HELENA — Several Montana landmarks are coming under scrutiny for being named after the man who led southern states against the United States of America during the Civil War.
The Montana Racial Equity Project, the Montana Human Rights Network, Forward Montana Foundation, Mai Wah Society, Montana Wilderness Association, The Wilderness Society and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) jointly submitted a petition to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names asking it to rename three geographic features in Montana currently named after Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America.
The groups are specifically calling for the renaming of Jeff Davis Peak and Jeff Davis Creek in Beaverhead County and Davis Gulch just south of Helena’s city limits. Their reasoning for the request comes from Davis’s support of slavery and white supremacy.
"Geographic features named after an icon of white supremacy like Jefferson Davis aren't just words on a map,” said Travis McAdam, program director at Montana Human Rights Network. “Location names can signal support for racism, slavery and the insurrectionist and treasonous Confederacy. These aren't values Montana should endorse in any shape or form.”
Although Davis never set foot in Montana, he and the Confederacy had an impact on the state. In the 1860’s Montana was population by thousands of Southerners and Northerners who came in search of their fortune, bringing with them their ideologies.
Virginia City was originally named “Verina” after Davis’s wife Varina Howell Davis. The town’s name was changed when a judge who had come from Connecticut refused the name and recorded it instead as Virginia.
The Davis-named features are the latest of Confederate tributes to come under scrutiny in recent years. A confederate memorial fountain at Hill park in Helena was removed in 2017 and Confederate Campground on Canyon Ferry was slated to be renamed last year, but the Bureau of Reclamation changed course following public pushback.
The groups requesting the name changes have suggested alternatives that are intended to honor the Salish people and immigrants that lived in the area.
Jeff Davis Peak is being suggested to be changed to “Three Eagles Peak,” in honor of Salish Chief Three Eagles who welcomed Lewis and Clark’s Corp of Discovery into the Salish camp in September, 1804 and gave the party food, horses and other gifts.
“These places are part of the homelands of the Salish, Pend d’Oreille and Kootenai people and by acknowledging these connections, you are also offering respect for our history and our culture. Our people have an ancient and continuing presence in this landscape. The simple choosing of a name is another way to show how we care for this place for the generations to come and an important beginning to the healing process,” said Shelly R. Fyant, chairwoman Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
For Davis Creek, the group of organizations is suggesting “Choos-wee Creek” to honor both Chinese immigrants in Montana and the Salish people who were among the original inhabitants of the area. “Choos-wee” is the Anglicized phonetic spelling of Čusw̓í, the Salish word for Chinese people.
"We're honored that the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes wanted to recognize the Chinese community that lived along the stream in the 19th Century,” said President of the Mai Wah Society Pat Munday. “The proposed name honors Chinese American history, while also reminding us that the area was and is part of traditional Salish territory."
For Jeff Davis Gulch, the groups are proposing “In-qu-qu-leet” – a rough phonetic rendering of the Salish word that means Place of Lodgepole Pine.
“Montana has an incredibly colorful and diverse history, and Jefferson Davis is thankfully not part of it. It’s time we use names for our mountains, forests and rivers that reflect our state’s true history and ensure that all people are included and welcomed on our public lands,” said Paul Spitler, director of wilderness policy at The Wilderness Society.
There are no plans at this time to petition Lewis and Clark County or the City of Helena to change the names Davis Gulch Road or Davis Street.