Coon Lake and Coon Creek, in a national park in Washington state, should shed their names with racist overtones and be renamed after an African American prospector with ties to the area, the National Park Service announced today.
The recommended name of the lake, located in the Stehekin Valley in Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, is in honor of Wilson Howard, a black prospector who lived in the area in the 1890s.
The state of Washington officially renamed Coon Lake and Coon Creek eight years ago to Howard Lake and Howard Creek, after a petition by Seattle resident Jonathan Rosenblum. Rosenblum pointed out the area lacked raccoons, and the word “coon” was a common derogatory slur against African Americans.
But because the lake is in a national park, Coon Lake remained the official name on federal documents and on park signs. The National Parks Service objected to the state’s petition for a name change in 2009, saying there was not enough evidence that “coon” was used as a racial slur against Wilson, or that Wilson had ties to the lake.
The issue was revived in local news outlets, after President Barack Obama announced that Mount McKinley would be renamed Denali, the mountain’s Athabascan name that the state of Alaska has recognized for more than 40 years.
The National Park Service agency said after the recent attention, officials revisited its original opinion on Howard Lake and received new evidence of Howards’ mining claims from the Washington State Bureau of Mines this month.
“In our current review of the historic record, we realized that our previous research had used a secondary source of documentation for the area’s mining claims, which the newly uncovered records indicate were incomplete and too vague to show the connection Mr. Howard had to the lake,” said Karen Taylor-Goodrich, superintendent of North Cascades National Park Complex in a prepared statement.
“We recognize that our previous decision on this issue overlooked relevant information, and would like to offer our thanks to the citizens who researched and pursued this issue. It is our opinion now that recognizing Mr. Howard for his role in the development of the Stehekin Valley by renaming the lake and creek in his honor is entirely appropriate.”
The next step will be to bring the name change to the the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.
“It’s a great step but we’re not done ’til the name is officially changed,” Rosenblum told the Globalist in an email. “I appreciate the Park Service’s readiness to re-examine past decisions and support a just resolution.”
In a released statement, Rosenblum added, “I’m looking forward to seeing those Howard Lake trail signs! It’s a fitting and overdue tribute to the pioneer Wilson Howard. I applaud the National Park Service leadership and staff for responding to the outpouring of support for the name change.
“We need to recognize that the Park Service changed its position only because hundreds of people came forward to say ‘No’ to racism and ‘Yes’ to honoring and recognizing Mr. Howard and his contribution to our past. Congratulations to the hundreds of people who wrote letters, signed petitions, made phone calls, and presented testimony over the years.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with additional comments from Jonathan Rosenblum.