The Tyranny of Renaming
The area that will become Great Basin National Park comes into EuroAmerican focus in the year 1855. In early 1855, Edward Steptoe, following orders to find a possible railroad route from Salt Lake City to Sacramento, headed west, south of the Great Salt Lake, and discovered the easy grades required for a railroad crossing to California abruptly ended at the distant high and rocky walls of what will become known as the Goshute and Snake Ranges. Turning north to follow the known emigrant trails of the more railroad-favorable route along the Humboldt River, Steptoe named the highest peak of the distant Snake Range after his boss, US Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis. Steptoe rechristened this peak after his boss despite knowing it already had a name, which his Native American guides referred to as “Biap” or “Pe-up,” meaning Big or the Great One in Western Shoshone language.
On June 3, 1855, Ezra Granger Williams, on an exploration mission for the Mormons, decided to climb the highest peak in the South Snake Range from Snake Creek on the east side. The evening before the climb, Williams, his men and their Native guide, Nioquitch, were visited by Native Americans. The day they approached the mountain for the climb they encountered additional Native Peoples and invited them to join their camp. About half way to the top, two of their party gave out and returned to camp. The rest of the party continued the climb. Well above the tree line and near the summit they found a Native American woman, who, initially frightened was put to ease by Niquitch. Leaving the woman behind, Williams and his party soon reached the summit. In recollecting this experience latter that month, Williams, despite knowing from Nioquitch that the Native name for the peak he surmounted was “Pe-up… signifying ‘big mountain,’” he proudly exclaimed in a letter to a friend: “this peak was named Williams Peak, as I was the first white man that gained its exalted summit.” Williams’ documentation recognized that Pe-up is an important part of the Native Cultural landscape, yet his arrogance in naming the peak after himself was an integral part in the tactics of colonial conquest to marginalize and silence Native peoples and voices. Williams' lack of curiosity about, and dismissal of, the Native American connection with Pe-up is indicative of the philosophy of Western Expansion overtaking the Great Basin in the mid 19th century. It was an attitude that the only important attributes in the Great Basin were the adventures and actions of white explorers.
In September of 1855, after growing weary of driving cattle from Utah to California along the established circuitous route of the Humboldt River, Howard Egan pioneered a new, shorter route through Central Nevada which would become know as the Egan Trail. Proving his new route was the fastest to California, he made it by mule from Salt Lake City to Sacramento in 10 days. His legacy included multiple Anglo place names, which contributed to discrediting and marginalizing the presence and history of the Shoshone/Goshute people in Central and Eastern Nevada.
Wheeler Peak September 1953- Richard Sill (UNR Special Collections)
In mid-year of 1858, a Mormon exploration party led by Orson B. Adams, turned northwest along the eastern base of the South Snake Range. This expedition explored and blazed a wagon trail from Utah, over Sacramento Pass, across the Spring Valley, over the Schell Creek Range, and into the Steptoe Valley, as a possible escape contingency for the Mormons of Utah as the US Government Utah Expedition was setting out for Salt Lake City to quash a believed pending Mormon insurrection. Some distance north of Ely, Adams’s party turned around and headed back to the south, retracing their trail to the mouth of Steptoe Canyon, then continuing south for another forty miles to Cave Valley, where they rejoined Bean’s party of explorers.
Map submitted with Simpson's Report 1859
As part of Simpson’s exploration routes for the Army in 1859, he followed the Mormon Trail blazed the previous year by Adams up the Steptoe Valley and Canyon and over the Schell Creek Range near Cooper Summit. From this summit, Simpson and his men were greeted by spectacular views of the summit of the South Snake Range, which Simpson named in his journal “Union Peak” as the semi-circle of the highest points seemed to form a “union” of peaks creating the highest summit. Simpson was aware of the Native American names of the terrain he traveled through in eastern Nevada, such as recording the Schell Creek Range by its Shoshone/Goshute name, “Un-go-we-ah” and the Snake range as “Go-shoot” or “Tots-arrh” range. This, however, did not stop Simpson from renaming other features after the men in his party, like naming what is today known as Steptoe Creek and Canyon “after Capt. Carter L. Stevenson, of the Fifth Regiment of Infantry,” or renaming other features because his names are more pleasing to him. Simpson heard the Native people refer to the summit of the Snake Range as Too-bur-rit, “but [because] I cannot learn its meaning,” he persisted in renaming it to “Union Peak” ("Too-bur-rit" may have been a Shoshone/Goshute reference to the entire mountain range, including the North Snake Range and South Snake Range). Simpson’s name Union Peak did appear on the the map he submitted with his report of his 1859 exploration (see above), however, did not stick. The first published map in 1860 based on his exploration (see below), identified the highest summit of the Snake Range as “Jef. Davis Peak.”
