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Woman says this Southern Oregon mountain's moniker needs revisiting

A mountain in the Applegate rises to 4,398 feet with surprising stealth, tucked into a bumpy ridge thickly carpeted in fir trees.

Across a valley speckled with farm plots, the view from the town of Ruch wouldn’t mark it as unique. Some people living in the immediate area, let alone the county beyond, don’t even know its name.

Eyebrows usually go up, however, when the name is spoken: Negro Ben Mountain, its moniker since 1964.

“I’m sure people thought they were doing the right thing — and they were at the time,” said Margo Schembre, who has petitioned the Oregon Geographic Names Board to change the name of the mountain. “But it’s time to revisit it.”

The mountain is one of several geographical features in Jackson County being considered for new names by the board. Its meticulous process of gathering historical documentation and stakeholder input will stretch at least midway into 2020. That’s when the board plans to make its recommendation to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, which holds final naming authority, whether to approve or deny the various renaming and new naming proposals in multiple Oregon counties.

At its most recent meeting Oct. 29, the board did a first read-through of some of the names up for scrutiny. In addition to Negro Ben Mountain, the board is reviewing seven other names in Jackson County — three of them are changes and four of them are new, for geological features that have never had names before.

Alice Knotts, a retired Methodist pastor and former Rogue Valley resident, submitted all seven of those proposals. In addition to presenting two names — Knotts Cliff and Marjorie Falls — to honor her parents, Ross and Marjorie Knotts, she also is proposing to change the names of three geological features that contain “Dead Indian:” Dead Indian Mountain, Dead Indian Creek and Dead Indian Soda Springs.

She wants to replace the offending moniker with “Latgawa,” a name that is based on a band of Indians linked to the Takelma people, though it is not a federally recognized tribe.

“I wanted to give back to this community that’s been my nurturing source in Southern Oregon,” said Knotts, who lives in San Diego but grew up working with her parents at what’s now called Camp Latgawa in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest near Howard Prairie Lake.

The process for determining whether a name should move forward to the federal board depends on whether it is new or a rename, either commemorative or descriptive in another way, said Bruce Fisher, president of the 24-member volunteer board.

“Our role is to strictly be an advisor,” Fisher said. Some boards have legislative power to change the names themselves.

“We get the proposal and then process it. We review the accuracy of it.”

When a new name proposal comes in, the board first investigates whether the feature exists, and whether it’s prominent enough to warrant its own identifier.

One of Knotts’ unnamed features certainly appears prominent enough to have its own name — a large natural hole in a mountain near Little Butte Creek that Knotts wants to call Hole-in-the-Rock Arch.

Commemorative names meant to honor the memory of a person relevant to the area require a heavier lift in terms of research. The board will undertake some of that work, Fisher said, but it may also ask the proponent to do so.

Negro Ben Mountain is an example of an increasingly common scenario: the identifier was considered acceptable when it was given, but now is dated and to some, offensive.

“It’s appropriate and respectful, in 2019, to call it Ben Johnson Mountain and not ‘Negro Ben,’” wrote Schembre in her application to change the name.

The board will carry out its next steps of soliciting feedback from landowners such as the Bureau of Land Management, which is in charge of Negro Ben Mountain, and continue its research.

“We have to take them on an individual basis,” Fisher said. “We have to do something with these proposals, we can’t ignore them.”

Changing times

Fisher credits a YouTube video by Indian-American comedian Hasan Minhaj for a recent nationwide spike of renaming proposals submitted to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.

Just over five minutes long and with not quite a million views on YouTube, the video features Minhaj, who hosts the Netflix show “Patriot Act,” rattling off examples of what he considers offensive names, such as Wetback Island in Alaska, Midget Geyser in Wyoming and Negro Mountain in Maryland.

“Here’s the thing: It doesn’t have to be this way. The names of these places can actually be changed,” Minhaj said, before describing the role of the federal board and how to submit a request.

This isn’t the first time Negro Ben Mountain has drawn calls to be updated. Now, however, those calls have risen to the state level.

Schembre, who lives in Wilsonville, has a different reason behind her application to the Oregon Geographic Names Board.

“It’s a little bit of a weird story,” she said.

She participated in the Greatest International Scavenger Hunt in August, in which players complete tasks to advance.

One of the tasks this year?

“Find a place name that’s outdated and offensive to people and try to get it changed,” she said.

Schembre rejected the traditional petition approach, however. She did her research. In her proposal sent to the Oregon Geographic Names Board, she gave an additional argument.

“We know his last name,” Schembre wrote.

For decades, that detail and many others about the man historians now identify as Ben Johnson were not known.

