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Is it wrong to have a Negro Creek?

An effort to change the name in Chelan County has run into resistance, and the episode raises the quite complex issues of updating names to modern sensibilities.
Black Pioneers at Roslyn, Washington, ca. 1895

Black Pioneers at Roslyn, Washington, ca. 1895 BlackPast.org

Negro Creek in Chelan County was renamed in the 1960s and might be again.

Negro Creek in Chelan County was renamed in the 1960s and might be again. U.S. Geological Survey

One might think the sort of place names profiled in From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow could never have been found acceptable in Washington. And even if that had once been the case, surely our maps would have been scrubbed clean by now? Not according to the Wenatchee World, which is reporting the story of a Florida Gulf Coast University professor who wants to change the name of Chelan County's Negro Creek.

James MacDonald, whose doctoral studies at the University at Albany somehow brought him to the North Cascades, has filed requests with the federal and state Boards on Geographic Names (BGN) to rename Negro Creek after Antoine Etienne, a black miner in the 1870s after whom the creek was originally named. Back then, unsurprisingly, it was Nigger Creek, not Negro — all such names were officially changed by the U.S. Geological Survey in the 1960s to the more socially acceptable variant, though as this 2004 Robert Jamieson column in the P-I indicates, what the feds decree doesn't always trickle down to the local level. (This has been done to other such names, though not, to the best of my knowledge, en masse: search the BGN's name database for "Dago" and you'll get Italian Peak, Italian Hill, and Italian Slough alongside Dago Gulch and Dago Spring.)

In Washington state alone, there are six places currently named "Negro": the creek in Chelan County, two others in Whitman and Lincoln Counties, a lake and a spring in Adams County, and a spring in Douglas County. Mason County's Grass Lake was once Negro Slough, and is not cited as originally having carried the more offensive name. There are 11 other places in the state whose names have been changed beyond recognition. Most are in Eastern Washington, but three are in the west: Lewis County's Black Rock Pond and Yellowjacket Creek, as well as Ryan Island near Cathlamet.

There shouldn't be much opposition to this name change — at least not from officialdom. But the readers of the Wenatchee World might have something to say about it. A number of them bring up the fact that negro is Spanish for "black" (true, but that's not how it's being used here). One calls it "PC-laden, crybaby crapola." However, one Beverly Brunet — despite her all caps and sentences like "The creek is already named after the negro who used to find the blue gems" — does manage to eke out a point. "No, no, no — quit trying to change history," she writes. "Why are people so sensitive... we will have to change most of the names of cities in the state. They are named after Indians and pioneers... leave history and tradition alone."

This was indeed the argument of those who successfully resisted changing the name of the Whitman County creek mentioned in Jamieson's piece. It was named after John Smith, a black dairyman, who sold his operations to Frederick Mohs, who was white. One of the county commissioners and a Mohs descendant favored "Mohs Creek" on the grounds that John Smith was probably not even his real name. The Spokane Northwest Black Pioneers wanted to keep the memory of early black settlement alive, which neither Mohs nor Smith Creeks would do. And so Negro Creek it remains.

One does wonder at which point the line should be drawn. Obviously "Nigger Creek" is unacceptable in 2008. But what of the numerous counties, cities, towns, neighborhoods, streets, and waterways named for Indian tribes; and likewise those named for the settlers who dispossessed them? The Duwamish don't appear to have a problem with their leader's name being attached to Washington's chief city, even if Chief Seattle himself was "reputedly alarmed by the appropriation of his name," and Duwamish was the native name for the river.

As for the settlers, though men like "Doc" Maynard (of the International District avenue and alley) may have maintained excellent relations with the city's original inhabitants, Seattle is also home to neighborhoods like Hawthorne Hills and Kinnear, which are named for men (Safeco founder Hawthorne K. Dent and developer George Kinnear, respectively) who saw fit to exclude non-whites from owning property in their subdivisions.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Dec 3, 7:49 p.m. Inappropriate

I'm amazed that grown adults in 2008 have a hard time understanding that you cannot have place names like "Negro Creek" (which is itself an amendment of "N*gger Creek," as you point out) or "Squaw Tit." These names were actually derogatory when they were originally so named, and they are derogatory now. Or do you really think that folks in the 1880s thought "Squaw Tit" was somehow complimentary? What is different is that nowadays derogatory names also *offend* nearly everyone, except apparently for people in Wenatchee who have "crapola" in their active vocabulary.

"Stop changing history" is a very flaccid counterargument. I mean, seriously. Do you think Berlin still needs an Adolf Hitler Strasse? Should Stalingrad not have changed its name back to Volgograd?

Sometimes you have to talk to the person or people in question to find out if there actually is something derogatory about it. But in general when place names were not and are not derogatory but a form of praise, then I don't think reasonable, grown adults don't see any problem. Chief Seatlh may not have been thrilled to be a city's namesake (George Washington was also not thrilled to be the namesake of the capital city, incidentally), but naming a city after these people was not a derogatory act.

