How Kennedy lost his Cape

From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow:
July 14, 2006

Nearly 800 geographical features in the US were given the name "squaw" by the explorers and cartographers who attempted to set this great continent down on paper, and thus found their way on to official printed maps. Most were in the sparsely populated Pacific and Rocky Mountain states. Only in the 1990s was the word demonised by Native American activists. From its relative obscurity as a rude term for an American Indian woman or wife, it became a hate word that connotes whore or vagina, and thus unsuitable for a place name such as Squaw Peak in Arizona.

"Nigger" occurred even more frequently. In the 1960s, when the word became a derogatory name, it was relatively easy to replace it throughout official maps with "negro", then an inoffensive word denoting simply colour. When that too became politically incorrect, the solution was more difficult.

"Colouredskull Creek" does not have the same ring as "Niggerskull Creek".

Other equally offensive terms, such as "Jap", "Chink", "Dago" and "Gringo"

also had to go once states began passing laws such as the Abrogation of Offensive Geographical Place-Names in North Carolina.

However, changing names is not an easy practice. The Board of Geographic Names was established in 1890 at the behest of several government agencies, and rules were laid down, such as one that insisted that five years must elapse after the death of a "son of the soil" before his name could be officially adopted on a federal map.

After the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, the Board gave way to pressure from Washington to rename not only the Nasa launch pad but also Cape Canaveral in his honour. Florida residents were incensed: Cape Canaveral was one of the earliest mapped features in the country, dating from 1564, and Kennedy was from Massachusetts. They eventually won their case, and the previous name was restored.

Although local names might appear on state maps, it is federal maps that are used for school atlases, national tourist maps and all national publications, and there are strict criteria for the introduction of new names and the alteration of existing ones.

Another field in which political correctness has influenced the names on US maps is in the national parks and wilderness lands, which are intended to be protected from activities that undermine their natural character.

Banning motor vehicles is one way to keep man's work substantially unnoticeable, another is to restrict toponyms, especially when they are used to promote local grandees. As Mark Monmonier aptly concludes: "In the wilderness as well as in cities, toponyms leave massive footprints on the cultural landscape."

Pittsburgh citizens felt a loss of civic pride when their final "h" was removed in an effort to bring conformity to names ending in - burg, - center and - boro. In a unique case, Pittsburgh was eventually permitted to retain its "h".

There are many such interesting facts in this fascinating book, which also provides a full history of how names appeared on American maps, of the various government bodies formed to oversee their use and of the pressures from local and prejudiced parties that had to be resisted to ensure that the highest standards were maintained.

The book will interest anyone who has ever wondered how place names have come to be established by locals, and then come to endure on maps - at least until the advance of political correctness.

Susan Gole is international chairman, International Map Collectors'


From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow:: How Maps Name, Claim and Inflame

Author - Mark Monmonier
Publisher - Chicago University Press
Pages - 215
Price - £16.00
ISBN - 0 226 53465 0

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