AfriGeneas Western Frontier Forum
Negro Geography in the West
FROM AFRICA TO THE AMERICAN WEST
Some of my more discerning advisors have brought to my attention the risk of taking historical terms, titles, and vernacular literally. One such tip came in the form of learning whether a woman listed as a widow of record was a “Grass Widow,” meaning her husband was still on this side of the ground, or a “Dirt Widow” meaning he was six feet under. Another tip came from an author who advised me that just because a location had a “Black” signature to it, such as a name or an owner, it didn’t necessarily mean that the subject in question had a Black history. This case is exemplified when we study the geographical history of locations that used the title, “Negro” or “Nigger.” Old maps and legends throughout the west are chocked with names like Negro Butte, Niggerhead Mountain and Negro Hill, and these are just places in California. Geographic names with Negro or Nigger prefixes can be found in New Mexico, Texas, Alaska, as well as eastern states like Ohio and Virginia. Even Australia has several places with the name “Nigger”
During one of my “Seek and Enjoy” travel missions in the 1980’s I stopped in the southern Oregon town of Ashland and learned of the famous Shakespeare Festival. Just outside of the town is a road once known as “Dead Indian Road,” since renamed Dead Indian Memorial Highway by the progressive people of the region. One year while visiting, I read a local newspaper during the height of the conflict about the name “Dead Indian Road.” Someone asked why the road couldn’t simply be renamed back to it’s original title? A local historian responded by saying that the original title, “Dead Nigger Road” would probably not be any more preferable than Dead Indian Road. This of course got my attention and I searched for perhaps a duel history of the road, maybe a Black settler, miner, or perhaps a race lynching contributed to the earlier title. My conclusion was that the history was based on a Native American who froze to death on the road, with the vernacular of the time addressing Native Americans as “Niggers.”
I have not been able to find the article in my records and contacts with Ashland officials seem to be unfamiliar with this phase of the history of the road, but one official was willing to attribute the “Dead Nigger Road” history to local folklore.
I can point to times when both “Negro” and “Nigger” could be considered either derogatory or acceptable, depending on inflection and intention, but I don’t intend to deal with the politics of the words as much as their historical uses in western geography. Occasionally I like to present the etymology of a word and this I will do to the best of my ability, especially since I can connect both words from Africa to the American West. Most etymologists agree that both Negro and Nigger are transliterated words from Latin “Niger” meaning Black, they just don’t agree as to whether the French, Dutch, or English are credited with the transliteration. Anyhow, both words arise as a result of American colonization, of which all nationalities mentioned were present. From my observation, “Nigger” in it’s many variations of spelling, seems more prevalent in early U.S. English than the word Negro. Negro and Nigger landmarks show up all over the eastern half of U.S. history. Several “Nigger Run Road’s” existed in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York, usually signifying a slave escape route. Virginia, Tennessee and Florida had “Negro” and “Nigger” place names to indicate cemeteries, neighborhoods and work projects. As we move west, both words take on new meanings as settlers and miners use the words to describe geography. A description of a type of coal called Niggerhead coal mined by New Mexico settlers in the early 20th century is discussed in an interview of
As best as I could decipher from mining vernacular, Niggerhead ores were generally less desirable ores and the term was used for other mining operation than just coal. Niggerhead was also used to describe a type of granite ore in Ohio. Before I go further, here is interesting data provided by Karen Mitchell of the Huerfano County New Mexico “Miners Page.” These statistics help give a clear view of the cultural diversity in the American West around 1915, an excerpt follows:
The geographic terms Negro, Nigger and Niggerhead come to California in the 1800’s. The most noted title in California is of Negro Bar now under Lake Folsom and Negro Hills near Sacramento. A location near Victorville, California showed up on old maps as Negro Butte, but it has been hard to determine whether the name is associated with the nearby black volcanic rock or Victorville’s Black settlement history. Surprises are in store as a Niggerhead Mountain is listed in Los Angeles County near Malibu (www.calsign.com/mining/countydata/losangeles7.htm - 135k). A Niggerhead Chromite Mine is listed in San Luis Obispo County as well as a Niggerhead Chromite Mine in Del Norte County, California., ( www.mindat.org/)
Moving out of California the name Negro and Nigger for geographic titles takes hold in Alaska as well as Australia. Southwestern Alaska has a lake called Negro Lake near the town of Iliamna and somewhere out on the peninsula near the town of Chignik is a cliff called Negro Head. I don’t know whether their name histories are based on volcanic formations or Black mining history, but I do have an example of the use of both the word “Negro” and “Nigger “ to describe a Black miner in the Ketchikan district of Southeast Alaska. I edited some of the spelling and spacing in the following excerpt:
An article included in a website newsletter from Australia titled “Placenames Australia” discussed a September 2003 Australian newspaper cover of activists requesting an end to geographic place names which they felt were derogatory. Several of the place names referred to the terms “Nigger” or “Black.” I will include another excerpt for you to get an idea of the Australian controversy:
In concluding, as I stated earlier, I do not wish to engage in the politics of the words. Conservatives like Ward Connerly wanted the University of California and police statewide to stop collecting racial data in his quest to end Affirmative Action, which he and other conservatives felt was unfair. Liberal-minded people would like to see any racially descriptive term which may be considered offensive removed from the public domain. One example is a recent argument in Florida to change the name of a canal titled “Slave Canal,” in Jefferson County, Florida (Politically Correcting: Florida Enters The Name Game By KEVIN BEGOS firstname.lastname@example.org Published: Jan 4, 2006). The result of name changes and neglecting to collect data is a much more difficult research task. African-Americans still often have to resort to family bibles, church records, oral histories and slave owner records to find their heritage as they were often ignored in public records. On the other hand, the conservative argument to eliminate race data collection has some merit for the left in the history of our 28th President, Woodrow Wilson, the following excerpt explains:
“…Wilson's attitude on racial issues is generally regarded as a stain on his reputation; many argue that he was instrumental in shaping the worst period of racism in American history. His administration instituted segregation in federal government for the first time since Abraham Lincoln began desegregation in 1863, and required photographs from job applicants to determine their race. Wilson also regarded those whom he termed "hyphenated Americans" (German-Americans, Irish-Americans, etc.) with suspicion: "Any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready."
Interpreting the intent or meaning of a word used by a culture in history is challenging, for word meanings, like cultures, evolve and change, arise and die. Finally the website Brainy Geography (http://www.brainygeography.com/topics/n/negro.html) has an excellent page which lists over 500 geographic locations across the U.S. that include the word Negro in their titles, many of them western locations. I recommend it as a good resource.
Thanks for reading