What's in a name? That's the question on the table today, when the Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board holds its first meeting to begin considering the backlog of name-change requests regarding controversial locations in Colorado, including rivers, mountains, valleys and other physical spots.
The United States Board on Geographic Names, which determines the outcome of such requests, first consults with the state in which the disputed item is located, as well as other affected groups. But for several years, there's been no official Colorado entity with which to consult. That's because when John Hickenlooper was governor, in an effort to streamline government, he eliminated what seemed like a useless task assigned to the Colorado State Archives after the longtime state archivist retired.
That left the feds with no one to talk to in Colorado, the only state lacking an official name-change entity, according to BGN geographer Jennifer Runyon. And while she waited for Colorado to create one — in some states, it's no more grandiose than a single person charged with considering the requests, sometimes on a volunteer basis — cases piled up in her office as people took a long, hard look at our nation's more shameful history.
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Three of the most controversial Colorado cases involve requests to rename Mount Evans, which was transformed from Mount Rosalie in 1895 to officially honor John Evans, the territorial governor on November 29, 1864, when over 200 members of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes were massacred in a peaceful camp on Sand Creek. One wants to restore the original name. Another, made almost three years ago, wants to rename the peak Mount Cheyenne Arapaho; another that dates back almost as far is pushing for Mount Soule, in honor of Captain Silas Soule, who refused to participate in the attack at Sand Creek and later testified before Congress about the atrocities committed there by Colorado John Chivington's volunteers. Even during the horrors of the Civil War, Congress recognized that Sand Creek rose to the level of a "massacre" and forced Evans to resign. Less than six months later, Soule was assassinated on the streets of Denver. Thirty years after that, Evans's name was elevated to a Colorado fourteener. Fifty-four years later, the Colorado Pioneers Association installed the Civil War Monument at the Colorado Capitol; it labeled Sand Creek a "battle." Twenty years ago, a plaque was added below the monument explaining that Sand Creek was actually a massacre.
In June, the Civil War Monument was toppled.
Runyon has a dozen more Colorado requests waiting for input from the state, and except for a few that seem relatively harmless — switching out VH Pasture Reservoir with Elk Springs Reservoir, for example — the others all involve names "considered offensive." Very.
The list includes Squaw Mountain in Clear Creek (request to replace with Mount Mistanta), Redskin Creek in Jefferson and Park counties (Ute Creek), Chinaman Gulch in Chaffee County (Trout Creek Gulch), Redskin Mountain in Jefferson County (Mount Jerome), Negro Creek in Delta County (two suggestions: Hops Creek or Clay Creek), Negro Mesa in Delta County (Clay Mesa) and Negro Draw in Montezuma County (Hops Draw).
After a spring when statues were toppled across the country, on July 31 Governor Jared Polis finally filled the gap, naming the members of the Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board, which will work with the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to evaluate proposals. But the group's work won't end there; there are plenty of controversies in Colorado that haven't been moved to the feds, or fall outside of its purview. The renaming of the Stapleton neighborhood this summer wasn't a federal issue. Nor are all those statues dedicated to Columbus. Or a street that runs through Denver named after Evans...
The members with two-year terms: state lawmakers Perry Will, Adrienne Benavidez of unincorporated Adams and Thomas “Tony” Earl Exum of Colorado Springs; local officials Junie Joseph of Boulder and Richard Cimino of Fraser; and Kathryn Redhorse, a representative of the Colorado Commission on Indian Affairs. Those with four-year terms: historian William Wei, serving as a representative of the executive director of History Colorado, and the Center of the American West's Patricia Limerick; Karen Ann Berry, representing the Colorado Geological Survey; and Luis Benitez, former Hickenlooper cabinet member, representing the tourism and outdoor recreation industry. And filling slots for those "with a background in race or ethnic studies": Charleszine “Terry” Nelson of Aurora and Nicki Gonzales of Arvada.
“This collaborative group of people will bring their unique perspectives and expertise to the board and ensure we have an inclusive naming process,” Polis said in announcing the group. “This work is very important, because place names reflect who we were, who we are, and are of intergenerational importance moving forward.”
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Limerick has particular experience: Soon after she arrived at the University of Colorado Boulder's history department, she wrote a report on a dormitory bearing the name of a participant in the Sand Creek Massacre. Limerick’s work led to the residence hall being renamed Cheyenne Arapaho in 1989, honoring the Indigenous people whose land it occupied.
“This experience gave me a lasting knowledge of the best approaches to, and strategies for, reckoning with controversial historical subjects associated with particular places,” Limerick said after she was named to the board. “Disputes over the names of places, I have learned, carry the bedrock good news that people care and are deeply committed to associating themselves with those places and their history.
“In truth, every place name acts as a brief — but concentrated and very resonant — poem, with every form of expertise and sector of society called upon to reveal its meaning."
What's in a name? I'm guessing that at the first meeting of the group, set for this afternoon, September 17, the discussion won't be all that poetic.