How did this mountain, in California, get the name Julius Caesar?
Who gets to name things?
Well, it’s a little more complicated than you may have thought.
I assumed that whoever climbed or saw the mountain first, named it. Of course, many of the peaks in the Western US had already been seen and climbed by Native people for thousands of years. But for English and Spanish names, there was a window of time where settlers and explorers named everything. Sometimes the names stuck and sometimes they didn’t.
It basically had to do with what got written on maps, what spread by word of mouth, and which maps became official. A peak might have one name on one map, and a totally different name on another. And the people that interacted with the place may have called it something else entirely. Or nothing at all.
One of these peaks was Mt. Julius Caesar in the Sierra and another was Jefferson Davis Peak in Eastern NV. Named in 1855, before Nevada even existed, and while Jeff Davis was the United States secretary of war. His name was applied to a giant, magnificent peak in what was then The Utah Territory. Jefferson Davis never saw the mountain that wore his name.
5 years later, of course, Jefferson Davis became the president of the Confederate States of America.
In 1869 - 14 years later, the civil war was over and Nevada was a state. George Wheeler who was leading an Army Mapping expedition, renamed the high point after himself. Jeff Davis’ name was moved to a shorter peak nearby.
This land later became Great Basin National Park.
Today, the iconic image of the Park is a range of striking peaks. The tallest point in that iconic image is Wheeler on the right, and Jefferson Davis peak is the standing name for the slightly shorter summit on the left.
Before 1890, people just named stuff. Sometimes, they'd give the same place many names, or the same name with different spellings. The US Board on Geographic Names (BGN) was established because all of these contradicting names and spellings of those names made maps hard to use.
And from there, the BGN became THE authority on place names within the US. It’s important to distinguish, they do not name cities, highways or other human-made things.
Over the 125 years of it’s existence, the board has developed a bunch of rules and standards, but the biggest thing they take into account is "Local Usage". If people who live there call it that, that’s what it’s called.
How does the National Board in DC know what people in Eastern Nevada call a peak? Most states have a State Board on Geographic Names. The Nevada Board meets a few times per year.
The state board meetings are open to the public, and the ones I’ve gone to have been cool. The group is reactive, so it doesn’t look for things to name, it simply reviews applications that come in from the public. The state board’s main role seems to be weeding out names that don’t follow the rules. One of these rules (apart from local usage) is that you can no longer name something after a living person.
For a full list of NV's naming rules and application, visit: NEVADA STATE BOARD ON GEOGRAPHIC NAMES
Right now, there are 2 peaks named for the Confederate president. 1 in Great Basin National Park, + 1 in Alpine County, CA. Alpine County has started the process of changing their Jeff Davis Peak (documents above), and there is currently a proposal to change Nevada's Jefferson Davis Peak to "Smalls Peak". Robert Smalls was a Civil war hero and escaped slave who later became a congressman.
The Nevada Board will hear the name Smalls Peak at their next meeting in May.
A representative from the National Parks Service says that preference will be given to the historical name if the Western Shoshone submit it for approval.
That name is Pe-up.
“Once, from eastern ocean to western ocean, the land stretched away without names. Nameless headlands split the surf; nameless lakes reflected nameless mountains; and nameless rivers flowed through nameless valleys into nameless bays.
Men came at last, tribe following tribe, speaking different languages and thinking different thoughts. According to their ways of speech and thought they gave names, and in their generations laid their bones by the streams and hills they had named. But even when tribes and languages had vanished, some of those old names, reshaped, still lived in the speech of those who followed." Names on the Land by George R. Stewart