How close are you to a 'Bald' mountain? In Montana, very close
Why so many "Bald" mountains? Why Native place-names matter. Chouteau or Choteau? Gardiner or Gardner? We sort it out on The Big Why.
Austin Amestoy: Welcome to the Big Why, a series from Montana Public Radio, where we find out what we can discover together. I'm your host, Austin Amestoy. This is a show about listener powered reporting. We'll answer questions large or small about anything under the Big Sky. By Montanans, for Montana, this is the Big Why. This week we're talking names, place names to be specific, and you've asked a lot of questions about them.
Austin Amestoy: So, instead of answering just one listener question today, we're going to tackle those questions and more. Joining me to help unearth the etymology of Montana's towns and landmarks is MTPR producer Nick Mott.
Nick Mott: Glad to be here, Austin. And wow, I have so many questions already. For one, who do you turn to with such broad questions about place names?
Austin Amestoy: Well, as it turns out, there's really only one person in Montana to call when you have questions on why a place is called what it is.
Charlene Porsild: My name's Charlene Porsild, and I'm the president and CEO of the Montana History Foundation.
Austin Amestoy: Porsild is one of the authors of a book published in 2009 called "Montana Place Names From Alzada to Zortman". The book has its beginnings around the same time Porsild started at the Montana Historical Society as the director of the Research Center in 2004. She says her team kept getting all kinds of questions about how places and towns in Montana got their names.
Charlene Porsild: So we would have to, you know, go out and pull out a map and pull out several different sources for every time someone asked a question about a small place name.
Nick Mott: So, our listeners weren't the only folks so intrigued by place names here.
Austin Amestoy: Porsild says she and her team of four historians realized that if anyone could consolidate the histories of Montana's place names into one resource, it was them. Over the next half decade, she says, they poured over every named city and town and the major historical and geographic sites in Montana, county by county, traveling to communities and chatting with locals and other historians until they'd covered just about the entire state.
Nick Mott: Wow. After all that research, I can't imagine she struggled too much with our listeners questions.
Austin Amestoy: Yeah, she had all the answers ready to go. Are you ready for a little Montana place-name question round-up, Nick?
Nick Mott: Let's do it.
Austin Amestoy: All right. One of our listeners wanted to know why are there so many peaks named Mt. Baldy in Montana?
Nick Mott: Well, right now I'm in Livingston, and I know just over the pass from here, there's a Mt. Baldy just outside Bozeman. So, how many Mt. Baldys do we actually have in the state?
Austin Amestoy: Well, Nick, I did some digging through the United States Geological Survey database, which tracks geographic place names. And it turns out there are a ton of peaks with some iteration of the name "Baldy." Fourty-six to be exact. Five "Mt. Baldys," six "Old Baldys," 11 "Baldy Mountains," one "Big Baldy" and one "Little Baldy," among others. In fact, Montana is second only to Colorado among U.S. states in terms of the number of "Baldys" in the state. Colorado has 56.
Nick Mott: That is some serious Baldy digging Austin.
Austin Amestoy: Porsild told me early explorers of Montana would often name landmarks pretty much just based on what they looked like.
Charlene Porsild: And there's often even a fringe of trees where the tree line is, right, where the snow ends and it meets the trees and it looks like a man's bald head. I mean it's just as simple as that.
Austin Amestoy: Porsild says some other examples of descriptive names that stuck are Beaver Creek, Haystack Butte and Rock Creek.
Charlene Porsild: I have a friend, when I travel with her, she always says 'it's like they're not even trying. They're not even trying.'
Austin Amestoy: Okay. Next, we had two spelling related questions. One listener wanted to know why “Chouteau”, the county, is spelled with a 'U' after the 'O' and why “Choteau”, the town, doesn't have that first U. Well, according to Porsild, that's just a classic case of a misspelling that stuck. Both the county and the city were named after Charles Chouteau and Pierre Chouteau Jr., who were brothers and French-Canadian fur trappers in the area. But, technically speaking, the county has the correct spelling, as the brothers name had that first 'U' in it.
Nick Mott: And what was the second spelling question?
