Illustration of a marked-up map of the United States
The Atlantic

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.

Examine a detailed map of pretty much any part of the United States and you can find scars left by racism. A reservoir in New Mexico is named Wetback Tank. Mulatto Bayou, in Louisiana, is one of several places using that slur. A half-dozen, from Florida to Colorado, include “Redskin”; Oregon has a Dead Injun Creek. Hundreds of place names include “Negro” or “Squaw,” among other, similarly offensive names.

Some have been updated, but only recently. Squaw Tits, a pair of pinnacles southwest of Phoenix, Arizona, has since last year been Isanaklesh Peaks. Louisiana’s Dead Negro Branch was renamed Alexander Branch, after a late local civil-rights leader. Mulatto Mountain, North Carolina, became Simone Mountain, honoring the great Black pianist and singer (and Old North State native) Nina Simone.

The new names are the work of the Board on Geographic Names, a little-known federal body with the remarkable power to literally remake the map. Founded in 1890, it is an Ocean’s 11 of civil servants: subject-matter experts from across the government—including the Pentagon and the Postal Service, the Commerce Department and the CIA—who have come together not to conduct a heist but to approve official names of lakes, mountains, and valleys on government documents.

“I think it is quite esoteric,” Representative Al Green of Texas told me over the summer. “It is known to few, has much power, and exercises that with a lot of deliberation.”

Usually, the public eye is far from the BGN, a member of the class of government bodies whose work you could go a lifetime without thinking about, even though it’s all around you. But the board now finds itself in the middle of the fiery national debate over racism and language. In recent years, the BGN has spent more of its time reconsidering offensive names than doing anything else, but the process typically takes months and is reactive by design, with names considered case by case upon request.

A different, faster process is possible. In November, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to hold that post, issued an order designed to wipe any mentions of “Squaw,” probably the most frequently used slur in place names, off the map. She issued a second order that will establish an advisory committee to identify other offensive names that might be proactively changed under a similar mechanism. In 2020, when Haaland was a member of Congress, she introduced a bill that would also create such a committee, and although Green and Senator Elizabeth Warren reintroduced it this year, the bill is stuck in limbo.

“Racist terms have no place in our vernacular or on our federal lands,” Haaland said when announcing the orders. “Our nation’s lands and waters should be places to celebrate the outdoors and our shared cultural heritage—not to perpetuate the legacies of oppression.”

But even the expedited process will take time. Removing all uses of “Squaw” is expected to take about a year, and that’s the simpler of the two orders. One challenge is that determining what’s offensive isn’t always straightforward. Names including a slur are easy, but others—such as Jew Valley, Oregon, named after a group of Jewish homesteaders—are less clear-cut. Another is that any feature whose name is removed needs a new one, ideally one that is locally meaningful and that will age better than whatever it’s replacing. The BGN is designed with process in mind, not justice or equity.

But paradoxically, the persistence of many of these racist names helps explain why a careful naming procedure is important: Slapping a demeaning name on a feature and having it stick was once very easy. This makes the Board on Geographic Names a microcosm of some of the best and worst tendencies of the federal government: conscientious attention to detail by public servants, and endless bureaucratic quagmire. The BGN’s caution now is an effort not to make mistakes anew—but in the meantime, change is slow, sometimes agonizingly so.

The idea that place names should have standardized spellings, and that the government should set them, is relatively recent. George Washington knew the river that ran past his family’s estate well. He rhapsodized about it in letters to Thomas Jefferson and spearheaded a plan to connect it via canal to the Ohio River. At Mount Vernon, he cleared trees and lowered a bluff so that he’d have a better view, and he later chose the site of the nation’s capital along its banks.

What Washington didn’t know was how to spell the river’s name. In correspondence, he frequently wrote “Potomack.” The company he formed to build the canal—he soon left its presidency to take on the nation’s—was usually called the Patowmack Company, though it also sometimes used “Potowmack” and “Potowmac.” Today, the name of the river that flows through his namesake city is plain, because in 1931 the BGN decreed that it would be “Potomac.”

The chances are good that, even if you live around Washington, D.C., you don’t think often about the river’s name, much less why it’s spelled that way. Smartphone in hand, the average American spends more time looking at maps than ever before. Google, which dominates the digital-maps field, says that more than 1 billion people use Google Maps every month, but familiarity breeds indifference.

