How Many Racist Place Names Are There in the United States?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Oct. 3 2011 6:04 PM

Gringo Gulch, Dago Spring, and Polack Swamp

How many racist place names are there in the United States?

111003_POL_rickperry_EX
Texas Gov. Rick Perry

Photo by Michael Nagle/Getty Images.

The family of GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry has long held a lease* on a hunting camp in Texas known to many locals as “Niggerhead,” a name that appears on a large rock on the property. Perry claims his father painted over the name as soon as he bought the land, although some in the area dispute the governor’s timeline. Niggerhead was a fairly common place name in the 19th century. How many racially offensive place names are still around?

Hundreds, at least. It’s impossible to say precisely how many offensively named towns and geographic features remain within the nation's borders. State lawmakers don't always agree with the federal government on geographical labels, and people have varying levels of sensitivity. (Is Florida’s Jew Point offensive, for example? What about Indiana’s Redskin Brook?) Government mapmakers have also been working for decades to clean up our toponyms. The U.S. Board on Geographic Names, a branch of the Interior Department, issued two blanket rules decades ago to erase racial slurs from federal maps. In 1962, they replaced “Nigger” with “Negro” in the names of at least 174 places. You can still find such locales as Free Negro Point in Louisiana and Little Negro Creek. (Negro wasn’t widely considered pejorative at the time.) Then they replaced dozens of occurrences of the word “Jap” with “Japanese” in 1974. A handful of state legislatures have also banished select racial slurs from their maps. Still, there are plenty of clearly epithetic names on the books. Consider, for example, Arizona’s Dago Spring and Gringo Gulch, New York’s Polack Swamp, and Chinaman Bayou in Louisiana, to name just a few.

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Most offensively named places are in remote areas, like Rick Perry’s hunting camp. (New Mexico’s Kraut Canyon, for example, is in a county with fewer than 10 people per square mile.) If there's one in your area, think of it as an opportunity: State boards of geographic names typically welcome petitions to change controversial map labels, as long as you can suggest a suitable alternative. If you have, say, a relative with a strong connection to the area who has been dead for more than five years, you might get the naming rights.

As Mark Monmonier, a professor of geography at Syracuse University, explains in his book From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow: How Maps Name, Claim, and Inflame, it’s not always obvious whether a name is offensive, because many racial slurs have alternate meanings. A place like Coon Hollow, Colo., could be either an offensive reference to black people or a nod to a furry little mammal.* It’s also not known what motivated the people who named Wop Draw Valley in Wyoming.

The most controversial issue in geographic names right now is the word squaw. To many, it’s a pejorative reference to Native-American women with sexual undertones. (South Dakota’s Squaw Humper Dam, Squaw Humper Table, and Little Squaw-Humper Creek clearly employ this usage.) In 2003, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano strong-armed her state board of geographic names to change Squaw Peak near Phoenix to Piestewa Peak, after a Hopi tribe member who died in the Iraq war. Since the switch required the board to waive the five-year waiting period to honor a deceased person with a place name, one board member resigned, one skipped the vote, and another voted no. While Piestewa Peak is now federally recognized, the U.S. government still lists more than 800 places with “squaw” in their names.

Few people shed tears when the federal government eliminated the n-word from our maps, but those names can be linked to an interesting history. The Lake Ontario peninsula once called Niggerhead Point was so named because it was a stop on the Underground Railroad. The state changed the name to Negrohead Point in the 1950s, and then to Graves Point in the 1970s. The federal government, however, continues to refer to it as Negrohead Point.

The places named in this article are shown on the map below. There are hundreds of others not shown.


View Offensive Place Names in a larger map

Correction, Oct. 5, 2011: The article originally stated that Perry's family owns the hunting camp. In fact, the family began leasing it in 1983. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Correction, Oct. 5, 2011: The article mistakenly identified raccoons as rodents. In fact, they are members of the order Carnivora. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Mark Monmonier of Syracuse University, author of
From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow: How Maps Name, Claim, and Inflame.

Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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