Mount Everest was identified as the highest point on our planet’s surface in 1852. Of course, it wasn’t called Mount Everest then; it has probably occurred to you that the name doesn’t sound particularly Asian.
For centuries, the locals had called it Chomolungma, which in Tibetan means something like “Goddess Mother of the World”. The team of British scientists who were surveying the area in the 19th century somehow overlooked that detail, so for a while the mountain was simply known to them as Peak XV.
Then one of the scientists had the peculiar idea of naming it for Sir George Everest, who had been Surveyor General of India several years before.
He really didn’t have a whole lot to do with the mountain that bears his name, and to his credit, Sir George said at the time, “Really chaps, I’d rather you didn’t,” but the Royal Geographic Society officially adopted the name in 1865. Everest died the following year, just one of several historical figures who had their names given to mountains without good reason.
Another is Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America at 20,320 feet. The locals called it Denali — still do, in fact — but it got named for an obscure U.S. president, thanks to a gold prospector named William Dickey.
The context was the election of 1896, in which a major issue was the American monetary system. McKinley was a proponent of the gold standard; Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan favored silver.
Dickey managed to get the New York Sun to publish an account of his Alaskan travels in January, 1897. In the article, Dickey made the preposterous claim, “We named our great peak Mount McKinley, after William McKinley of Ohio, who had been nominated for the presidency…” It was a political retort to the free-silver supporters with whom this gold panner had bickered, but the name caught on.
A number of attempts have been made to get the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to change the mountain’s designation back to Denali. For over 30 years those efforts have been blocked by legislators from Ohio — William McKinley’s home state. That’s why a majestic mountain still bears the name of a president who is mainly remembered for the Spanish-American War, and for being suddenly succeeded in office by his vice president, Theodore Roosevelt.
As you know, Roosevelt’s likeness is among those on Mount Rushmore, which was also not its real name. In the language of the Lakota Sioux, it had been called “Six Grandfathers” for its craggy peaks. American settlers subsequently gave it various names, including Cougar Mountain, Keystone Cliffs, and Slaughterhouse Mountain.
A New York lawyer named Charles E. Rushmore visited the area on business in the mid-1880s; he was checking out the legal status of prospectors’ claims. In a letter dated December 14, 1925, Rushmore gave this version of how the mountain got his name:
“I was deeply impressed with the Hills, and particularly with a mountain of granite rock that rose above the neighboring peaks… I asked of the men who were with me for its name. They said it had no name, but one of them spoke up and said, ‘We will name it now, and name it Rushmore Peak.’”
That supposedly happened in 1885, but it leaves me wondering how a joking remark along the trail turned into a name that was officially adopted in 1930 by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. The fact that in 1927, Charles E. Rushmore gave the largest individual donation to finance the carving of presidential sculptures on that mountain was probably just a coincidence, don’t you think?