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Does Mt. Rainier need a better name?

There was some interesting response to my Salish Sea story. Douglas Todd, who writes enviably on “religion, morality, politics, sex, death, God, love, meaning and all things that matter” for the Vancouver Sun, pointed out that he has recently raised the issue of renaming British Columbia. There are some who apparently think it’s a bit too colonial and makes the province sound like a kind of banana republic. Naturally, the idea has sparked controversy. Some bristle at the idea of political correctness; others have proposed new names ranging from Hong Delhi and Canasia to North Cascadia, Bongland and Pacifica.

Taking the British out of the Northwest is not a new idea on the American side of the border and goes to a question raised by a commenter who wonders about reviving the effort to rename Mount Rainier. According to James W. Phillips in Washington State Place Names, the first white to sight the mountain was Captain George Vancouver in 1792. He named it for the highly regarded British Captain (and later Admiral) Peter Rainier, who was most notable for kicking colonist butt during the American Revolution and for the vast fortune in prize money he won in India.

As someone once pointed out, Mt. Rainier is perhaps the largest feature in America named for a former enemy combatant of the United States. An interesting footnote is that Rainier was also connected by marriage to the Royal Navy’s Vashon and Baker, namesakes of the Puget Sound island and Cascades volcano. An interesting account of Rainier’s career and the naming of the mountain can be found in one of my favorite bedside books, British Columbia Coast Names: Their Origin and History by Captain John T. Wallbran, a volume that delivers much more entertainment than its name suggests. It was first published in 1909. When famed author Patrick O’Brian visited the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s to talk about his popular sea stories, I gave him a copy of Wallbran’s classic and it was graciously received, though he never found a way to bring his beloved Aubrey and Maturin characters to the Pacific Northwest.

I checked with the Washington Board of Geographic Names to find out whether the renaming of Rainier is anything but a dead topic. Over the last 100-plus years, many attempts have been made to call it Tahoma or Tacoma or some variant, which was the name local Indians gave the peak. The word apparently meant “mountain” or “snowy mountain,” though there is some disagreement about it. Phillips also says that Lincoln, Harding(!), and Harrison have been other suggestions over the years.

Caleb Maki of the state Department of Natural Resources says that currently the issue of renaming Rainier is closed. The last official attempt to change it was in 1983 when Mt. Tahoma was officially rejected, the board saying “enough is enough.” However, a little over a year ago someone contacted the board to say they were going to raise the issue again by proposing either Mt. Tahoma or Mt. Tahhoma. But Maki says no such proposal has yet been received. Seems like something to contemplate over a six-pack of wild Rainiers.

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