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 [email protected].

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