyukon were Alaskan Athabaskans who settled in the area north of the mountain.

The mountain had officially been named by the federal government in 1917 to commemorate William McKinley, who was President of the United States from 1897 until 1901. The name change by the federal government was originally attempted by legislation but was blocked by members of the congressional delegation from Ohio, the home state of McKinley. In August 2015, after petitioning the Board of Geographic Names, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced that the name would officially be changed in all federal documents.

*While Mt. Everest is the highest peak in the world, Denali is actually the tallest mountain if measured from its base to the peak. Because of this, like Everest, Denali is one of the most challenging and dangerous mountains to climb.

P.S. Denali is not the only major geological feature with a recent change of name. There are groups trying to rename Mt. Everest to either Chomolungma or Sagarmatha. Originally named after Colonel Sir George Everest the Tibetan name, Chomolungma, means “Goddess Mother of the World” with the Sanskrit name Sagarmatha meaning “Peak of Heaven.”

In Australia the famous Ayers Rock that was named by explorer William Gosse in 1873 after the Premier of South Australia, Sir Henry Ayers. The rock was officially renamed Ayers Rock / Uluru in 1993. Uluru was the Aboriginal name and in 2002 the official names were reversed at the request of the Regional Tourism Association in Alice Springs not any specific request by the Aborigines.

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