"If you want to see something happening right now that happened here two hundred million years ago, you can see it all in Nevada." - John McPhee, Basin and Range

The Power of Names

Blog post by Bill Huggins

One of the most interesting parts of exploring remote places is the array of names given to them, both spots of civilization and wild areas. Our need to put names to things probably dates back to the origins of language, in part to find our way through areas without signage, but also to put a stamp on things, personalize them, glorify an individual, or link a story to a place. The Great Basin takes names from a wide variety of sources, and when I travel through this area it’s fun to take Helen S. Carlson’s Nevada Place Names: A Geographical Dictionary along with me to soak in the history of the area as much as the scenery. The book’s a true labor of love, a fantastic resource, and essential to anyone who loves the Silver State and its heritage.

This stunning area moves across two of Nevada’s larger counties, Lincoln and Nye. Lincoln County alone is larger than some New England states. Nye County was named after James Warren Nye, governor of Nevada Territory from 1861 – 1864. Lincoln County took its name from a most obvious source: Abraham Lincoln, our 16th president.

The many towns along the 93 and 318 heading into the heart of the wild country bespeak this tangled nomenclature. Alamo, perhaps the gateway to the Basin, traces its name back over a century, to murky origins. Carlson speculates it comes from the Spanish word for ‘cottonwood,’ which is prevalent in the area, and not the famous battle, but no one can tell for sure. Originally the area was a haven for cattle rustlers. Just north of Alamo the village of Ash Springs takes its name from desert ash trees growing in and around several springs the area, from Bunker Peak and the Clover Mountains. Bunker Peak took its name from the famous Revolutionary battle in Boston; the Clovers, sometimes called the Clover Valley Mountains, took their name from the trifoliate plants that fill this area.

The small burg of Hiko tagged itself with the Shoshone word for “white man’s city.” Hard to believe, but Hiko was originally the county seat, showing the expansion and contraction of towns through Nevada’s interesting history. Mount Irish, which overlooks the small community, was named for O. H. Irish, an Indian agent for the Utah Territory before Nevada became a state.

Hiker next to petroglyphsThe White River Narrows remains a reminder of Nevada’s earlier, wetter days, before the water went away. Pockets of water exist that point to that history, with many fish still living along the places where the White rises aboveground. This area was one of the first settled as the state formed, and got its name from F. A. White, a member of the Blasdel Party, dating back to 1866.

From the bottom of the basin to the top, several wilderness areas exist along this stretch of the 318. Weepah Springs takes its name from a Numic/Shoshone word meaning “knife water.” The Grant Range took its name from our 18th president. Big Rocks takes its name from its most obvious feature: the giant volcanic monoliths, many covered in petroglyphs, and growing in popularity with the climbing community, especially a rock known as Mecca. Quinn Canyon’s name doubtless derives from an individual who founded a mining camp in the area, though it could have drifted down from various derivatives from the Quinn River in the northwest corner of Nevada. The Worthington Mountains took their name from Henry G. Worthington, the first Nevadan elected to Congress in 1864. Last but not least, the Far South Egan Wilderness caught its name from an unusual early Nevadan, Major Howard E. Egan, originally born in Ireland, and one of the first to explore Nevada; he also created an efficient mail route across central Nevada and ran the service for a time between Sacrament, California and Salt Lake City, Utah.

Two wilderness study areas form the northwest side of the Basin through this area. Blue Eagle WSA shares its name with several turquoise mines across the state, and may well have something to do with the name of the WSA that first denoted the springs nearby. Little information exists for Riordan’s Well WSA, though it stands to reason it’s name came from an early settler or prospector.

Golden Gate rangeA party of Mormon explorers traveling through the area in 1858 named one of the more stunning areas of the Basin, the Golden Gate Range. The Golden Gate itself is a pass composed of steep, terraced ledges rich with quartz inlaid with gold.

Names have a great deal of power. They let us chart our history, remind us of where we have come from and who was here before us. Names can also be changed as the times change, to reflect new information on past issues or simply to reflect the nature of societal changes. Even in these majestic areas, named for natural features, famous individuals, or historical incidents, the land changes subtly and sometimes dramatically over time. Especially in an era of human-aided climate change, the names will doubtless chart similar transformations over time.

We should treasure these areas, their diverse histories, and their names. But we should realize as well that outside of what we choose to call things there is a deeper reality, beyond names and words. In the silence of the Basin’s deep spaces, we can tap into that knowledge outside of language and realize there is another data set besides that provided by maps and books. We just need to walk again into the interior to relearn it.