First Published Map circa 1860
It would be ten years before Simpson’s report was published and when it was, it included a reference to the highest peak of the “Tots-arrh or Goshoot Mountains” as “Mount Davis.” By this time the highest peak in the range had already appeared in other maps of the state of Nevada as “Jeff Davis Peak." The Jeff Davis name would oddly persist in the South Snake Range and appeared as “Jef. Davis Park,” located somewhere south of Wheeler Peak in an 1893 Rand McNally map of Nevada (see below- also notice the Swamp Cedar is also indicated on this map).
There has been much discussion as to the North/South rivalry in affixing the names of “Union Peak” (Northern sympathies) or “Jeff Davis Peak” (Southern sympathies) to the high point of the Snake Range. But perhaps we can take the pre-Civil War naming of this peak at face value: Steptoe named the peak for his boss, US Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, and Simpson named the peak for the way the peak appeared to be a “union” of summits that formed the highest point in the range. Indeed, nearly the entirety of the discussion of the rivalry in naming the peak came from the time period immediately after the Civil War and more than a decade after the initial Euro American naming of the peak. Perhaps this attributed rivalry was merely a backward projection of the traumatic, lingering oppositional sympathies of the North and South, which had nearly torn the young United States asunder. The young Lieutenant G. M. Wheeler, who graduated from West Point in 1866, must have certainly disliked the name of Jef. Davis attached to the highest known peak in Nevada on his exploration and survey in 1869.
In 1869, Lieutenant George M. Wheeler conducted an extensive geographic survey of Nevada for the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers. He and his party climbed to the high point of the Snake Range from the west and used barometric pressure and elevation angles to accurately measure its elevation at 13,063 feet. Wheeler reported, after their success in surmounting their task, “[t]he party by mutual consent, and at the suggestion of Professor White [the Nevada state acting geologist], proposed that hereafter this point should be called Wheeler's Peak, which name has been adopted upon the map.” With a simple stroke of a drafting pencil, Wheeler renamed Pe-up after himself, effectively severing the Shoshone/Goshute from countless generational ties with the Snake Range and laying the literary framework that would assure there cultural connections would remain severed. Later on in his published report he laid out his bias against Native American languages: “[t]he Indian names of the different peaks, ranges, and natural objects have been changed when possible to their English signification, since few of the former possess a claim even to euphony.” Wheeler obviously felt that Native people had no “claim” to the features of the own cultural landscape and he found the sound and tenor of the Numic language "offensive" to the civilized ear. Although Wheeler admired certain aspects of the Nevada “Mountain Indians,” he could not resist showing his visceral disgust for Native American people and cultures living in valleys and coastal areas that had been in the crosshairs of genocide and eradication by Spanish, Mexican, and EuroAmerican colonial aspirations for hundreds of years. “The well-known Digger Indians of the California valleys formerly subsisted in the main upon roots and plants, and to them pine-nuts and acorns were a great luxury. They were and are a filthy, sluggish-minded, disgusting race. Certain other shore Indians, closely allied in general worthlessness of character to the Diggers, subsist upon fish and any refuse or offal found along the shore, together with seaweed and various sea-roots and plants.”
Early maps of Nevada shared Wheeler’s disdain for the Native people by identifying the regional groups with an additional descriptive moniker of “Digger” (Mowry’s Report on Eastern Utah 1855 above). Wheeler did not limit his disdain for Native peoples to California. For Southern Nevada, he described: “[a]n old fellow by the name of Toshob was chief of these bands on the Muddy; a wily, treacherous, cold-blooded old scamp, who was well known to have been the leader of the Indians that were engaged in the 'Mountain Meadow massacre,' that horrible murder of helpless emigrants, both male and female, old and young. The details of this dreadful occurrence were gleaned here and there, and, when fully known, for all coming history will stand out as one of the most disgusting pictures of human baseness.” For those acquainted with western history, it has been an established fact for over 100 years that the “Mountain Meadows Massacre” was planned and perpetrated by Mormons, dressed as “Indians.”