Austin Amestoy: Yes. Similar theme. Why is the town of Gardiner spelled with an 'i' while the river that runs through it is spelled without the 'i'? Porsild says many pioneers, especially Lewis and Clark, were terrible spellers. The river is correctly named after Johnson Gardner, an early explorer of Yellowstone, without the 'i'. A later expedition group spelled the town that formed nearby with an 'i'. The phonetic spelling of Gardner.
Nick Mott: So one thing I'm noticing is that a lot of these names come from early settlers and explorers. But what about Indigenous names? You know, I noticed driving through the Flathead Reservation, for example, that there are all kinds of signs with the Indigenous Salish names on them.
Austin Amestoy: Yeah. Good observation, Nick. Those signs were erected in 2006 during the reconstruction of Highway 93. As a part of a larger effort to preserve Salish Pend d'Oreille place names.
Indigenous names are another major category of Montana place names, and that history stretches back thousands of years, long before the arrival of white settlers. I called up Germaine White to learn more about the importance of place names to the Salish people. White is a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and served as the information and education program director for the tribe's fish and wildlife division for years.
Germaine White: Place names are some of the most important words in our language. The elders tell us that they learned these words from their ancestors and their ancestors before them.
Austin Amestoy: Unfortunately, Montana's white settlers didn't bother to learn most tribal place names at all. And those names became part of the systematic extermination of Indigenous cultures in Montana and beyond.
Nick Mott: So have all those place names just been lost to time then?
Austin Amestoy: Well, thankfully, no. White told me that place names within Salish and other Indigenous cultures represent a deep connection between the people and the land. They often refer to a resource found at a certain spot or a creation story associated with a location. For example, the Salish names for Missoula and Lolo both make reference to fish. "Place of bull trout" and "it has no salmon" respectively, White says.
There are a number of efforts ongoing within the tribes to preserve place names on information or written materials, but also in more official places like those signs on Highway 93. And take Missoula, for example, hundreds of people gathered in October for a ceremony rededicating a major bridge in the city as 'Bear Tracks Bridge', Sxʷúytis Smx̣e in Salish [pronunciation], in honor of Grizzly Bear Tracks, a Salish leader at the time the Hellgate Treaty was signed in 1855.
Lucy Vanderburg: Today is a great day for all of our ancestors.
Austin Amestoy: That's Lucy Vanderburg, a descendant of Bear Tracks and founding member of the Séliš-Ql̓ispé Culture Committee.
Lucy Vanderburg: And I know in my heart, the renaming of this bridge is pleasing to Bear Tracks and to all the Salish Pend d'Oreille people.
Austin Amestoy: It's an example of a concept gaining traction all over the U.S. "Place name reconciliation."
Nick Mott: Okay, so what's it mean?
Austin Amestoy: Well, to reconcile means to make up or make something good. So doing that in place names means renaming locations as a step in an ongoing process of righting past wrongs. That bridge over the Clark Fork in Missoula, it follows the same path the Salish people took when they were forced north from their home in the Bitterroot Valley more than a century ago. And a decades long effort to rename more than 70 landmarks in Montana bearing a derogatory slur for Indigenous women, recently concluded with the renaming of a meadow and creek in the Flathead.
One guy who knows a lot about this is Lauren Monroe Jr. He's the vice chairman of the Blackfeet Tribal Council and has lived in Browning on the Blackfeet Nation his entire life. And he's also the only person from Montana currently serving on U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland's brand-new advisory council on place name reconciliation.
Nick Mott: Wow. A whole panel dedicated to renaming places all over the country?
Austin Amestoy: That's right. Monroe told me he's honored to represent not just the Blackfeet and other Montana tribes, but tribes throughout the nation that deserve reconciliation. And his goal for the committee?
Lauren Monroe Jr.: It's pretty simple. Just recognize our history and our place and allow us to also be a part of this landscape going forward.
Austin Amestoy: The number one thing I learned about place names is that they're never stagnant. And most of the ones we know in Montana today have only been around for a couple hundred years at most. Porsild told me our place names will always be a reflection of the people and ideas we value. And we shouldn't be afraid to change names when those values also change.
Nick Mott: Well, thanks so much, Austin, for taking us on this journey through place names in Montana.
Austin Amestoy: It's my pleasure, Nick. Now we want to know what makes you curious about Montana. This show is all about answering your questions, so ask your question below. Find us wherever you listen to podcasts.
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