Naming Denali — the High One


Photo Credit : Duke Coonrad


According to the Koyukon (Athabascan) people living in the Yukon River valley in west-central Alaska, it was the Great Raven (Dotson’ Sa) who made the world and it was the Great Raven who was responsible for “our being made again” after a great deluge covered the earth with water.


Credit: Wikimedia

There was “nothing but water and big waves, all over.” The Great Raven who was disguised as a man, threw his harpoon at the crest of a massive wave with such force and concentration that he fainted from the effort and when he awoke “his canoe was in a forest of spruce trees. The land had been formed again.” People and animals could now re-populate the earth.


“The wave he had hit with his harpoon had become a mountain; it is the one we call: Totson-to-kedatlkoihten, i.e., The-one-whose-top-was-hit-by-the-Raven. The harpoon had glanced off the mountain top, as the wave hardened into rock and had struck again another huge wave, changing it into a mountain; this is the one we call Dinale (Denali), i.e., The-high-one.” Koyukon story told to and recorded by Julius Jetté, in 1905


Dinale (Denali) is the four-mile high wave that solidified into a four-mile high mountain.  Dinale (Denali) was formed and named in what the Koyukon call “Distant Time.” Richard Nelson in his book Make Prayers to the Raven, describes the Koyukon view of distant time as a time “so remote that no one can explain or understand how long ago it really was.” Distant Time stories are stories within stories — layered within layers.


How Big is It?

It’s the tallest mountain in North America at 20,310 feet above sea level. It’s so big it makes its own weather. The upper portion of the mountain rests in perpetual snow and has a number of glaciers, some more than 30 miles long.  It’s so high that migratory birds like ducks and geese and most songbirds can’t fly above it during their September migrations and sometimes crash into the mountain when it’s dark.

Riddle Me This

In addition to his meticulous documentation of the Koyukon language and culture, Julius Jetté, who spent almost 30 years among the Koyukon, also recorded over 100 Koyukon riddles. The people loved to share riddles with one another. This is one of them:

Riddle me:     The stars are rottening (sic) on my sides.

Answer:          Dinale (Denali), the high one.

To answer this riddle, Jetté wrote —

The Ten’a (Koyukon) explain that “the migratory birds…do not soar above Dinale (Denali) in their flight, and when going southward, during September, they butt against it, in the dark, and die there. The truth is that bones and carcasses are found scattered over its gulches. In the question, these birds are metaphorically termed ‘stars,’ on account of their flying high in the sky.”Koyukon story told to and recorded by Julius Jetté, in 1905

The Remarkable Andrei Glazunov

It’s fitting that the first documented sighting of the mountain resulting in the charting of Tenada (Denali) on an 1839 map was made by Alaska Native Andrei Glazunov. The son of an Alaskan Native mother and a Russian father, Glazunov was born and schooled in Alaska and grew to be an exceptional explorer of his native land. He spoke Kodiak Alutiiq, an Eskimo language as well as Russian.


Fort Yukon Sledge 1867 Drawing by Frederick Whymper

Glazunov commanded an 1833 exploratory party to chart interior Alaska and to bring back furs to the Russian American Company.  He was accompanied by four volunteers.  They traveled an astounding 1,400 miles on foot in 104 days in the dead of winter.

It is the first extended expedition into interior Alaska for which there is a published journal. His entire journal has never been published, so we rely on excerpts from English, Russian, German and French translations entitled, “The Journal of Andrei Glazunov, First-Mate of the Imperial Russian Navy, During His Voyage in the Northwest of America.” Extracts from Glazunov’s journal were published in 1836, 1839 and 1841. Kari:1985:1

The exploratory party set out on December 30, 1833 with two sledges (sleds) loaded with provisions. The sleds were used to bring back furs they were ordered to buy from the locals during the trip.