“Nobody stops to think about how names end up on maps and signs, and they just take for granted that everyone uses the same name and we all know how to spell it,” Jennifer Runyon, a longtime BGN staff member, told me. Casual navigators might also believe that the labels on the maps we use—whether on phones, in dog-eared road atlases, or on tourist maps—are immutable and permanent. That is very much not the case. In 2014, the BGN bestowed 700,000 new names.

A panel of bureaucrats from across the government wielding the power to change the names on maps sounds like a Trumpian deep-state fever dream. But a meeting of the BGN’s Domestic Names Committee is oddly, well, domestic. (A separate committee handles foreign names, mostly involving transliteration tweaks, titles for unnamed places, and changes for military use.) It’s like any other pandemic-era Zoom meeting, only with a greater chance of digressions about the orthography of the 50th state. In case you’re wondering: The state is “Hawaii,” because that’s how Congress admitted it to the union, but the big island is “Hawaiʻi.”

I listened in to September’s meeting, curious to watch the committee consider offensive names, but a big chunk of the agenda was devoted to more mundane changes. An unnamed body of water in Wisconsin was christened Blackberry Lake, though some members questioned whether it could really be true, as the application stated, that “the lake is itself the color of blackberries.” Lowes Lake, also in Wisconsin, became Loew Lake, in deference to new evidence that the namesake family spelled their name that way.

Another item seemed like an easy case: a proposal to name a creek in Texas for Merrel Telschow, who had once owned the land abutting it. The county commission and state board both supported the change, but members were immediately skeptical. Did Telschow have any connection to the stream other than owning land on its banks? Had he tended to or impounded or fished in it? Had he made any notable contributions to the local area other than his (laudable) World War II military service? In the end, members decided not to decide, and asked staff to seek more information. No other item on the docket that day took as much time.

This scrutiny can feel excessive, but the board applies the same rigor to any name that lands on its agenda. Citizens commonly reach out to ask about a prospective name change, then quietly drop the matter once they realize how involved the process is. (Lucinda Williams might have changed the locks on her front door and the kind of car she drives, but she almost certainly didn’t change the name of her town.) Other times, citizens apply for a name change but offer proposals so bland—Freedom this, Equity that—that the board rejects them for vagueness.

“We get some really interesting names, and other times we get some names where it’s like, did they really think about that name before they proposed?” says Tara Wallace, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration cartographer who completed a term as BGN chair in October. “They just want to name it after something generic, instead of really looking at, what’s the historical area?”

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.

The task is delicate, especially for the Domestic Names Committee. Move too fast and the BGN could make an unwise decision that would taint maps for years, because frequent name changes are untenable. Move too slowly and the BGN could leave confusion in place—or risk reinforcing impressions of a sclerotic federal government. Push too hard and risk coming off as pedantic and heavy-handed. (“DON’T SAY ‘RIO GRANDE RIVER,’ U.S. GEOGRAPHIC BOARD WARNS,” blared a 1932 Washington Star headline.)

Still, the members and staff are devoted to the board. Wallace told me that with six years of service, she’s one of the greener members. “Nobody seems to give it up until they retire,” she said. “It’s something that we take pride in, and we like to stick around and see it through.”

When he first learned about the BGN, Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis was not enthused about the board’s deliberateness. In 1991, while serving as a Texas state senator, Ellis sponsored legislation to remove racist names from 19 places in the Lone Star State. Negrohead Lake in Baytown, for example, would become Lake Henry Doyle, honoring the state’s first Black appellate judge. Governor Ann Richards signed the bill into law, and as far as Ellis knew, the matter was resolved.

But in 2020, a reporter called to tell Ellis that actually only one of the places had had its name changed, and only two years prior. The state didn’t have the power to change the names. Only the BGN could do that, and it had rejected Texas’s proposed changes, because even though the old names were offensive, the BGN didn’t accept the new names. For example, the board couldn’t find any connection between Doyle and Baytown, violating a BGN precept that honorees must have some local relevance.

The BGN has several such rules, and some of them can seem arbitrary. Living people will not be honored. Commercial names are forbidden. Naming for specific animals is frowned upon, but species are acceptable. Ellis told me this story while he was on a road trip to Martha’s Vineyard, which defies another rule: The board has abhorred possessive apostrophes since its start, and it previously stripped the one in the island’s name—but restored it “after an extensive local campaign” in 1933. The BGN has only ever sanctioned four other apostrophes.

When considering a name change, the board solicits feedback from each state’s naming authority, local officials, and any Native American tribes in the area. Staff members also research the history of the feature, including the provenance of both the existing name and the proposed one. For the board, this is an important part of making sure that any changes have local buy-in and will endure. (State and local authorities generally, though not always, follow BGN decisions.)

