clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Mount McKinley is being renamed Denali by President Obama

General view of the West face of Mount McKinley in Denali National Park in Alaska.  (Photo by: Mike Powell/Getty Images)
General view of the West face of Mount McKinley in Denali National Park in Alaska. (Photo by: Mike Powell/Getty Images)
Mike Powell/Getty Images
  1. On Sunday, the Obama administration announced that the peak formerly known as Mount McKinley will henceforth be known as "Denali," its traditional Native Alaskan name.
  2. The mountain was officially named after President William McKinley in 1917, a gesture originally proposed by an Alaska gold prospector in recognition of McKinley's support for the gold standard.
  3. The Denali name is widely supported by Alaskans regardless of ethnicity.
  4. Politicians from McKinley's home state of Ohio are leading the opposition to the change.

The origins of "Mount McKinley"

The area around the mountain is inhabited by the Koyukon people, an Athabascan-speaking group of native Alaskans. Their traditional name for the mountain is Denali, or "tall," fitting for the tallest peak in North America. When Alaska was under Russian rule, the mountain was known as Bolshaya Gora"big mountain" — essentially a Russian translation of "Denali."

In the 1880s and 1890s, white mountaineers briefly began referring to the mountain as Densmore's Mountain, after Frank Densmore, the first white explorer to reach the base of the mountain.

Then, in 1896, came the confluence of two events. First there was a US presidential campaign dominated by a disagreement between William McKinley, who supported tying the value of the US dollar to gold, and William Jennings Bryan, who supported providing monetary stimulus by minting silver-backed dollars. Second was the beginning of the Klondike Gold Rush, prompted by the discover of gold reserves in Alaska. Gold prospectors were enthusiastic about the McKinley campaign, and began to informally call the mountain McKinley.

McKinley won the election, and natural gold discoveries (in Alaska and elsewhere) provided monetary stimulus and turned McKinley's administration into a success. He was reelected, but then assassinated in 1901 in Buffalo. In 1917, the Wilson administration officially signed the Mount McKinley National Park Act, which, among other things, changed the official name of the mountain.

Native Alaskans never appreciated the Colonial rewriting of the name of their mountain. The fact that it was named after a white man who had nothing to do with the mountain — indeed, who had never so much as been to Alaska — added insult to injury. Alaska politicians have long been pushing for a renaming, and Obama obliged them in advance of an official presidential visit to the state.

A backlash from Ohio

It seems difficult to believe that any voters in Ohio actually care about this, but for a generation now the Ohio congressional delegation has appointed itself the stewards of the "Mount McKinley" name on the grounds that McKinley is from Ohio.

Sen. Robert Portman led the charge on Twitter:

House Speaker John Boehner is also an Ohioan and reacted angrily to the news, proclaiming himself "deeply disappointed" with this slight to McKinley's legacy.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.