JI Summer Book Club: On Zion’s Mount, Ch. 7

By August 16, 2018

I think about place names a lot.  I grew up in Illinois and Iowa, with a fascinating contrast between simply-named rivers like the Rock and Plum, versus those with rolling, multi-syllabic Algonquian names like Wapsipinicon, Nishnabotna, Pecatonica, and Kishwaukee.  In “Renaming the Land,” Chapter 7 in On Zion’s Mount, Jared Farmer invites us to consider the origins of Indian naming practices, not by Indians themselves, but by white Americans trying to appropriate those names for their own purposes.  Specifically, Farmer is examining the authentic and invented origins of the name “Timpanogos,” as a physical and symbolic presence of the Utah Valley mountain, rooted in both Ute etymology and Mormon folklore.  Farmer suggests that “The ‘Indianness’ of Mount Timpanogos begins with its name.”  Place-names, or toponyms, come in different categories, like descriptive names of what people see, associative names related to a specific site, incident names referencing historical events, transfer names that move one place name to a new location, possessive names that indicate ownership of a landscape feature, and finally, for Indian place-naming, the  inspirational, the invented, the commemorative, and the assimilated name, which might involve taking Indian names from one language and translating them or spelling them phonetically, for example.

These categories are sometimes overlapping, and Farmer’s description made me think of how Mormon missionaries to the Salmon River in 1855 named their Fort “Limhi,” a commemorative name after a minor Nephite king in the Book of Mormon who was a son of Noah and grandson of Zeniff, and living in ancestral Nephite territory subsequently taken by Lamanites. It is unclear why Mormon missionaries chose “Limhi” in the 1850s, but the irony is that Limhi led a band of Nephite refugees away from Lamanite captors after a series of violent encounters (see Mosiah 20-22)—similar to what the missionaries did after the attack on Ft Limhi.  Later, the name was ‘transferred’ to the  ‘Lemhi’ River, ‘Lemhi’ Pass (*not* named by Meriwether Lewis), and even the local natives,  the ‘Lemhi’ Shoshones.

This process also brought to my mind the commanding presence of the Teton Range as named by French fur traders: “les trois tetons”—the three breasts.  The name was transferred to the “Teton River” and the towns of “Teton” and “Tetonia,” and “Teton County” in Idaho, and the modern engineering failure, “Teton Dam,” and the subsequent flood.  Thus, Idaho Mormons have become familiarized to numerous uses of “tits,” without any criticism of the prolific imagery of women’s naked breasts.  Farmer recognizes similar patterns in Utah place names evoking female bodies:  “In this way, Maggie and Mary and Molly have breasts across the mountainous West, particularly in Utah, which has a vastly disproportionate number of nipples—over twenty.”  (273)

Mount Timpanogos represents the geographic transfer of an assimilated word; in other words, that it had loosely authentic and dubious origins in the Ute language, and that its name was originally meant for the river.  For Timpanogos, Farmer argues that it “is probably not a native word, but among what are called ‘Indianist,’ or “non-English words of real or purported indigenous derivation.” (244)  In America, there are literally millions of ‘Indianist’ names, and Farmer takes the reader back through a chronology and context of how Americans developed the practice of Indian place-naming.  He draws a contrast between English colonial practice of possessive and commemorative naming and the Algonquian practice of descriptive naming.  At first, English colonists had no use for Indian names and sought to replace them.  “From a Puritan perspective, the unsettled world of nature easily accepted uncivilized names, whereas the civilized world of farms and fences deserved English names.” (251)  But as Americans began to develop their national identity in the early 19th century, literary and political figures advocated for place names that were rooted in America’s natural and indigenous past. Basically, keeping or inventing Indian place names became a way to claim a romanticized and national history that was uniquely American. Ironically, when Mormons originally settled the Great Basin, their chosen name of ‘Deseret’ (from the Book of Mormon) was rejected by Congress for “not being Indian enough.”

