Learn from the Mistakes of the Past, Not Erase Them

This paroxysm of efforts to eradicate all monuments and place names that memorialize historic leaders of the Confederacy serves as merely a distraction from real problems, wasting time and money that could be devoted to worthy endeavors.

The latest target of this futile campaign appears to be the name of Jeff Davis Peak in Great Basin National Park.

According to the park’s website, the moniker was first attached to what is now Wheeler Peak, the tallest point in the park and the second tallest in Nevada. It was given that name by Lt. Col. Edward Steptoe of U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers in 1855 while Jefferson Davis served as secretary of the War Department, a half dozen years before the Civil War began.

After the Civil War, during which Davis served as president of the Confederacy, an Army mapping expedition headed by Lt. George Montague Wheeler, named the peak for Wheeler and the Jeff Davis tag was shifted to a shorter nearby peak.

In May the Reno newspaper reported that, even though statues of Confederate leaders were being torn down in New Orleans, there was no clamor to erase the Davis name from the 12,771-foot peak. The penultimate paragraph of the account stated, “By today’s standards Jeff Davis is an unlikely choice that appears out of step with contemporary naming practices. But modern standards don’t undo prior names which means, for the foreseeable future, the name of a Confederate president will maintain a place of honor in Nevada.”

Actually, such a mountaintop name change took place a couple of years ago. After bearing the name of President William McKinley for 98 years, the tallest peak in North America in Alaska was renamed to its original native American name Denali, which means “the great one” in Athabascan. The White House said the name change “recognizes the sacred status of Denali to generations of Alaska Natives.”

Earlier this month, the Las Vegas newspaper reported that there are now a couple of bids to remove the Davis name. It said two applications have been filed with the state and national naming boards to eradicate the Davis name and replace it with some other name.

The paper reported that one application called for renaming the peak for Las Vegas civil rights leader James McMillan or one of the Shoshone names for the peak. Another called for naming the peak for Robert Smalls, an escaped slave who fought for the Union.

This month’s meeting agenda for the Nevada State Board on Geographic Names lists an action item in which a peak in White Pine County could be named Smalls Peak. There is no mention as to what it is currently called if anything.

According to Dennis Cassinelli in a piece in the Elko Daily Free Press, political correctness has been whitewashing Nevada geographical names for years. Colorful names like Chicken Shit Springs and Squaw Tit Butte have disappeared from maps simply at the whim of squeamish government mapmakers.

Now squeamishness is being extended to those who fought for the Confederacy.

Yes, Davis was a slave owner who sought to continue what was euphemistically called “our peculiar institution” in the South.

But in the waning years of his life, Davis was an advocate for reunifying the nation, saying in a speech in 1888: “I feel no regret that I stand before you this afternoon a man without a country, for my ambition lies buried in the grave of the Confederacy. There has been consigned not only my ambition but the dogmas upon which that Government was based. The faces I see before me are those of young men; had I not known this I would not have appeared before you. Men in whose hands the destinies of the Southland lie, for love of her I break my silence, to let it bury its dead, its hopes and aspirations; before you lie the future — a future full of golden promise; a future of expanding national glory, before which all of the worlds shall stand amazed. Let me beseech you to lay aside all rancor, all bitter sectional feeling, and to make your places in the ranks of those who will bring about a consummation devoutly to be wished — a reunited country.”

What’s in a name? History is not changed, just forgotten, perhaps along with the lessons that should’ve been learned? We could use more unifying and less dividing.

Thomas Mitchell is a longtime Nevada newspaper columnist. You may email him at thomasmnv@yahoo.com. He also blogs at http://4thst8.wordpress.com/.

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