So who was McKinley and why did he have a mountain?

The World
America’s highest peak, as seen from the Stony Dome lookout point in Denali National Park

The US government has officially renamed the tallest mountain in North America. What was previously Mount McKinley, in Alaska, is now Denali. Denali is one of the ancient Native American names for the mountain.

Who was William McKinley?

William McKinley was the 25th president of the United States, and famously had absolutely nothing to do with Alaska. He was one of four sitting presidents to be assassinated.

He was no Lincoln or Kennedy or Reagan (who was shot, but not killed) but McKinley is generally regarded as one of those above-average but largely forgotten presidents.

He was born Jan. 29, 1843, in Ohio. That made him the perfect age for the American Civil War. He came from an abolitionist family and enlisted as a private in the Union Army in 1861. McKinley served with distinction in some of the toughest battles of the war and ended the war as a staff officer, with the temporary rank of major. He was the last veteran of the Civil War to serve as president.

After the war, McKinley became a lawyer and in due course, a politician. A Republican. He served as governor of Ohio before running for the White House in 1896.

It was a close-fought election, with one of the highest turn-outs in history. McKinley beat Democrat William Jennings Bryan. The big issue was, you guessed it, the economy.

McKinley was a firm believer in what he called "sound money," and was a big advocate for pinning the dollar to the "gold standard" — as opposed to his rival, Bryan, who advocated a more inflationary monetary policy.

His first administration, though, became heavily focussed on foreign policy; most famously fighting the Spanish-American War, which led to the occupation of Cuba and the annexation of Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. The United States also annexed Hawaii under his watch, in 1898, and intervened militarily in China during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, to protect US and Western business interests.

Despite his abolitionist background, and his willingness to speak out against lynching, as president, McKinley was more interested in ending sectionalism, and was ready to pander to the racism that still prevailed in the South.

McKinley campaigned again in 1900 and won a second term. But six months into this new term, he was shot by a Polish American anarchist named Leon Czolgosz, while visiting the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York.  It’s a sign of how times have changed that Czolgosz was executed just 45 days after McKinley died.

Why did he get a mountain named after him?

Alaska was the last great frontier in America in the 1890s, as McKinley’s political career approached its zenith. Europeans and Americans of European descent had visited the region for decades, but the first to publicize the existence of this great mountain was one William Dickey, a Seattle-based gold prospector, originally from New Hampshire. He visited the region in the summer of 1896 and was one of the first to suggest Denali was the tallest mountain in North America. According to his own account, when he emerged from the wilderness he heard that McKinley was running for president. More importantly he heard that McKinley was campaigning to maintain the gold standard. So Dickey says he decided to honor McKinley and named the mountain for the candidate.  

Just as Dickey was publishing his account in the New York Sun, the public was consumed with interest in Alaska. The Klondike gold rush was just getting under way, about 300 miles east of Denali. So he got a lot of recognition, and his name for the mountain soon caught on. US official surveyors mention it as early as 1900, and it became official in 1917 when President Woodrow Wilson approved the creation of the Mount McKinley National Park — the park was renamed to Denali in 1980 in another bit of controversy.

What does Denali mean?

Of course, Dickey didn’t really discover anything. Native Americans have been hunting and fishing in the shadow of this great mountain for more than 10,000 years.

The new name of the mountain, Denali, is the name used by the speakers of the Koyukon language. It means 'The High One' or Tall One.

It’s also the name most popular in the climbing community, and has been used by the state of Alaska since 1975.

Interestingly, there are several different native American names for the mountain. There are about 36 variants listed by the US Geographic Names Information System.

All the Native American languages around Denali belong to the Athabaskan group of languages, so the differences are not huge. There is a general split between those cultures north of the Alaska range, which generally call it the Tall One or High One, like the Koyukon. South of the range, it’s generally called the Big Mountain.

The Russians latched onto that variant when they administered Alaska in the 19th century, and called it Bolshoia-gora. In Russian, that’s a literal translation of the Big Mountain. 

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