Wheeler’s renaming of the highest peak of the Snake Range for himself did not remove the moniker Jeff Davis from the Snake Range despite the fact that it was, at the time of Wheeler’s re-naming and report, firmly associated with a man infamous for supporting slavery, secession, and who had served as the president of the Confederacy. The US Geolocial Survey still referred to the highest point as Jeff. Davis Peak in an 1884 report. The author of that report, Wm. Eimbeck, gave the following “fact” to the editor of the White Pine News during an interview: “Lieut. Wheeler, in his survey of this section, not liking the name of Jeff Davis for Nevada’s highest mountain, named it after himself, Wheeler Peak, but the authorities at Washington, though no admirers of the immortal of notorious , though certainly historical Jeff, decided to discountenance [refused to approve of] Wheeler, and have retained Jeff Davis, by which name it will in the future be known in the public records” (cited from Eureka Daily Sentinel Aug 23, 1883). The Wheeler name prevailed and the Jeff Davis name simply wandered across the cirque of Wheeler Peak and landed on the second highest point of the Snake Range. The name Jeff Davis clung to the highest elevations of the Snake Range, as a nonsensical symbol of a disgraced EuroAmerican celebrity and distant conflict. The most tragic part of this systematic colonial renaming is that it was an intentional process to marginalize and dispossess the Shoshone/Goshute people from their Traditional Cultural Landscape and erase them from history.
A First Step Toward Righting Wrongs
In the light of the social awakening in the second decade of the 21st century, the attachment of a racist Confederate leader’s name to a remote Nevada peak within Traditional Native Lands became problematic. On January 8th, 2019, the Nevada State Board of Geographical Names voted unanimously in favor of renaming Jeff Davis Peak to Doso Doyabi, thereby restoring a culturally significant name within Great Basin National Park. Doso Doyabi signifies “White Mountain”- an aspect of the peak that speaks to its great height and tendency to hold snow for most of the year. For the first time in 164 years, the highest point in the Snake Range has a recognized place name that is connected with the Shoshone/Goshute traditional cultural landscape.
Bulldozer Mining Assessment on Mount Washington 1965- Richard Sill (UNR Special Collections)
Conservation History of The South Snake Range
The South Snake Range has been an important focus for conservation protections since the turn of the 20th century with the formation of the Osceola Forest Reserve in 1906. The first recognition of the unique natural resources of the South Snake Range was with the creation of Lehman Caves National Monument in 1922. From 1922 until 1933 Lehman Caves National Monument was managed by the Forest Service until FDR’s Executive Order 6166, transferred all National Monuments to the National Park Service in the Department of the Interior. Interest in conservation protections for the remainder to the South Snake Range gained momentum in the early 1950s when Nevada Senators Alan Bible and Howard Cannon proposed creating a National Park with the support of the White Pine Chamber of Commerce.
Marge Sill (founding member of Friends of Nevada Wilderness and affectionately known as “The Mother of Nevada Wilderness”) and her husband Richard Sill first visited the South Snake Range in 1953. In her testimony before the 1985 Congressional Hearing for Nevada Wilderness, Marge Sill stated:
“Wilderness, to me, is a very important thing. When I first visited Nevada and the Wheeler Peak area in the fall of 1953, which, on computation, is 32 years ago, I fell in love with it. This was an area—and I’d been used to California wilderness areas— but this was unique. And I still have the feeling that Nevada wilderness is unique. It is [almost entirely] unrepresented… in the National Wilderness System. I consider wilderness an investment in the future.”
The Sills became advocates for protection of the South Snake Range in the mid 1950s. An August 1956 Desert Magazine article describes how Weldon Heald and Albert Marshall’s trip to Wheeler provoked a renewed interest in the South Snake Range: “many civic groups in Nevada are lending their support to the proposal that the Snake Range and Wheeler Peak become Nevada’s first national park.” There were also oppositional voices to the designation of a national park, including a conservation leader who felt the South Snake Range was simply not the same caliber of America's other national parks. Richard Sill’s correspondence with Weldon Heald from the mid 1950s expressed his frustration with opposition to a national park, and with the US Forest Service in particular by their resistance to protection for the range and opposition to the creation of a National Park. The idea of a Great Basin National Park would become stalled for 30 years.