They experienced extreme physical hardship from the pace, terrain, weather and lack of food. Glazunov reports that when they could find no game, which happened often, they collected and cooked white moss to appease their hunger. On another occasion, for their supper they cooked some pieces of an old leather bag which they brought to mend their shoes. Glazunov Journal Excerpts

On February 7, 1834, Glazunov writes in his journal that he “saw a great mountain called Tenada to the northeast.”  He was 46-53 miles from Tenada (70-80 versts). Tenada is the Deg Hit’an (Ingalik) name Dengadh. All Athabascan variants north of the Alaska Range mean “The High One.”

Glazunov’s  ‘Tenada’ appeared on an 1839 map prepared at the direction of Admiral Ferdinand von Wrangel who commissioned Glazunov. It was considered the finest map of southcentral Alaska at the time and the first known depiction of Denali.


Portion of 1839 Wrangel Map. Arrow on the right points to Glazunov’s Tenada Mountain (Denali). Arrow on the left points to the Southern Alaska Range (Tschigmit, a Yupik place name). Click on map to enlarge or click on link to view the complete 1839 Wrangel map.


Alaska is an enormous state and Denali is an enormous mountain. On a clear day the mountain is visible for more than 100 miles.   Many Native tribes have lived in the area for many thousands of years and they all had a name for the mountain.


3D model from TinyMtn

The people who lived north of the Alaska Range and north of the mountain called it “the high one” or the “tall one.” The Koyukon place name “Denali” and Glazunov’s Ingalik (Deg Hit’an) “Tenada” come from the people who lived north of the Alaska Range.

People who lived south of the Alaska Range and south of the mountain called it “big mountain”  The Dena’ina near Mt. Susitna (39 miles from Anchorage) called it Dghelay Ka’a, ‘Big Mountain’ to distinguish it from Dghelisha, ‘Little Mountain’ or Mt. Susitna.  These were the Natives who helped William Dickey.  Shem Pete’s Alaska

KoyukonDeenaalee (Dinale)
Lower TananaDeenaadheet, Deenadhee
Middle TananaDiineezi
Upper KuskokwimDenaze
Ingalik (Deg Hit’an)Dengadh, Dengadhi, (Tenada) from Glazunov 1834.
AhtnaDghelaay Ce’e,
Dena’ina (Upper Inlet)Dghelay Ka’aThis is the name for the mountain that the Natives would have used with William Dickey in 1897 and with the U.S. Geological Survey in 1898-1899.
Dena’ina (Lower Inlet)Dghili Ka’a

Data from Shem Pete’s Alaska

“Athabascans, in marked contrast to Euro-American cultures, never name places after people, and it is absolutely unthinkable to them that the tallest mountain in their traditional territory should be named for a mortal.” Kari:1985:3

Why Was the Mountain Named Mt. McKinley?

The short answer is:

  •  Self-interest
  • Assuming things that were never true
  • Politics and prejudice
  • The power of the media — The New York Sun championed the naming at face value without thoroughly checking the facts .

The Gentleman Prospector

William A. Dickey arrived in Tyonek, Alaska on the northwest shore of Cook Inlet, 43 miles southwest of Anchorage in the first week of May 1896. Born in New Hampshire and educated at Princeton, Dickey was a Seattle businessman who travelled north as a first time prospector to spend the summer making money prospecting for gold. He was new at this and relied upon his partner Alan Monks, an outdoorsman and mountaineer. Monks had successfully made the difficult climb to the summit of Mount Rainier the previous summer.

Dickey prospected around the Susitna River and Mt. Susitna. It was near Tyonek and again at Mt. Susitna when he initially saw Denali which is visible on a clear day and incorrectly assumed that he had discovered the mountain even though explorers had been reporting sightings of the mountain since 1794.

He obtained a number of hand drawn maps from the local natives. At summer’s end as he was leaving Alaska, he says that he met some people who told him the news that William McKinley had just been nominated as the Republican Party’s candidate for president of the United States; and in a cavalier act of arrogance named the mountain McKinley.

