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September 1, 2015

The story of America is told by the names on the land. When you hear names like Kentucky and Kennesaw, Klamath and Kodiak, your mind immediately starts to turn over all manner of associated thoughts of what you may have experienced or learned or even what you may imagine about that place.

U.S. Department of the Interior press release

The story of America is told by the names on the land. When you hear names like Kentucky and Kennesaw, Klamath and Kodiak, your mind immediately starts to turn over all manner of associated thoughts of what you may have experienced or learned or even what you may imagine about that place. Geographic names often serve as a mental index and guide to help organize our knowledge of American geography and history.

Most of the time the names of places seem quite mundane because they are so basic in our everyday lives. They are invisible, unremarkable elements of the way we think and communicate. Yet, to borrow a phrase from Sir Francis Bacon*, names carry “much impression and enchantment.” When people disagree about the right name of a place, then the importance of geographic names becomes clearly evident.

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell has announced that the highest mountain in the United States and North America, formerly known as Mount McKinley, will now be officially designated by the name Denali in all federal records.

“This name change recognizes the sacred status of Denali to many Alaska Natives,” Secretary Jewell said. “The name Denali has been official for use by the State of Alaska since 1975, but even more importantly, the mountain has been known as Denali for generations. With our own sense of reverence for this place, we are officially renaming the mountain Denali in recognition of the traditions of Alaska Natives and the strong support of the people of Alaska."

Secretary Jewell issued a Secretarial Order to make the name Denali official in accordance with her authority under the 1947 federal law that provides for the standardization of geographic names through the U.S Board on Geographic Names. Her action was heartily endorsed by President Obama who was participating in a meeting of the international Arctic Council in Anchorage.

I will never forget the first time I saw Denali. Even from Anchorage, over 100 miles away, I could see a massive mound of white on the horizon, so obviously taller than anything else around it. I stood and marveled; it truly is ‘the high one.’ Doug Vandegraft, Chair, Domestic Names Committee, U.S. Board on Geographic Names; resident of Anchorage, 1983-2000. Photo courtesy U.S. National Park Service.

Mount McKinley, the name

Mount McKinley was named in 1896 by William Andrews Dickey, a prospector who wrote an account of his adventures in Alaska in the January 24, 1897 edition of the New York Sun. He named the mountain “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.” McKinley championed the gold standard, a cause which Dickey supported. This article and an accompanying sketch map made the mountain known to the world outside Alaska.

But the mountain had older names.

A name before time

The word Denali is the accepted English spelling of an Athabascan name for the mountain, meaning “the tall one.” Obviously, the first use of the name cannot be established; it is part of a long oral tradition that reaches far into the past. The official federal name record for Denali lists over 30 variant names for the feature, many of them from Native languages and from Russian.

The first written record of the Denali massif is by Captain George Vancouver, who when seeing it from Cook Inlet in 1794, referred to the "stupendous snow mountains." The Russians descriptively called the mountain Bolshaya (Bulshaia) Gora"big mountain." Alfred Mayo and Arthur Harper, pioneer Alaska traders, after a trip up the Tanana River in 1878, reported "a great ice mountain to the south" but did not name it. A prospector, Frank Densmore, spoke so enthusiastically after seeing the mountain from Lake Minchumina in 1889 that it was known for years among prospectors as Densmores Peak.

Standardizing America’s Names

In the nineteenth century, with the expansion of American maritime and commercial activities and the growth of interest in western lands and Alaska, inconsistencies among geographic names, spellings, and applications were a serious problem for the federal government. President Benjamin Harrison established the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN) as the geographic names authority for the Nation in 1890. An act of Congress re-established the BGN in its present form in 1947.

The work of the BGN reduces duplication of effort among federal departments and agencies. State and local government officials generally follow the federal use of geographic names as a matter of efficiency, although there is no law requiring this. In ruling on hundreds of geographic name decisions every year, and in managing millions of geographic name records for the benefit of the American public, the BGN seeks to be deferential and consistently neutral in its interactions with Congress.

Names for the mountain at the turn of the 20th century

Recognized by the BGN in 1897, the official name Mount McKinley immediately began to appear on federal maps.