In the late 1950s, Bald Mountain, immediately north of Wheeler Peak was under consideration for a ski area, a US Forest Service "multiple use" that would be in conflict with a national park. The US Forest Service effectively derailed the campaign to create a National Park in 1959 by creating a 28,000-acre administrative “Wheeler Peak Scenic Area” in the heart of the proposed park. In a July 1959 Desert Magazine article, Weldon Heald emphasized this US Forest Service opposition to National Park conservation in the South Snake Range, noting the opposition “by the Forest Service, which recently countered the park proposal with a Wheeler Peak Scenic Area.” In the April, 1959 National Parks Magazine article, Darwin Lambert provided details to the conflicts of interest between National Park administration and the Forest Service intended use. The US Forest Service intended that within the Wheeler Peak Scenic Area,
"multiple-use forestry" will be carried on as before and that "recreation resources . . . will undergo an expanded development program” . . . Great Basin National Park Association, while welcoming additional recognition of scenic values, has protested two of the development plans—"a two-way road up Lehman Creek to Stella Lake, camping and picnicking facilities near the lake . . ." and "resorts, cabin camps, summer homes, and commercial enterprises . . . adjacent to the new Wheeler Peak Scenic Area"— (but within the proposed national park). The Nevada State Board of Economic Development on February 21 joined the association in urging that these two plans be abandoned in view of the active, nation-wide movement for establishment of the national park in the area.
View from Wheeler Peak 1965- First phase of road construction to Wheeler Peak Campground- Richard Sill (UNR Special Collections)
Fortunately, the commercial development and privatization of the public lands adjacent to the Wheeler Peak Scenic Area were never subjected to the degradation of the US Forest Service vision for “multiple-use forestry.” Despite the strong opposition to the two-way road from Lehman Creek to Stella Lake, the Forest Service pushed forward with project and started construction in 1965. Richard and Marge Sill were heart broken, as were many other conservationist and Wilderness activists. Howard Booth eloquently spoke of the negative impact the two-way road had on opportunities for Wilderness recreation in his 1985 testimony before Congress for the Nevada Wilderness Bill:
I have hiked portions of this area several times in the past 20 years. I well remember climbing Wheeler Peak, at 13,000 feet elevation the highest mountain totally within Nevada, in the days prior to the extension of a road to the present trailhead at 10,000 feet. In those days one generally backpacked upward from a point 3000 feet lower and several miles more distant than the "new" road's end. Whatever values are ascribed to this road, I know its construction has sadly tarnished the adventure of climbing Wheeler. No new generations can experience the challenge to that old pitch of intensity.
The timing of this road construction may not have been coincidental. The 1964 Wilderness Act gave the Forest Service a tool to permanently protect wild lands from “multiple-use” development. The road being constructed within portions of the Wheeler Peak Scenic Area would forever prevent this area from being considered for Wilderness designation.
The passage of the Wilderness Act, however, did force the US Forest Service to evaluate roadless areas for potential Wilderness consideration. This task was not embraced with enthusiasm by the various National Forests in Nevada. After an initial inventory of the South Snake Range, the Forest service found 144,498 acres as being roadless. As early as 1972, Nevada conservationists and Wilderness advocates were proposing nearly 175,000 acres of the South Snake Range as suitable for Wilderness designation. By 1979, the second US Forest Service Roadless Area Review and Evaluation (RARE II) had narrowed in on two potential wilderness areas for “further planning:” Wheeler Peak (61,919 acres) and Highland Ridge (76,017 acres). Despite being a contiguous roadless area of 137,936 acres, these two areas were looked at independently by the Forest Service instead of as a single unit like the conservationist and wilderness advocates described it. By the mid 1980s, the Highland Ridge portion of the Roadless Area had been found not suitable for wilderness in the Forest Service management plan and the name of the northern portion was changed from Wheeler Peak to Bristlecone Recommended Wilderness Area (first described as 51,700 acres and later expanded to 60,151 acres). Approximately half of the Bristlecone Recommended Wilderness included the 1958 Wheeler Peak Scenic Area. In the October 1985 Congressional Hearing for the Nevada Wilderness Bill (H.R. 3302 and H.R. 3304), Friends of Nevada Wilderness, representing a wide coalition of conservationist from Nevada, supported these two bills and Wilderness designation for the 120,000-acre “Mt. Wheeler/Highland Ridge.” Geneva S. Douglas, chair of Friends of Nevada Wilderness, gave the following origin story of Nevada’s homegrown Wilderness advocacy in her testimony before Congress:
Friends of Nevada Wilderness originated when many Nevadans who, like me, are not normally environmental activists became alarmed at statements being made by public officials and mining and ranching interests that Nevadans didn't want wilderness. The only voice we heard in opposition to these anti-wilderness statements was that of the Sierra Club. When we learned that your distinguished Committee was making plans for your field trip to Nevada's proposed wilderness areas we offered our help in the hope that our voices could also be heard. We came together as a group of organizations and individuals who care about what Congressman Reid called “the crown jewels Nevada’s heritage,” who are willing to donate our funds, materials, time, and labor to provide public education and information on the concept of wilderness and its value to individuals and society, and who want our concern for Nevada's "crown jewels” to be heard by the legislators who will decide their fate.