But the naming process was sloppy and full of errors.  Americans entered a period of confusion over the uses of Indian naming.  Farmer uses the case studies of Yosemite and Mount Ranier-Tacoma to show how Americans sought Indianist renaming of their western places, but often got things wrong, and even made things worse for the indigenous peoples who barely recognized the names of their sacred spaces. To Farmer, “This  . . . reveal[ed] the intimate connection between linguistic appropriation and physical displacement, between the creation of parks and the removal of peoples—.” (265) And even more confusing was that eastern Algonquian names like “Moccasin” were employed onto features like “Moccasin Lake” in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming (a Delaware word!)

Thus, Americans ended up using Indian names for their purposes, but renaming ultimately marked a form of what Farmer calls “verbal dispossession.” (242)  In other words, I would add, whites’ positive and sentimental usage of Indian place names, even as they were removing Indians from those very places, was an act of cultural and physical erasure.  Farmer states, “This melancholy refrain—a strain of romantic racism—would be repeated again and again in the nineteenth century, Indians die; only their names remain.” (254)

But Indians’ uses of place-naming was often associated with their own significant events, like reminders of stories, myths, and group history.  This practice should be very familiar to Mormons, who also have a “sacred geography.”  Often memorable associations are violent, like the Alamo, Mountain Meadows, Sand Creek (and I would add, Bear River), and one only needs to hear the word “Carthage” to imagine the mob lynching of Joseph and Hyrum Smith in 1844.  In some cases, Indian tribes have sought to restore or correct their place names.  A well-known example is Mount McKinley in Alaska returned to its original Athapascan name, “Denali,” in 1980.  Far less success has accompanied natives’ attempts to expunge all uses of “Squaw” as a place name, with its much debated origin and meaning for native women.  Even Timpanogos’s own rock neighbor, Squaw Peak, has not avoided this controversy, along with other “squaw” peaks in the West.  Ironically, the “legend” that an Indian woman either jumped or fell to her death during the 1850 Mormon-Ute War is likely true. (Although not mentioned in this chapter, the fact that Squaw Peak is known today as a popular “make-out” location for BYU couples might reinforce the argument about how “squaw” connotes a sexualization of Indian women.)

For Timpanogos, the process happened just like it happened in other places of Indianist naming: suspect origins in the Ute language (probably “rock river”), first used for the Provo River and adapted on a map by the Spanish.  The name was later applied to the mountain by Mormon settlers to Utah Valley, who preferred it because it highlighted a ‘romanticized’ Indian past. Over time, its meaning was shifted by local commenters, from “rock river” to symbolic ‘moral strength,’ and finally a representation of a “sleeping princess,” or what I see as an interesting juxtaposition of romantic Indian female type against the crude naming of its neighbor:  Princess vs. Squaw.

Farmer concludes that “[t]he utility of ‘Timpanogos,’ like many Indianist place-names, comes from its betweenness.  . . . Though obviously an “Indian” word, it retains no strong connections to a historical tribe or person or event. . . . (279) “As luck would have it, an Indian name gave the landmark a heightened semblance of antiquity and authenticity.” (281)  But “the name demanded a legend,” and that idea will take us to the next installment of Summer Book Club.  (To be continued . . .)


Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Miscellaneous Summer Book Club


  1. Thanks, Andrea. I remember finding this chapter to be so engrossing when I first read it a decade ago. Still very fascinating.

    Comment by David G. — August 16, 2018 @ 7:44 am

  2. Thanks, Andrea! Like David I remember reading this for the first time (as an undergrad in Utah history at BYU). I think about it every time I drive past it.

    Comment by J Stuart — August 16, 2018 @ 11:13 am

  3. I think it was in this chapter that I first read about the invented derivation of “Idaho” as a placename that “sounded Indian.” IIRC, they initially considered the name for the state that became Colorado and then it got applied to Idaho.

    Comment by David G. — August 17, 2018 @ 6:41 am

  4. Thanks, Andrea! I love the “what’s in a name?” kind of stuff

    Comment by Jeff T — August 17, 2018 @ 12:50 pm


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