“We named our great peak Mount McKinley, after William McKinley of Ohio, who had been nominated for the Presidency, and that fact was the first news we received on our way out of that wonderful wilderness.” New York Sun, January 24, 1897

Gold Future

Whether or not William Dickey had the right to name the mountain is questionable –  he certainly couldn’t have done it without the New York Sun — but even given the fact that he took credit for discovering and naming it,  Dickey could have named that mountain after anyone, because it wasn’t the man’s name on the mountain that mattered – it was the man’s policy.

Candidate William McKinley, favored putting America on the gold standard and the Alaska Gold Rush would help provide the necessary gold to back the U.S. currency.  If you happened to be a gold prospector selling gold like William Dickey, that policy could make you rich.

McKinley’s opponent William Jennings Bryant, favored a silver-backed currency.

William Dickey Takes a Selfie

On January 24, 1897, The New York Sun published an article written by William Dickey, “Discoveries in Alaska.” A critical piece of this article was the sketch map of the area drawn by Dickey.

In another shorter article written by the Sun appearing in the same edition, the editors admit that Dickey’s map came from maps drawn by Native Alaskans.


“Mr. W. A. Dickey, who drew the map. Completed his delineation of the river by using a map of the Sushitna from its source to the falls, which had been drawn by some Indians. It is known that Indian tribes, and the Eskimos also, frequently have the geographic instinct well developed, and their rude sketch maps have sometimes been of considerable assistance to explorers.”

Mr. Dickey has sent to this office Indian maps of a part of the river and a map of the whole river based upon native information….” New York Sun, January 24, 1897


Dickey’s map is crudely drawn when compared to the 1839 Wrangel map with Glazunov’s charting of Tenada (Denali) which predates Dickey’s map by 38 years. Although he copied his sketch map from sketch maps drawn by Native Alaskans, the Dickey sketch map does not contain any of the Native place names which were presumably told to him on the sketch maps that the Natives drew for him. He ignores even the Native names for the major tributaries such as Chulitna or the Talkeetna rivers.” Dickey sanitized this sketch map by eliminating all Native place names including the name the Natives used for Denali. Shem Pete’s Alaska



Dickey Sketch Map Published by NY Sun, Jan. 24, 1897. Arrow points to mountain. Click on map to enlarge.

A Russian Name is Used for the Mountain, Not a Native Alaskan Name


“All the Indians of Cooks Inlet call it the “Bulshoe”  Mountain, which is their word for anything very large.”  William Dickey, New York Sun, January 24, 1897

Not true. The Dena’ina living in the  Cook Inlet who the sketched maps and informed Dickey of the topography called the mountain ‘Dghelay Ka’a.  Dickey used ‘Bulshaia’, ‘Bulshoe’ which is a corruption of the Russian adjective meaning ‘big’. Noted linguist James Kari and cultural anthropologist James Fall have never heard ‘Bulshaia’ or ‘Bulshoe’  applied to Denali or used by Dena’ina speakers.  Shem Pete’s Alaska

Do Alan Monks and the other explorers and not William Dickey deserve the credit for correctly estimating the mountain’s height?


William Dickey has been widely credited with correctly estimating the height of Denali, but this is not what he told the New York Sun.


“On Cooks Inlet we had seen Iliamna’s still smoking summit, 12,066 feet above us, rising precipitously from the salt water. Inland is a continuation of the same range, and even higher, probably 14,000 to 15,000 feet in altitude…

….my companion…Mr. Monks, was one of the few who made the ascent of Rainier the previous summer. In his opinion Rainer was about the same altitude as the range this side of the huge peak, which towered at least 6,000 feet above it its neighbors….

….We have talked with seven different parties who saw the mountain this summer, and they estimate its height at over 20,000 feet…. William Dickey, New York Sun  January 24, 1897


As time passed, he took sole credit for the achievement of closely estimating the height of Denali prior to any formal survey.


