Racism and the public lands: the case of Coon Lake

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The state calls this Howard Lake, but the feds still call it Coon, likely a racial slur.

President Barack Obama’s recent announcement of the official name change of Mount McKinley to Denali has reawakened interest in the longtime dispute over whether we should rename Mount Rainier. For now, the Washington State Board of Geographic Names has not budged from its opposition to the change, although public opinion could change matters.

But there is an egregious name issue in Washington that the feds should resolve right away. Consider the case of Coon Lake and Coon Creek in Chelan County. Jonathan Rosenblum of Seattle, whose family has long had a vacation cabin in the nearby Stehekin Valley, dug into the historical records a few years back and discovered that the name Coon Lake was most likely a racial slur connected with an African American miner named Wilson Howard who reportedly had a cabin on the lake in the early 1890s.

In 2006, Rosenblum submitted a proposal to the state’s naming board, which is under the auspices of the Washington Department of Natural Resources, to change the name of Coon Lake to Howard Lake—the name Howard used for the lake during the time he lived there. Rosenblum gathered accounts from longtime local informants and residents of Stehekin that supported his case. He dug up records that Howard had at least two mining claims adjacent to the lake.

The board reviewed Rosenblum’s formal application for the name change, asked for input, and in 2007 voted unanimously to approve making the change, agreeing that Coon Lake was potentially offensive and that while little was known of Howard himself, it was a better way to remember him and his connection with the lake than continuing to enshrine what was likely a slur. The change had the support of the Chelan County Commission, the Black Heritage Society of Washington, and a number of citizens in Stehekin. The state also suggested to Rosenblum that Coon Creek, connected to the lake, should also be renamed for Howard—it didn’t make sense to change one and not the other. That change was also unanimously approved by the state in 2008.

So on Washington state maps now, you will find Howard Lake and Howard Creek. But the state efforts have been to no avail with the feds so far. The water bodies are in the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, which is overseen by the National Park Service from nearby North Cascades National Park. The official maps of the recreation area still say Coon Lake and Coon Creek.

The state and feds have been working to clean up place names that are considered offensive ethnic or racial slurs. In 2007, the state changed Squaw Canyon in Whitman County to Awtskin Canyon at the behest of local tribes. The federal government also has a policy against derogatory names—their guidelines, for example, specifically exclude “Jap” and “Nigger” from names. States generally control the names on local maps; the feds control national maps, and there’s a desire to have them match to avoid confusion—not good for hikers, firefighters, or search and rescue teams.

In the case of Coon, or rather Howard Lake, however, there was some opposition to the switch. The Lake Chelan Historical Society said that names should not be changed for political correctness. There were folks in Stehekin who didn’t like it either. The most potent opposition was from the National Park Service’s North Cascades office. Their main objections were that there was no real evidence that the name “Coon” was necessarily meant as derogatory. They also claimed there is little or no documentation for Howard’s longtime association with the lake. The fact that Coon Lake has been locally accepted for over 100 years was another factor—the burden of proof is usually put on the ones proposing the change, a standard that tends to protect the status quo.

In essence, the opposition argument boiled down to the assertion that there is not enough evidence of a racial slur simply because "Coon" was applied where a rare black miner in the mostly white state was living at a remote lake around the turn of the century.

A memo from the park’s chief of cultural resources cited the fact that other geographic features in this state and elsewhere have been named Coon after racoons (e.g. Coon Lake in Mason County). It pointed out that there are a number of non-derogatory dictionary definitions of “coon.” Thus, the memo made the case for ambiguity: “Examination of the limited written record of the late 1800s does not clarify that if the lake was named for Wilson Howard, that the name was intended to have any derogatory connotations.”

That said, it doesn’t mean that it wasn’t offensive or indicative of racism, then or now, intended or not. A survey of Washington newspapers from the time period shows the word “coon” used commonly in connection with African Americans. The standard is how people feel about it now, not what was intended in the 1890s.

While the Park Service was seeing no proof of a racial slur, it’s noteworthy that elsewhere in Chelan County there was a stream once called Nigger Creek. That name was changed in the 1960s to Negro Creek, then again in 2009 to the current Etienne Creek, after the black prospector Antoine Etienne, a freed slave who reportedly made a fortune in gold there. In other words, a racially charged identification of a Chelan County geographic feature with a black man is not confined to the speculation about Coon Lake.

Jonathan Rosenblum still wants to see the national change made and argues for an affirmative case: that naming the lake after Howard, an actual African-American miner with a connection to it, is better than a name that possibly refers to something as generic as raccoons. Why not honor a fascinating part of local history?

In 2009, the issue of Coon Lake and Coon Creek went before the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, a federal body under the auspices of the U.S. Geological Survey. The board disagreed with Washington State and rejected the Howard Lake and Howard Creek names. A possible alternative was floated to name the features after an early explorer of the region named McComb; the state rejected that, convinced that Howard was the right man to honor.

So, Coon Lake and Coon Creek remain officially on federal maps and in the federal database, meaning they remain on many national maps that derive their names and data from federal records. Coon Lake is found on Google Maps, for example.

Lou Yost, executive secretary of the national board, says decisions can be appealed if new evidence is brought forward. It would likely have to be strong enough to overcome the Park Service’s previous objections.

But here’s a question: If Mount McKinley can become Denali with the flick of a federal pen, Coon Lake and Coon Creek are cases where Obama and his secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, former CEO of Seattle-based REI, could step in. Yost says that the Interior Secretary “is not going to become the court of appeals” on name changes, though she technically has the power to act.

Yet in an era when managers of national parks and recreation areas worry that attendees are not diverse enough, Rosenblum wonders if it’s not time to show that “black lives matter” on federal lands too. “It is time to right this wrong,” he says.

Obama and Jewell have opened a path to do so.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.