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What's In A Name? How Washington's Places Get On The Map

Courtesy of Washington State Committee on Geographic Names
USGS map of Squaw Creek in Okanogan County showing its proposed name change. The public can comment through October.

As any expectant parent knows, names aren’t something to be taken lightly. That’s definitely the case in the naming of Washington State’s geographic features, like creeks and hills. 

In order to make sure a particular area appears on a map, it must first have a name. That’s especially true since we rely on technology like Google Earth and maps are tied to databases.

There are four creeks in Washington awaiting names right now. It all starts with someone bringing a proposal to the state, then the public gets to weigh in before it’s sent off for approval by the federal government.

Caleb Maki, Executive Secretary of the Washington State Committee on Geographic Names says names might be changed because they’re old, derogatory terms.  That’s the case with Squaw Creek in Okanogan County. The proposed name for this creek is Swaram Creek. And other times, there’s a name that’s adopted by locals but isn’t really official.

“Sometimes they’re pretty easy but sometimes they do get contentious, I’ve noticed any name changes tend to end up that way. But new names for the most part are usually pretty cut and dried,” said Maki.

Maki says there are rules to make sure names will stand the test of time. For instance, you can’t commemorate someone who’s still living.  Another creek awaiting a name right now is in Monroe. Relatives who live near it hope it will be named after their ancestor, Herman Steffen, an early pioneer who homesteaded the area. 

The naming committee is accepting feedback on the four creeks in line to get their official names. Proposed names will be voted on at the end of October.

The whole process could take over a year, but as Maki says, it’s best not to rush things because the names will be on the map for a very long time.