Even today, he remains a largely mysterious figure. Lewis L. McArthur, prolific Oregon historian, wrote in the seventh edition of “Oregon Geographic Names” that “there are a number of stories about Ben, most of them probably apocryphal.”

Besides being remembered as a blacksmith and prospector whose smithy was located in a now-unknown spot on the mountain, the only other detail retained about Johnson was that he was black.

Evidence for that was established in the peak’s original name — before “Negro,” it bore the much more universally offensive N-word slur wielded against black people.

As happened with many names of that kind, the Civil Rights momentum of the ’60s prompted changes from the N-word to what was then considered a milder distinguisher.

Today, “Negro” as an identifier is more contested, though usage is generally avoided. Some, such as artist Kara Walker, have decided to reclaim the word. The African American Registry, however, noted that no U.S. president has used the word publicly since Lyndon B. Johnson.

Jan Wright, former director of the Talent Historical Society, was the one to locate Ben’s last name in the Special Collection of the University of Oregon’s Knight Library in Eugene, according to a 2005 essay in the Southern Oregon Historical Society’s publication.

Had the name not included the racial identifier, she wrote, it “would have erased the evidence that people of color had a historical impact on the Applegate area.”

In a 2003 Mail Tribune column written by Paul Fattig, Wright said she found evidence that Ben Johnson had lived not only in Uniontown in the Applegate, but also in Albany. He worked as a blacksmith there, too, according to records, and married a woman named Amanda, also listed in the census as “colored.”

Naming the mountain Ben Johnson “gives him more dignity,” Fattig wrote.

It’s still unknown whether Johnson ever knew the peak bore his name or the epithet describing him.

Anonymity to ancestry

In south Jackson County, Alice Knotts hopes to not only replace the names of Dead Indian Mountain, Dead Indian Soda Springs and Dead Indian Creek, but also salute her parents’ legacy of building Camp Latgawa into the popular event and retreat site it is today.

Ross and Marjorie Knotts were involved in local schools, had close connections with many churches and worked on projects from dental care for migrant workers to helping establish Rogue Valley Manor, Alice said.

“They knew people up and down the Valley,” she said. “They knew all the back roads.”

Her application contains letters of support from the Oregon-Idaho United Methodist Camp and Retreat Ministries, as well as Rogue Valley Manor and others.

Alice’s parents’ decades of impact are among the criteria the Oregon Geographic Names Board will examine in the coming months as it considers Alice’s application to name for the first time Marjorie Falls along Dead Indian Creek (Latgawa Creek if Alice has her way) and Knotts Cliff on the slope of McGuire Mountain, near Camp Latgawa.

In addition to naming Hole-in-the-Rock, she also wants to put Latgawa Pinnacles on the map, a feature across from Camp Latgawa described as “five cone-shaped rocks.”

“This comes out of a long history,” Knotts said.

Next steps

A multifaceted outreach effort lies ahead for the state Geographic Names Board, which Fisher said is the busiest in the country.

It has already approved 25 names in 2019, he said, while some states handle about two or three per year.

“Some of it is because so much of the state is under federal ownership, so we have a lot of unnamed features,” he said.

The Jackson County Board of Commissioners already declined to comment on the proposal to rename Negro Ben Mountain at its Oct. 15 work session. Commissioner Bob Strosser was absent, but Colleen Roberts and Rick Dyer both agreed not to respond to the state board.

“Honestly, I don’t see that we’re going to get opposition to this,” Dyer said at the meeting. “I’d say no comment is probably fine.”

The Oregon board will also contact tribal partners to gather input. Calls to the offices of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians and the Shasta Nation, both of which have objected to actions by Latgawa tribal leaders in past Mail Tribune coverage, went unreturned Friday.

Landowners near the features, as well as the BLM and U.S. Forest Service, and local private stakeholders who may be impacted will also be invited to weigh in.

Government agencies do occasionally object to changes. The U.S. Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration asked not to change the name Negro Point on Manhattan Island because of fears of confusing tugboat captains, according to Minhaj. In the ’60s, one engineer with the Department of the Interior argued for the old name with the slur, “in view of its long-established usage and the absence of any evidence of derogatory intent or local objection.”

Fisher said that he expects the drive to update names to continue as more terms fall out of favor.

“Words can become insensitive over time,” he said. “Whether we adjust to it? I think we should.”

More information about the Oregon Geographic Names Board and how to contact it can be found on its website.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

Kaylee Tornay/Mail TribuneThe Oregon Geographic Names Board has been asked to change the name of Negro Ben Mountain, the Applegate peak in the center, to Ben Johnson Mountain.
Alice Knotts, longtime resident of Jackson County, wants the Oregon Geographic Names Board to name this natural rock arch near Latgawa Camp, which her parents managed, "Hole-in-the-Rock." Photo courtesy of Knotts.