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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: ‘McKinley’ Gave Way to ‘Denali’ Long Ago

By Tom Morrow

Is it “Denali,” the name given it by Native Americans several centuries ago, or is it “Mount McKinley,” dubbed as such by a not-so-long ago gold prospector? It’s Alaska crown jewel among its many high mountains.

It is the highest mountain in North America. Since 1917, when it was officially named by the U.S. government, it’s been Mount McKinley. Nonetheless, the Koyukon people who inhabit the land around the great peak have always referred to it as “Denali.” The name means “high,” or “tall” in the Koyukon language.

President William McKinley’s mountain officially lost its name when the U.S. Department of Interior, backed by the stroke of President Obama’s pen, made it so in 2015. Following the lead of the State of Alaska, the U.S. Department of Interior announced the new official name of “Denali” out of respect for the Native Americans who knew it as such for as far back as their history will take them.

For much of the 20th century, most school children learned the highest peak in the United States was Mount Whitney in the High Sierras of California. But, in North America it was “Mount McKinley,” which didn’t seem to be on anyone’s radar screen until Alaska became a state in 1959. Suddenly, in geography classes everywhere, Mount McKinley shoved Mount Whitney to the side of the Sierras – it was just the highest peak in the “Lower 48” as Alaskans refer to us. But, it was a moot point because for years most Alaskans already referred to their mountain as “Denali.”

At 20,310 feet above sea level, the great mountain is the third most isolated peak after Mount Everest and Aconcagua. Today, it is the centerpiece of Denali National Park & Preserve just north of Anchorage, which is one of Alaska’s most visited areas.

In 1896, a gold prospector named the mountain “McKinley” in political support for then-presidential candidate William McKinley, who became president the following year. The United States formally recognized Mount McKinley after President Wilson signed the Mount McKinley National Park Act of February 26, 1917. In 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson declared the north and south peaks of the mountain the “Churchill Peaks”, in honor of British statesman Winston Churchill. The Alaska Board of Geographic Names changed the name of the mountain to Denali in 1975, which was how it is called locally. However, a request in 1975 from the Alaska state legislature to the United States Board on Geographic Names to do the same at the federal level was blocked by Ohio congressman Ralph Regula, whose district included President McKinley’s hometown of Canton.

So, where does this all bring us – or, better yet, leave? If you were a student in the first half of the 20th century, you learned it was “Mount McKinley” that was the highest mountain in North America. “Mount Whitney” was always the correct answer on a geography question as to what was the highest peak in the United States.

I’m often corrected by younger folk when Alaska is discussed. I’ve been there, but it was back in 1961. And, yes I saw this giant white thing in the moonlight that filled the northern night sky from Anchorage. I was told by an Alaskan it was “Mount McKinley,” and I’ve always referred to it as such. It’s probably the only way most of us remember that particular president, who has nearly been lost in history.

Since I don’t know any Koyukon Native Americans, I doubt that I’ll offend anyone by calling it by the name I’ve always called it, so there!


shadow_of_the_fox02My latest novel, “In The Shadow of The Fox” and all my other books are available in both print and e-book formats at Amazon.com.