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Place Names
The legacy of those who explored the West

Fin Dome and Mt. Clarence King. Click image for larger desktop size photo.


This photo has appeared elsewhere in this website, but here it is offered in a different context. This 1972 photo was taken from above the Rae Lakes, Kings Canyon National Park. In the background we see aptly-named landmark Fin Dome. Directly behind it, as closely as I can place it from my topo map, sits Mt. Clarence King. This short article concerns the name of that mountain.

I'm currently reading "Beyond The Hundredth Meridian" by Wallace Stegner. It chronicles the explorations and adventures of Maj. John Wesley Powell, the first American to take a boat expedition down from the high reaches of the Green and Colorado Rivers, in the "Plateau Province" high country of Wyoming, Colorado, Northern Arizona, and Eastern Utah. Powell and his men were the first to make passage through the Grand Canyon, in stout boats of oak that were smashed and repaired a dozen times. Whether your interest is the Outdoors, or history, or geology, or geography, or whitewater rafting, Stegner's biography is an exciting read, for Powell surveyed or pioneered all these discliplines in several missions for the agency that became the Coast and Geodetic Survey.

If you were raised in Plateau country or spent a lot of time there, you are lucky, for Stegner explores the history of the region as few before him. I was raised in California, but I could see that the place names of the region read like a history of the pioneers who discovered it.

And I recognized many of those names in Stegner's book, of course. More oddly, I thought I recognized some of those names from my own backpacking days in the northern and southern California Sierra Nevada. I began to find the exploration of the west by a handful of men as tremendously exciting.

You would guess correctly that Lake Powell was named after the historical Major Powell. As usual, Stegner expands on this far better than I. As if anticipating my interest, he writes (p. 192):

Every exploration that traversed this country left names behind it, either those it gave or those given later in its memory. Fremont's name rests on a peak in the Wind Rivers, an island in the Great Salt Lake, a town in Wayne Country, Utah, a river heading in the Fish Lake Plateau. Lieutenant Gunnison has been given a river in western Colorado, a butte near where he crossed the Green, and a town in the Sevier Valley close to where he and seven of his party died at the hands of the Pahvant Utes. Stansbury, Simpson, Ives, Beckwith, Berthoud, are all there, either in the Paleau Province or on its borders. The highest peak in the Uintas and in Utah bears Clarence King's name.

Clarence King? This sent me rushing to my topo maps. There it is, on the Mt. Pinchot quadrangle, 15 minute series, elevation 12,905 feet - in Kings Canyon. This is far from the high desert river country of the surveys of the 1870's.

But the Kings River and its Kings Canyon watershed was named differently, by Gabriel Moraga on one of the first expeditions by the Spanish to the Central Valley of California in 1806. Kings river was originally named Rio de los Santos Reyes (River of the Holy Kings). - Wikipedia

All these men are long gone, but their names live on. As a youth trekking through the back country of Kings Canyon, I was aware of the colorful names - Fin Dome, Painted Lady, Mt. Clarence King - but had no idea what history they represented. Today, I resolved to explore this further.

But it's all been done before, hasn't it? Stegner explains again (p.194):

Men, big or little ... provided only one of the sources of map names. Most of the modes and fashions of naming discussed by George R. Stewart in his admirable Names On The Land are present ...

Full circle: I'm an admirer of George R. Stewart and his one novel Earth Abides. The "Names On The Land" book is out of print, but I already have a used copy on order via Amazon. Maybe it really is a small world, after all.

Connections, James Burke style: I am trying in earnest to find out how old those ancient extinct Arizona volcanoes, visible in the flat of the desert from the air on descent into Phoenix, really are. I suspect perhaps a billion years. But if I follow the leads of the geological expeditions of Major Powell's peers (one of whom was Clarence King), laid down over 100 years ago, maybe I'll really find out.

Alex Forbes, April 28, 2007


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