Place  /  Explainer

How to Rename a Place

A little-known federal body gives official approval to what appears on maps. Now it is caught in the middle of the country’s upheaval over racism and language.

Though the Board on Geographic Names now relies heavily on historical and local usage, it began when written maps of many parts of the United States were still a novelty. Like many new government entities of the late 19th century, the board was the creation of an empire trying to find its legs, to say nothing of its streams, shoals, and hills. In 1890, the Census Bureau announced that the frontier was closed: There was no longer land open for American expansion. The BGN was established the same year. The United States was past the higgledy-piggledy filling of space; now the task was to understand and order that space.

This was difficult when so many features bore multiple names or none at all. Thomas Corwin Mendenhall, a lavishly mustachioed polymath who led the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey, became frustrated with inconsistent labels on maps of Alaska, both among government agencies and within them—a War Department chart might label the same feature with different names.

Mendenhall persuaded President Benjamin Harrison to create a board that would standardize names on government maps. (Though he was a skilled operator, Mendenhall failed to get the U.S. to adopt the metric system, another of his quests. You can’t win them all.) Mendenhall was joined on the board by nine other, similarly extravagantly whiskered and WASPily named men, some of whom had also been instrumental in founding the National Geographic Society in 1888.

Most countries have an authority like the BGN, but the palimpsest of dominant cultures over time and regions makes the need for one especially urgent in the United States. (Most states have some naming authority too, though their structures vary widely.) Look at a map of Puget Sound, for example, and you’ll see place names that come from English, French, Spanish, and several Native American languages. You’ll also encounter the Juan de Fuca Strait, using the Spanish translation of the name of a Greek mariner who reputedly explored it.

Naming has always been political. When Franklin D. Roosevelt’s interior secretary, Harold Ickes, sought to strip the previous president’s name off the Hoover Dam in the 1930s, the board tried to slap him down. Ickes struck back by persuading Roosevelt to eliminate the board altogether and then changing the name. Both victories were temporary: Ickes was soon forced to restore the board, because its work was essential, and the dam’s name was later restored too. You can trace the past 130 years of American history through the changing emphases in the board’s work: far-flung new possessions like Alaska in the early years; foreign names for military charts during World War II; new names across Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union; offensive names today.