Tuesday, August 17, 2021

At the Point of Fisticuffs: Naming Mt. Rainier

I loved getting to write about the history in my own backyard for A View Most Glorious, out in October. But I ran across a few things that surprised me, and none more so than the controversy surrounding the name of one of the highest mountains in the Continental U.S.

Captain George Vancouver claimed the mountain when he sighted it from his ship on his survey of the Pacific Coast of North America in 1792. He named it after his friend, Rear Admiral Peter Rainier. Later settlers to the area called it Tacoma or Tahoma, thinking they were following the tradition of some of the tribes in the area. When the Northern Pacific Railway roared into the city of Tacoma in 1883, the executives were determined to encourage tourism to spur rail travel. All their literature touted trips to Mt. Tacoma.

Suddenly, the name became a household debate. Prominent citizens brought forth pamphlets listing names of tribal members favoring the name Tacoma. Others brought forth scientists and political leaders who favored Rainier. Seattle accused Tacoma of attempting to appropriate the mountain. Tacoma accused Seattle of attempting to steal their history.

In 1890, the nascent U.S. Board of Geographic Names listed the name as Rainier. That only fueled the raging fires. When a map of Washington State was displayed at the World’s Fair of 1893, viewers actually started a fight over which name should be on the map!

A group of Washingtonians petitioned the U.S. Geographic Board to change the name in 1890, 1917, and 1921. All three times they were denied. Finally, the matter reached Congress, resulting in a Joint Resolution to change the name. By that time, those in favor of the name had created a sizeable mythology.

First, they claimed the name Tacoma must be kept to honor Native Americans. The Geographic Board’s research of tribes in the area concluded that Tacoma or Tahoma might be the name of any snow-capped mountain, not Rainier specifically. The name might also have been completely fabricated!

Second, they claimed that Admiral Rainier was unworthy of having anything named after him. He was a pirate who had “raided our shores, captured our citizens, and burned our cities.” The closest Rainier had come to America was the West Indies where, as a young lieutenant, he had helped capture an American privateer during the Revolutionary War and been wounded for his trouble.

Finally, they came out against the Geographic Board itself. They claimed the 1890 pronouncement had been reached after a “midnight orgy” at the capital, in which the attorney for the Rainier Brewing and Malting Company, Senator Watson C. Squire, had delivered a train car full of beer and other intoxicants, to bribe the Geographic Board into keeping the name Rainier. Big problem with that story: Rainier Beer was a brand name, not a company, and Senator Squire had no connection to it. 

In their report to Congress, the Geographic Board stated that to change the name “would be a blow to the stability of geographic and historical nomenclature, and a reflection upon the intelligence of the American people.”

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, one of the leading newspapers in Washington State, added, “It is of course possible to decree that henceforth the name of the mountain shall be ‘Mount Tacoma’ or ‘Mount Somethingelse.’ But no decree can make people use the name. It will still be ‘Mount Rainier’ in speech and written word.”

Funny thing about that. Rarely does anyone here call it Mount Rainier. To us, it’s just “the mountain.” 😊

Apparently, my own love for that mountain was showing when I wrote A View Most Glorious, as I learned that Booklist, the publication of the American Library Association, has awarded it a coveted starred review!

“As a native to the Mount Rainier region, Scott writes with an exhilarating wealth of sensory detail, bringing the setting to such vivid life the mountain becomes a dynamic character in its own right.”

A rose by any other name…

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