Can't grown adults tell the difference? Sheesh.

smacgry

Posted Thu, Dec 4, 12:12 a.m. Inappropriate

Antoine wouldn't be a bad name for the creek. While our group (Alpine Lakes Protection Society,) was involved in an effort to keep the Negro Creek valley from being logged 6 or 7 years ago, we looked into the staory behind the name. Antoine Etienne was quite an individual. Born a slave in Louisiana, he was free after the Civil War. Apparently he had an almost magical gift for languages and became an interpreter with the U.S. Cavalry, able to communicate not just in French and Spanish, but many Indian languages as well. There is another Antoine Creek farther north, near the Chelan - Okanogan county line. We have wondered whether that one gets his name from him also, there presumably never having been all that many Antoines in Chelan county.

The Negro Creek valley itself is quite a place too. From Highway 97 about ten miles south of route 2, one can park and find a way across unbridged Peshastin Creek, and follow an old road around a corner through a small canyon, where suddenly the highway is totally left behind. The valley was only lightly logged many years ago, and many big yellowbelly ponderosa pines survived, leaving parts of it as some of the better surviving examples of those now mostly vanished savannah like landscapes. The Forest Service was on the brink of building a bridge across Peshastin Creek to allow Longview Fibre Company to log private lands there when conservationists stumbled upon it, then acted quickly to raise the money to buy out Longview and protect this interesting and impressive, little known place.

The memory of Antoine deserves to survive. If "Negro Creek" is deemed too offensive, then name in Antoine, but under no circumstances should it descend into the obscurity of "Black Creek."

Posted Thu, Dec 4, 2:27 a.m. Inappropriate

I would say no.

http://www.uncf.org/aboutus/faqs.asp

The UNCF has explicitly chosen to minimize the historic term without expunging it, and that seems like a reasonable guideline for jurisdictions that are grappling with this.

Can we spend a little more time getting the Stars and Bars taken down from state capitols and removing KKK statuary from public parks throughout the former Confederacy now, please?

Posted Thu, Dec 4, 11:55 a.m. Inappropriate

Leave Washington state history ALONE! Stop the revisionist history, and redefining words! This is OUR history and the family history of Antoine Etienne who settled there! Good gawd, take your sensitivity to France where it belongs!

Posted Sun, Dec 7, 8:34 p.m. Inappropriate

Sam Taylor of The Bellingham Herald e-mailed to let me know that Idaho has been renaming toponyms that include "Squaw". Here are a couple of Spokesman-Review articles:

10/6/2006: Tribe wants 'squaw' off map
http://www.spokesmanreview.com/idaho/story.asp?ID=153172

9/7/2007: Effort for less offensive names includes N. Idaho, Montana
http://www.spokesmanreview.com/idaho/story.asp?ID=208502

As in Washington, the names board is basically in favor of this, though as for local residents (and, for that matter, members of local government):

Kootenai County Commissioner Rick Currie is against making any name changes in land governed by the county. "We're changing the names of absolutely everything. I'm basically tired of it," Currie said. "The public has talked to me about it. Overwhelmingly the residents of Kootenai County don't want the change."

Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, said he also opposes making any name changes to places in his district... "You're doing away with history when you change some of that stuff"... Harwood said the word was not originally meant to be offensive. He said pioneers and explorers, including Lewis and Clark, referred to Indian women as squaws out of respect. "It was an honor... It's how you use the word, not what the word means... It's funny how words change. 'Gay' used to mean 'happy.'"

Speaking of respect, this is often the argument used to preserve sports team names like the Washington Redskins. The Seattle Indians are long gone, but I wonder what local Native Americans think of the Seahawks' logo and the Thunderbirds' and Totems' names and logos. (It's worth noting that Seattle University changed the names of its teams from the Chieftains to the Redhawks in 2000, and the new logo doesn't appear to have any Indian connection.)

Posted Mon, Dec 8, 3:28 p.m. Inappropriate

This is absurd, as is the effort to change sports team names. People should just stop whining and celebrate the fact that people have different opinions on these things. Guess what --- it is OK that people take offense at certain things. I'm offended by liberal claptrap and political correctness, but I respect liberals' rights to say stupid things.

I celebrate the Seattle University Chieftains, the Marquette Warriors and the Spokane Indians. I love the tomahawk chop at Cleveland Indians and Florida St. Seminoles games. My license plate holder says "Stanford Indians" and I wear Stanford Indian apparel to Stanford games. It's my way of cheering for my teams. If somebody doesn't like it, fine --- I don't try to force them to like it. I just wish they would not try to force their ultra-sensitive views on others.

PJS

Posted Tue, Dec 9, 10:05 p.m. Inappropriate

BTW, is that really a photo of Antoine Etienne or just a stock photo of someone else?

Posted Tue, Dec 9, 10:12 p.m. Inappropriate

Sorry, next time I'll read the caption. At least Crosscut isn't following the lead of outlets such as the History Channel, where they regularly insert clips of old silent movies about ancient happenings into "documentaries." I wonder how many Sarah Palin fans think they are seeing actual footage of ancient Rome or Greece or what have you?

Posted Sat, Jan 3, 6:37 p.m. Inappropriate

Grow up America. Its just a name of a creek.

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