The easy way to purify our geography

If it's named for a scoundrel, change the namesake

  • Custer's last battle, as depicted by Frederic Remington.

    Denver Public Library, Colorado Historical Society, and Denver Art Museum

If you live in certain parts of Colorado, it's pretty hard to escape the name "Gore." I lived in the town of Kremmling for four years, just east of the Gore Range. Eastbound trains emerged from Gore Canyon, perhaps the toughest stretch of whitewater in America. The jagged peaks of the Gore-Eagles Nest Wilderness Area dominated the horizon to the southwest. And if you needed to go to Toponas or Oak Creek (which in those days had a lively tavern called the Colorado Bar), you drove over 9,527-foot Gore Pass.

A plaque at the top explains, "Here in 1855 crossed Sir St. George Gore, an Irish Baronet bent on slaughter of game and guided by Jim Bridger. For three years, he scoured Colorado, Montana and Wyoming accompanied usually by forty men, many carts, wagons, hounds and unexampled camp luxuries. More than 2,000 buffalo, 1,600 elk and deer, 100 bears were massacred for sport."

That's who these beautiful places were named for: A pampered and decadent Eurotrash guy who despoiled the American West. Well, in that respect it does seem appropriate that Gore Creek flows right through Vail, although Aspen might be an even better fit.

Even so, the name irks one Jeff Mitton, who chairs the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado. Writing in the Boulder Camera, Mitton complained that honoring Lord St. George Gore's killing spree by naming everything after him "is a shameful anachronism today."

Changing the name would be difficult, if not impossible, however. It would require revising maps and rechristening everything from the Gore Range Baptist Church in Kremmling to the Gore Creek Gallery in Vail. So Mitton has a better idea: Keep the name, but change the namesake. Reinterpret Gore "to honor an environmentalist who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize," i.e., former Vice President Al Gore. Then all you'd have to change would be the plaque.

There's even a precedent. Washington's King County, home of Seattle, was named for newly elected Vice President William R. King, back in 1852, when Washington was still part of Oregon Territory. An adjacent county, home of Tacoma, was named for Franklin Pierce, the new president. The names remained after Washington became a separate territory and then a state.

William Rufus DeVane King is of interest mainly to political trivia buffs. The only vice president to be inaugurated outside the United States, he took the oath in Cuba, where he had gone to treat his tuberculosis. He served only 45 days before the disease killed him.

King was also a major slaveholder, who represented Alabama for 29 years in the U.S. Senate. So he's not exactly a desirable namesake for the county of a progressive modern city like Seattle.

Thus in 1986, the King County Council, noting that, "William Rufus DeVane King earned income and maintained his lifestyle by oppressing and exploiting other human beings," passed a resolution that "King County shall be named after the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr." The state Legislature made the change official in 2005.

Al Gore is currently an unlikely candidate for cartographical immortality, however: The U.S. Board on Geographic Place Names does not allow anything to be named for a living person.

But that doesn't mean we can't sanitize other parts of our maps in this relatively painless way.

Custer counties in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma and South Dakota, for instance, all are named for George Armstrong Custer (with the exception of the Idaho county, which was named after a mine named after the soldier).

Granted, Custer was personally courageous and fought hard and well against the Confederacy in the Civil War.

But from a military standpoint, his later career hardly merits his prominence on our maps. He managed to get his entire immediate command wiped out at Little Bighorn on June 26, 1876. That's about as serious as failure can get on a battlefield. Ulysses S. Grant, who knew something about warfare, said he regarded "Custer's massacre as a sacrifice of troops, brought on by Custer himself, that was wholly unnecessary."

Earlier, Custer was court-martialed for leaving his post. It was his command that found gold in the Black Hills in 1874, sparking the Deadwood rush, which forced the Sioux off land they were promised by treaty.

Like William King, George Custer is an embarrassment to modern sensibilities. So why not turn to his widow, Elizabeth, instead? She was a fine writer who supported herself well for 57 years after his death. Using her as a namesake would honor literature and liberation, and provide a dash of romance.

Our maps teem with scandalous figures. My own county is named for Jerome "Boss" Chaffee, a notorious insider-trader of mining stocks back in the day. Surely there's a better Chaffee out there somewhere.

Likewise we could find a better Colfax for the major Denver thoroughfare and the counties in New Mexico and Nebraska. Schuyler Colfax was so blatantly corrupt that Grant had to dump him as vice president when he ran for re-election in 1872.

Ditto for another participant in those Gilded Age scandals: James A. Garfield, who left his name on counties in Colorado and Utah. There's already a handy replacement namesake: the uncontroversial comic-strip cat.

