Mt. McKinley Owes Its Name to an Epic Act of Trolling

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In 1901, William McKinley, 25th president of the United States, was struck down by an assassin’s bullet six months into his second term. There are towns and monuments and geographic features across America bearing his name—tribute to the fallen leader from a nation wracked by grief. Mount McKinley is not one of them.

The Alaskan peak, tallest in the U.S., will henceforth be known by its Athabaskan name Denali, as my colleague Krishnadev Noted this morning. But why was it ever known as Mount McKinley to begin with?

The standard account of its naming comes in a dispatch from William A. Dickey, published in the New York Sun in January, 1897. Dickey, a Princeton alumnus and Seattle merchant known for throwing a nasty curveball, had returned from an exploration of the interior of Alaska, with word of a mountain so towering it defied belief:

That basic tale, of a patriotic explorer naming a mountain in tribute to the Republican nominee, is the one repeated in most histories, and which has been widely cited by those opposed to the decision to restore its native name. But in 1913, the explorer Belmore Browne offered a subtly different account, based on his own conversations with Dickey:

In Browne’s account, Dickey was stuck listening to supporters of unlimited silver coinage, the great political issue of the election, drone on endlessly about its merits. So he decided to name North America’s highest peak after McKinley, but not as a patriotic tribute—instead, an epic act of trolling.

This second account has a certain ring of truth to it. Anyone who’s ever been trapped with a political enthusiast of one persuasion or another can certainly sympathize with Dickey’s suffering. But if this is how Mount McKinley actually got its name, it’s hard to oppose switching it back to Denali.