The U.S. Board on Geographic Names has reversed itself and agreed to change the controversial names of two geographic features in the Cascades—Coon Lake and Coon Creek—to Howard Lake and Howard Creek, after a pioneering prospector who lived there in the 1890s. The reversal was confirmed by the board’s executive secretary, Lou Yost.
In reversing its 2009 decision not to change the name after being asked to do so by Washington State—which did change the names on state maps—the board cited new research and a recommendation from the management of North Cascades National Park, the entity that oversees the federal land where the lake and creek are located. The park staff said new documents confirmed that black prospector Wilson Howard had claims in the area and was known as a resident of the Stehekin Valley around the time the name “coon” first appeared.
According to a written summary by the U.S. board, “After researching the matter further, the National Park Service submitted a request that the BGN revisit its 2009 decision. The request stated that ‘Based on materials newly brought to light, the management of North Cascades National Park—in which the creek and lake are located—now believes that Mr. Wilson Howard did have an association with the features in question, so that commemorative naming would be appropriate.’”
They said that earlier research recommending against the change was not complete and relied on a secondary source, not original documents such those provided by the Washington State Bureau of Mines.
While those who objected to the name as a racial slur felt that the term “coon” was applied because Howard was black, evidence that the term was an epithet was not considered definitive. However, renewed support for the change by Washingtonians outraged by the name caused a review of the facts of the case and resulted in a new decision.
Letters to the board in support of the change came from Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, Gov. Jay Inslee, Reps. Adam Smith and Dave Reichert, and Rob Smith, Regional Director of the National Parks Conservation Association. The effort to engage the state’s senators was headed by Seattle state Sen. Pramila Jayapal, who convinced some 50 state legislators from both parties to sign a letter urging the change.
The entire effort was kicked off nearly a decade ago by Seattle resident Jonathan Rosenblum, who has family ties to the area and heard stories that the lake was named after a black settler. It was his research that convinced the state to rename the lake and creek after Howard. The U.S. Board’s new decision was predicated on the fact that Howard’s connection with the lake provided a suitable substitute justified by the historic record. Native American tribes raised no objection to the name change.
The name change at the federal level will mean that Coon Lake will disappear from new federal maps and the national database that others, like Google, rely on. Having the names match at the federal and state level is also reduces confusion for first responders, hikers, firefighters and others.
The recent drive to make change was spurred by an article in Crosscut in September that surfaced the discrepancy between the state’s name for the lake and the federal government’s, and helped put focus on recent efforts to align local and federal maps. The change of Mt. McKinley to Denali, for example, was mandated earlier this year so that the name preferred by Alaskans, Denali, was finally codified.
Offensive place names have received renewed interest over the last two decades. Another creek in Chelan County was named Nigger Creek, then Negro Creek after a black prospector. Negro Creek was then changed to Etienne Creek after the miner. Features named Squaw have also become controversial in many places, and the U.S. Board is acting on a number of proposed changes, especially in Oregon, one of a number of states that have mandated changing squaw names. In Washington, some residents of Shaw Island in the San Juan Islands are currently trying to change the name of Squaw Bay.