On the eve of the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary, the name of the highest peak in North America changed from “Mount McKinley” to “Denali.” The timing of the change not only helps mark the agency’s centennial, it shines a light on the long human history of the park, and illuminates a naming debate that has lasted more than 100 years.
Origins of the Name Controversy
The controversy started before the establishment of the park and has continued into the present. Charles Sheldon and Belmore Browne, who were the strongest advocates for the formation of the park, probably would have been pleased to hear about the 2015 decision by the Secretary of the Interior to restore the name “Denali” to North America’s highest peak.
On January 13th, 1916, hunter-naturalist Charles Sheldon made an appeal to Thomas Riggs of the Alaska Engineering Commission regarding the naming of the park and its crown jewel:
“I hope that in the bill you will call it ‘Mt Denali National Park’ so that the true old Indian [sic] name of Mt McKinley (meaning ‘the Great One’) will thus be preserved.”
On the same day that Sheldon sent his letter, mountaineer Belmore Browne also wrote to Riggs about the naming of the park and was unequivocal in his language, referring to the proposed park as “Denali National Park.”
Sheldon, Browne, and Riggs were part of a team that was drafting legislation to establish a national park protecting wildlife. Sheldon and Browne, who had both spent significant time within the proposed park boundaries, were deeply alarmed by the decimation of the region’s game due to market hunting and the impending arrival of the railroad. They were also concerned about preserving for the mountain a Native name which increasingly was being dismissed or completely ignored by American mapmakers, and in other publications.
Riggs disagreed with Sheldon and Browne. In his reply to Browne, Riggs declared:
“I don’t like the name of Denali. It is not descriptive. Everybody in the United States knows of Mt. McKinley and the various efforts made to climb it. In consequence, both Mr. Yard and I think that the name McKinley should stick.”
While Sheldon and Browne did not agree with Riggs’s point-of-view, their ultimate objective was to pass a bill quickly, so in a steadfast effort to keep things moving, they capitulated to Riggs on the name.
“Mount McKinley National Park” officially prevailed after its legislation was signed into law on February 26, 1917.
Despite the official decision to use “Mount McKinley” as the name of the peak and the national park, the debate did not die. It proved difficult to supplant words and meanings that endured for generations among Athabaskan groups living in close proximity to the mountain. Athabaskan words for the mountain translate to “the tall one” or “mountain-big” (perhaps Riggs did not know the Native words were descriptive). “McKinley” was incompatible with the Athabaskan worldview because they rarely name places after people.
Renaming Effort Begins
In 1975, the name controversy reemerged when the State of Alaska petitioned the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (USBGN) to change the name of the mountain to Denali officially. Unfortunately for Alaskans, the Ohio congressional delegation (representing former-President McKinley’s home state) blocked their efforts for the next four decades.
In 1980, momentum continued to favor the name Denali after the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act changed the park’s name to Denali National Park and Preserve. But the official name of the mountain remained Mount McKinley.
Name-change efforts led by Alaskan politicians continued to be thwarted by Congress until President Barack Obama and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell took action in 2015 to restore the name Denali to the mountain. Secretary Jewell cited a 1947 law that empowers the Secretary of Interior to use authority when the USBGN “does not act within a reasonable time” as a justification to make the change.
The Origin of Names
No fewer than nine Native groups, from time immemorial, have used unique names for the mountain. There are five Athabaskan languages surrounding the park, each with its own oral place name. According to University of Alaska linguist James Kari, the groups to the north and west of the mountain (and Alaska Range) use words that translate to “the tall one.” The Athabaskan languages to the south of the mountain use words that mean “mountain-big.” The name “Denali” stems from “deenaalee,” which is from the Koyukon language traditionally spoken on the north side.
The first non-Native record of the mountain came from George Vancouver in 1794, when he referred to the “stupendous snow mountains.” Early 18th and 19th century Russian explorers had several names for the mountain. In 1834, explorer Andrei Glazunov called the highest peak Tenada, which is Deg Hit’an Athabaskan and means “the great mountain.” This name appears on an 1839 map of the area. Another Russian name used to describe the mountain was Bulshaia Gora and means “Big One.”
The US purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867 and a couple of decades later, a gold prospector named Frank Densmore explored Interior Alaska and effused about the tremendous mountain. Prospectors all along the Yukon River started calling the mountain “Densmore Mountain” or “Densmore Peak.” “Mount McKinley” emerged after a gold prospector named William Dickey (who was an admirer of President-elect McKinley) used the name in an 1897 New York Sun article. Although the new president had no direct connection to Alaska, the name Mount McKinley was popularized following the president’s 1901 assassination.
As Mount McKinley became more established in American vernacular in the early 1900s, there were still many people with connections to Interior Alaska who were disturbed by the dismissal of Native antecedents. Browne and Sheldon were not the only proponents of “Denali.” Harry Karstens, the park's first superintendent, and Hudson Stuck, an influential Alaskan missionary, are on record supporting a Native name. The latter was baffled that the mountain’s Native name was being modified by outsiders and wrote about it extensively. Karstens and Stuck, along with Walter Harper and Robert Tatum, were the first party to summit the mountain in 1913.
In addition to the legislative record, the attitudes of Browne and Sheldon also were documented in their respective memoirs. It was clear that the name McKinley bothered both of them.
In a 1913 memoir, Browne lamented: “In looking backward over the history of the big mountain, it seems strange and unfortunate that the name of McKinley should have been attached to it.”
In 1930, Sheldon’s The Wilderness of Denali was published and the memoir closes by making another case for the mountain’s name:
“The Indians [sic] who have lived for countless generations in the presence of these colossal mountains have given them names that are both euphonious and appropriate . . . Can it be denied that the names they gave to the most imposing features of their country should be preserved? Can it be too late to make an exception to current geographic rules and restore these beautiful names—names so expressive of the mountains themselves, and so symbolic of the Indians who bestowed them?”