The 1898 U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey map of Alaska is one of the first federal maps to display the name Mount McKinley. Click the image to go to the NOAA historical map website and then zoom in to see the name. The Russian variant name Bulshaia is shown in parenthesis. The map does not show Anchorage which was not founded at the time.

Although President McKinley never set foot in Alaska or had any significant association with the area, his tragic assassination in 1901, just six months into his second term, likely contributed to a shared sense of public commemoration in the name Mount McKinley.

The summit of the mountain was first reached in 1913 by Hudson Stuck, Walter Harper, Robert Tatum, and Harry Karstens (Karstens later served as superintendent of the park now known as Denali National Park). Each of these first ascenders favored the name Denali for the mountain. Stuck, Episcopal Archdeacon of the Yukon, made a plea “for the restoration to the greatest mountain in North America of its immemorial native name [Denali]” in the foreword of the book he wrote about the ascent.

Denali goes to the U.S. Board

The Alaska State Board on Geographic Names, acting under state authority, made the name Denali official for state use in 1975. Soon afterward, Alaska Governor Jay S. Hammond petitioned the Secretary of the Interior for federal recognition of the name by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN).

The BGN, in accordance with its customary practice, did not act immediately on Hammond’s request in order to hear the views of many other interested parties. Due to continued reaction to the name-change proposal by the public and elected officials, the BGN took no decisive action until its July 1977 meeting, when it was agreed that public meetings should be held. The first meeting was held in October at the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C.; the second in November in Anchorage, Alaska.

An impasse with Congress and the Board  

The BGN then indicated that it expected to render a decision on the name change proposal at its December 1977 meeting. Prior to that meeting, however, the Ohio congressional delegation introduced a joint resolution in Congress, which if passed, would “retain the name Mount McKinley in perpetuity.” As a result, the BGN deferred any action on the issue at that December meeting — and for many years afterward as the Ohio delegation to Congress continued to introduce legislation to keep the name Mount McKinley.

In order to distance itself from political considerations, the BGN adopted a policy in the 1960s that it would not consider geographic name issues that were the subject of pending congressional legislation, a policy later endorsed by the Secretary of the Interior in 1981. The consequence of this well-intentioned policy was that the repeated introduction of legislation by the Ohio delegation (1977-2015) had the effect of indefinitely deferring any further consideration of the McKinley-Denali controversy by the BGN.

“The 38-year impasse between the BGN and Congress was unique in BGN history, a situation that was never anticipated when the policy was adopted,” said Doug Caldwell, Chair, U.S. Board on Geographic Names.

Meanwhile, the people of Alaska continued to show their support for the name Denali. Resolutions in support of BGN recognition of the name for federal use were adopted by the Alaska State Board on Geographic Names in 2001 and 2009. The Alaska delegation to Congress offered several bills in support of the name; the most recent was sponsored by Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan in January 2015.  As recently as August 12, 2015, the Denali Borough Assembly (the local government that encompasses the mountain) adopted a resolution to support “federal designation for the tallest North American peak as Denali.”

Resolution by Denali Borough, Alaska, in support of the name Denali for the mountain. Aug. 12, 2015.

Enter the Secretary

Under the 1947 law that empowers the BGN to standardize and approve geographic names, the Secretary of the Interior has equal (“conjoint” is the term used in the law) authority with the BGN. In fact, under the law, the Secretary is responsible for overseeing the BGN’s actions. The law explicitly states that action “may be taken by the Secretary in any matter wherein the Board does not act within a reasonable time.”

Forty years have passed since former Alaska Governor Hammond first petitioned for a name change in 1975. In view of the expressed will of the people of Alaska and in keeping with the principles of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, Secretary Jewell has now taken action to rename Mount McKinley as Denali under the authority granted to her office by the law.

All Americans can appreciate that the citizens of Alaska deserve to have national recognition of the ancient, sacred, and popular name that they favor for the preeminent mountain of North America.

*English philosopher, scientist; 1561-1626

Learn more

U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN)

Names on the Land (USGS Top Story)

BGN 125th Anniversary Celebration

Denali National Park

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