One of the speakers in opposition to the two Nevada House Wilderness bills was the US Forest Service represented by Douglas W. MacCleery, Deputy Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of Agriculture:
Although the proposed acreages are somewhat different, we would not oppose the designation of any of these areas as wilderness if kept within our recommendations. The South Snake (Wheeler Peak) proposal is listed in H.R. 3302, H.R. 3304, and the draft Forest Plans. The two bills propose a much expanded area compared to the draft Forest Plans. We recommend that the proposal for this area be reduced in size to conform to the draft Forest Plan recommendations. [It is obvious the the moniker for the Bristlecone Recommended Wilderness did not move forward beyond the Forest Service Management Plan.]
The Great Basin National Park Act of October 27, 1986 created the 77,180-acre park including most of the lands of the Wheeler Peak (aka Bristlecone) Recommended Wilderness. With this Act, the land management of these acres were transferred from the Department of Agriculture to the National Park Service within the Department of the Interior. With the most iconic portion of the range transferred to the Park Service, efforts to establish Wilderness in the South Snake Range would be squashed for 20 years. As the Nevada Wilderness Bill wound its way through Congress in the late 1980s, the opposition to wilderness established a “wilderness acreage cap” for the bill. Conservations began to scramble and had to create a triage strategy, dropping poorly known Nevada potential wilderness areas in favor of more popular areas that could better rally support. Highland Ridge Recommended Wilderness was left behind.
In early 2002, Friends of Nevada Wilderness began to work in earnest with the Nevada Wilderness Coalition to garner support in White Pine and Lincoln counties for wilderness. In 2003 Friends had hired Pam White as a rural Wilderness organizer in Ely, Nevada. Pam White focused on educating rural Nevadans— “helping people understand what you can and can’t do in Wilderness and how it can benefit them.” This was critically important as, since the early efforts of wilderness advocacy in Nevada in the 1970’s, the mining industry had been disseminating millions of dollars of anti-Wilderness misinformation and false narratives about how Wilderness designations would destroy prosperity and traditional uses of the land. This same year, Friends of Nevada Wilderness and the Nevada Wilderness Coalition released the Citizens’ Wilderness Proposal for Eastern Nevada. This proposal included Wilderness designation for Highland Ridge and other Forest Service Roadless Areas overlooked by the 1989 Nevada Wilderness Act.
In mid 2004, the Lincoln County portion of the Citizens’ Wilderness Proposal was introduced in Congress as the Lincoln County Conservation, Recreation and Development Act of 2004. This act was passed into law on November 30, 2004. The White Pine County Wilderness Proposal began to get traction in early 2005. Marge Sill, once again testified on behalf an area that meant so much to her: “I love White Pine County. “It’s the first rural county I encountered when I came to Nevada in 1953, and it’s one of the most beautiful. To me, White Pine County is the epitome of what is magnificent in Nevada.” Pam White continued her advocacy work in Ely— “Minimizing new roads, providing wildlife habitat and protecting our watersheds are essential to the future. Wilderness is the best answer for a healthy future which will maintain the current rural quality of life in eastern Nevada.” Tragedy struck the Nevada Wilderness Coalition and Friends of Nevada Wilderness family in September 2005 when Pam White tragically died in a single vehicle accident.
Sierra Club Exploration and Wilderness Inventory of the South Snake Range 1965- Richard Sill (UNR Special Collections)
On August 1, 2006, Nevada Senators John Ensign and Harry Reid introduced the White Pine County Conservation, Recreation and Development Act of 2006 (S. 3772) to the U.S. Senate. The Senators named the Wilderness section of the bill the “Pam White Wilderness Act of 2006” in honor of Pam’s dedication to Wilderness and rural Nevadans. On December 20, 2006, the White Pine County Conservation, Recreation and Development Act designated 12 new wilderness areas in eastern Nevada, including the 68,623-acre Highland Ridge Wilderness. More than 50 years after Marge Sill first visited her beloved South Snake Range and started efforts to advocate and protect it, permanent Wilderness protection finally arrived.
The 2006 White Pine Conservation Act also transferred all of the remaining US Forest Service managed lands in the South Snake Range to BLM management. This was done because, after the creation of Great Basin National Park, the Snake Range was under management of three different agencies under two different Departments. The 2006 bill simplified the management of the entire South Snake Range by placing it all under the Department of the Interior. As of 2022, 16 years after the transfer of these lands, most maps, including state atlases, Google Earth, and GPS data bases still mis-identify these South Snake lands as under US Forest Service Management.