“Do people really want the federal government coming in and saying, ‘Hey, you will be offended by this word; we’re going to change it for you’? Well, of course not. You know, We’re the federal government; we’re gonna come in and we’re gonna pick a replacement, and you’re not gonna have any say in the matter? Of course not,” Runyon, the longtime BGN staffer, said. “It’s the locals that have to live with the results, not us here in the D.C. suburbs.”

But no one told Ellis that he’d been living without results for 29 years thanks to the bureaucratic snag. He didn’t even know that a federal body had authority over the changes.

“I wouldn’t have known about the U.S. Geographic Board of Names,” Ellis said, garbling the name a bit for comic effect. “I’d never heard of it!” This is not unusual: Wallace suspects that even many federal employees aren’t aware of it. Now conscious of the board, Ellis tried again, and in 2021 persuaded the board to change the lake’s name, though it took a couple of meeting appearances, a process he found frustrating. “Why is it so difficult to get rid of a homophobic or racist or misogynistic or anti-immigrant name?” he told me. “Why is it so difficult to get rid of that name, but it was so easy to name something in this country with a racist or misogynistic or homophobic name?”

The existing rules ban names with slurs, but they add, “Proposals to change names considered to be offensive must meet the same basic criteria required of any other name proposal, and will be processed using the same procedures as any other name change.” Theoretically, an interior secretary has the power to change names without the BGN’s involvement, but that power appears to have been used only once since it was granted in 1947, when in 2015 Interior Secretary Sally Jewell controversially changed the name of the nation’s highest mountain from Mount McKinley to Denali.

In 1963, during an earlier phase of national racial upheaval, Interior Secretary Stewart Udall mandated that all uses of “Nigger” be switched to “Negro.” BGN members grumbled about process at the time, preferring to alter names on a case-by-case basis as usual, but acceded to a blanket change. In 1974, the BGN adopted a similar policy that changed mentions of “Jap” to “Japanese.”

Now that earlier round of bowdlerization feels painfully obsolete too, and as the BGN struggles to bring its process to bear on the many racist place names throughout the country, the pace is not fast enough for everyone. “The board finds itself with the power to make a change that has not been made,” Representative Green said. “So we’re hoping that by having an advisory board—and by understanding that the spirit of the times, the zeitgeist, has changed—that we’ll get some of these things taken care of expeditiously.”

Since the BGN has historically guarded its prerogatives, I thought the idea of a separate advisory board might raise hackles, but Wallace didn’t object. “If there’s a way that can get some of these names taken care of, and they can get a committee that takes it seriously, we welcome the help,” she told me in September.

Even when the government changes a name on its official maps and documents, it can’t force people to use the new name. Old, bad habits persist, and besides, new names are slow to disseminate. In July, the BGN changed the name of a small body of water in Montana from Lost Coon Lake to Lost Loon Lake. (It had been called Nigger Lake, until the name started to cost its owner business.) But, as of my writing, if you pull the spot up on Google Maps, it still has the old name. (Google did not respond to several questions about how it updates maps to account for name changes.)

Even though the BGN’s practical reach is circumscribed, official names hold a special allure, as an offbeat moment near the start of the September DNC meeting showed. Runyon reported to board members about a call she’d received from a woman in Michigan. The request was, she said, the first one like it she’d heard in her 25 years on staff.

Following a contentious divorce, the woman had bought a piece of land with her new partner, only to discover that a lake on the property bore the name of her ex-husband’s family. Now she hoped to change it. Board members understood her motivation, and anyone can request a change, but they felt that the odds they would approve a change were low. (The surname seemed to have a long history in the area, the staff found, which is a strong factor for keeping it.) Someone suggested an idea that was more likely to work: The woman could call the lake whatever she wanted. She could even erect a sign. That simply wouldn’t change the label on federal maps.

The proposed compromise demonstrates the powers and limitations of the Board on Geographic Names, and it shows why the BGN takes even lower-stakes cases seriously: Citizens grant great weight to official names, even if they don’t know of the board or understand how it works. Most of the maps people encounter aren’t official government documents, and anyone can put up a marker on their own land bearing whatever name they want. Having official weight behind a name is oddly reassuring in this fractious national moment. The BGN’s inertia can be painful when an ugly name persists, but its process can also be a welcome redoubt of ever more anachronistic values: a devotion to deliberation and painstaking fact-finding; deference to local views; and a vision of heritage as both important and dynamic.