A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE MOUNTAIN AND ITS NAME
56 million years ago, a pocket of cooling magma in the North American Plate crystalized into granite. The persistent pressure of the Pacific Plate slowly pushed that granite upward, and the sedimentary rock around it was stripped away by wind and water.
About 15,000 years ago, humans arrived in the region. A group of them stayed and became the Koyukon Athabaskan people. They called the mountain Denali (“the high one”).
In 1867, US Secretary of State William Seward negotiated the purchase of the arctic peninsula that contained this mountain. He paid Russia $7.2 million. The peninsula was called Alaska after a native Aleut word.
In 1896, prospector and Princeton alumni William A. Dickey named the mountain McKinley after the governor of Ohio. Governor William McKinley was running for president, and he supported the use of gold (not silver) as the standard for currency. According to explorer Belmore Browne:
A few years ago I asked Mr. Dickey why he named the mountain McKinley, and he answered that while they were in the wilderness he and his partner fell in with two prospectors who were rabid champions of free silver, and that after listening to their arguments for many weary days, he retaliated by naming the mountain after the champion of the gold standard.
In 1901, President William McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist who had concealed a gun in his handkerchief.
In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson officially named the mountain Mt. McKinley. Most Alaskans and mountaineers still called it Denali.
In 1975, the Alaska Legislature officially requested that the United States Board on Geographic Names change the name of the mountain to Denali. Ohio senator Ralph Regula effectively blocked the name change for decades.
In 2009, Regula retired.
In 2015, the White House announced that Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell will change the official name of the mountain to Denali. Here’s what some people said:
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio):
There is a reason President McKinley’s name has served atop the highest peak in North America for more than 100 years, and that is because it is a testament to his great legacy … I’m deeply disappointed in this decision.
Congressman Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio):
This political stunt is insulting to all Ohioans, and I will be working with the House Commitee on Natural Resources to determine what can be done to prevent this action.
Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio):
I’m disappointed with the Administration’s decision to change the name of Mt. McKinley in Alaska … This decision by the Administration is yet another example of the President going around Congress
Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska):
For generations, Alaskans have known this majestic mountain as “the great one.” Today we are honored to be able to officially recognize the mountain as Denali. I’d like to thank the president for working with us to achieve this significant change to show honor, respect and gratitude to the Athabaskan people of Alaska.
The re-naming kicks off Obama’s trip to Alaska, where he hopes to highlight the reality of climate change.
tl;dr - Geologic forces spent millions of years sculpting a mountain, and then humans spent 100 years arguing about what it should be called.