Many Western place names honor scoundrels, crooks, butchers, rogues, fixers, slaveholders, exploiters, etc. Now we know how to fix it, thanks to Professor Mitton and the good people of Seattle.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Custer's last stand
Doctor D
Doctor D
Jan 30, 2010 05:57 AM
Custer should not be removed from the geographical lexicon because of his strategic military blunders, he should be removed because his intent at Little Big Horn was the massacre of women and children, which was then an accepted past time. Celebrating his fall with a memorial is also celebrating all the atrocities of the Native American holocaust. You should mention the move to remove the term "squaw" from maps, which is a derogatory slang for vagina.
James A. Garfield
gordon glass
gordon glass
Jan 30, 2010 07:41 PM
If you are referring to the James A.Garfield who was 20th President of the United States, then I believe you badly mis-reprsent him. In fact he was a fighter of corruption, not a scandelous figure as Ed Quillen implies.I think a correction is in order.
History is a tragedy, not a morality tale.
Jan 31, 2010 08:42 AM
A few thoughts to ponder about the purpose of history and the impact of rewriting the past.

If we are to understand anything of the human mind we must approach the people of the past with humility rather than an overconfident superiority.
- ATQ Stewart, "The Shape of Irish History"

We need open minds and open hearts when we wrestle with the past and ask questions of it, and the answers it will provide are in nobody's pocket... We should let nobody tell us that they know all that it contains, or try to prescribe or constrain in advance what it has to tell us. - Eamon Duffy, "Faith of our Fathers"

Western elites, the beneficiaries of 60 years of peace and prosperity achieved by the sacrifices to defeat fascism and Communism, are unhappy in their late middle age, and show little gratitude for, or any idea about, what gave them such latitude. If they cannot find perfection in history, they see no good at all.
- Victor Davis Hanson, "Remembering World War Two", "National Review"

Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
 George Santayana

History is a tragedy, not a morality tale.
- Isidor F Stone

It is time to stop measuring those in the past with our own “modern” sensibilities. Who of us are so perfect that we have not done things which merit approbation? Who of us have not had successes for which we would be known and failures we wish were left behind? Our history, the good the bad and he ugly of it are a part of who we are. When we start re writing History to fit our greater comfort we begin to live a lie.

Many things in our world are named for men and women who had greatness accompanied by a sometimes terrible character flaw based upon our contemporary sensiblities but when we try to elminate them, tear down the monuments and remeberances of those people good and bad, we condem ourselves to an amnesia which will not serve us.

Feb 02, 2010 04:46 PM
Just a usage note: It would be wonderful if we had all committed acts worthy of approbation, which The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines as "praise; commendation. Official approval." On the other hand, most of us have committed acts worthy of opprobrium, which is defined as, "Disgrace inherent in or arising from shameful conduct; ignominy." It is no disgrace to confuse the two, but it doesn't merit a geographic place name, either.
great comment!
Michael Kirkpatrick
Michael Kirkpatrick
Feb 14, 2010 02:48 PM
I couldn't agree more, Will. Revising history is a bad idea, but - in a nod to Ed - rededicating a monument to a more worthy cause can be beneficial too, as long as the origins of the name are not ignored. Kit Carson Peak in the Sangre de Cristo range is another ear-sore to people who view Carson in a similar vein as Custer. We can come up with our own names for things, but it's good to remember that our morals are always contextual, and if historic examples help achieve a little humility, all the better.
Ed Quillen's article, "The easy way to purify our geography"
Jan 31, 2010 02:14 PM
I'm sad to see from some of the comments that people don't recognize a little sly humor or irony these days. As a lifelong resident of Custer County, South Dakota, I'm hereafter telling visitors it was named for Elizabeth. Inspired by Ed's example, I've been looking all afternoon for someone famous besides the General Harney the Lakota in these parts call the "baby killer," for whom our highest peak is named. All I've found so far is a model named Corinna Harney who doesn't seem to have any connection to the Black Hills of South Dakota, unless one wants to suggest comparisons which might be considered sexist. But nah, I'd better not do that, since readers might not see the humor in it. Thanks, Ed.
Purifing geography by changing name
Feb 03, 2010 09:01 AM
It is a fact of life that values and social morays change with time, understanding and education. History remains a fact. Changing the name of something doesn't alter what happened or the values of the people that bestowed that recognition. In a couple of dozen years the values will probably change again while the facts still remain. The example of Gore is a case in point. Only a small minority would conclude that Al Gore is a better namesake than the original "Eurotrash." Sir St. George Gore was hardly worse than Teddy Roosevelt for whom we hold in great esteem.
Apr 30, 2010 11:44 AM
Ed, thanks for the astute observations. I've been meditating on the legacy of place names in our state as I read "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" for the first time. The above discussion of revising history is certainly worthwhile. If by changing a name or namesake we doom ourselves to cultural amnesia, well that's probably not good. But is it not a disgrace to the land and its original inhabitants to have geography named after, in many cases, the perpetrators of genocide? Seems to me we have more reckoning to do with the not-so-distant past when the US government argued vehemently that Indians were not "persons" and therefore not entitled to the freedoms granted by our laws and constitution. Ugh