“My first trip to Alaska was into an unknown and unexpected region around Mt. McKinley, which I named in an article published in the New York Sunday Sun January 24, 1897. In this article I estimated the height of Mt. McKinley at 20,000 feet, an estimate which proved to be very close, as it actually measured 20,464 feet.” William Dickey 1905

A U.S Geological Survey disputes the discovery and naming of the mountain.


“In 1898, or two years after my explorations about Mt. McKinley, a party of the U.S. Geological Survey attempted to steal the credit of discovering and naming this peak, but the New York Sun promptly called their attention to the fact that I had named this great peak two years before.

Being unable to change my name and steal the credit for discovering the highest peak in North America, these members of the Geological Survey called me a common prospector, which evidently in their eyes excuses any irregularities on their part.” William Dickey 1905

The New York Sun Comes to the Rescue

The paper called the U.S. Geological Survey party “Belated Explorers” and publicly ridiculed them by charging that “they discover(ed)  a mountain which was mapped in the Sun about 21 months ago.”

The newspaper portrayed a false, demeaning and prejudicial account against the Alaska Natives, and attributed the smear as coming from the U.S. Geological Survey party:


“On reaching a considerable elevation a peak so much higher than any of the others was discovered that the Indians in the party were frightened. It was named Mount Bulshoe from the exclamation of one of the guides. None of the Indians had ever heard of the big peak.”



New York Sun October 12, 1898. Click on text to enlarge.

The Sun article then goes on to champion William Dickey while revealing their own proprietary interest in the result.  “The gentlemen who made this discovery”  refers to the US Geological survey party.


New York Sun October 12, 1898. Click on text to enlarge

William McKinley


William McKinley-Civil-War

By all accounts William McKinley was a good and decent man.

He was the last president to serve in the Civil War. McKinley age 18, enlisted in the Union Army as a private. He received several promotions (one for bravery) and ended his career as a major. As president, the aftermath of the Civil War was always a priority for him as he tried to restore the One America that was torn in two by immeasurable suffering.

Roughly 2% of the population, an estimated 620,000 men, lost their lives in the line of duty.  Approximately one in four soldiers that went to war never returned home and there were an estimated 1.5 million reported casualties. Civil War Trust


“It will be my constant aim to do nothing, and permit nothing to be done, that will arrest or disturb this growing sentiment of unity and cooperation, this revival of esteem and affiliation, which now animates so many thousands in both the old antagonistic sections, but I shall cheerfully do everything possible to promote and increase it.” William McKinley Inaugural Address, Washington, March 4, 1897.


There appears to be no record of any public statement made by William McKinley on having a mountain named after him just because he happened to be a political candidate. William Dickey had no connection to him. McKinley was from Ohio. Dickey was born in New Hampshire and lived most of his life in Washington State. McKinley never visited Alaska.

William Dickey named the mountain for a gold standard policy backed by candidate William McKinley from which Dickey would benefit.  He placed William McKinley in the center of a naming dispute that began almost immediately.  William McKinley is an innocent party in this and no disrespect or dishonor is intended.


In fact, it was William McKinley — the man in the middle — who said it best:


“Our differences are policies;

Our agreements, principles.” William McKinley

The Athabascan people have a “quiet reverence” for Denali and they tend to avoid speaking about the mountain. It was considered disrespectful to talk about the size or majesty of a mountain while looking at it.  A child doing this would be told.

“Don’t talk: your mouth is small.”

In other words, this was “talking big,” disregarding the need to be humble before something so large as a mountain. (Make Prayers to the Raven)

In the Koyukon ‘Distant Time’ story,  after the Great Raven’s harpoon hit the crest of the colossal wave that solidified into the frozen mountain called  Dinale (Denali) —  the harpoon sailed into the sky.


“Again the harpoon made a bound on the hard rock, but this time it went up and stuck into the sky. We cannot see it, ourselves, though it is still there; the medicine-men only can see it and know where it is.” Koyukon story told to and recorded by Julius Jetté, in 1905



Harpoon Penn Museum


Principles are like that too — we may not see them, but they’re still there.

© Carol Horos, 2015