Changing the name of “Harney Peak” to “Black Elk Peak” matters, and it’s the right thing to do.

Over the objection of state authorities, the Federal government recently decided to give ‘Harney Peak’ a new name: ‘Black Elk Peak.’ The peak, in South Dakota, is the highest point in the US east of the Rocky Mountains.  You can find coverage of this change at, for example

The landmark had been named for General William S. Harney, who served conspicuously in the United States Army between 1818 and 1863.

Members of the Lakota Sioux tribe object to having Harney’s name on the peak, primarily because of the viciousness for which he was well known. The Sioux gave Harney a number of nicknames, including ‘Woman Killer,’ a nickname he earned this after his massacre of Sioux women and children in 1855. The Sioux also called him ‘Runs like a Deer,’ because he enjoyed running, and ‘Man who always kept his Word,’ because he had a reputation for honesty, violence notwithstanding.

South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard objected to the change, pointing out, and I quote him here, that ‘very few people know the history of either Harney or Black Elk.’ I am disappointed that the Governor and others are willing to accommodate ignorance of American history. I also have a personal connection to Harney: he is my great-great-…-uncle. My grandmother May Harney Holmes was a direct descendant of General Harney’s brother James Thompson Harney, who served as President Andrew Jackson’s lawyer.

As a Harney nephew (I believe that all of General Harney’s direct descendants now are either French or Sioux), I have no objection to changing the name of the mountain. As a political matter, changing the name seems to have the potential to inflame nervous white Americans who feel like they are somehow being eclipsed in the emerging modern, multicultural America. But taking Harney’s name off the mountain seems like a reasonable thing to do, given his extremely violent history.

Although Governor Daugaard is probably right when he claims that people don’t know history as well as they could, Harney’s life makes for interesting and horrifying reading. Serving in the Second Seminole War, he helped invent techniques of river warfare that were still used during the Vietnam War. In the 1850s his aggressiveness nearly led to a full-scale war between the US and Great Britain. This conflict is known as the ‘Pig and Potato War,’ and is reasonably well-known to at least some people who live in the Pacific Northwest.

Harney was a slave-owning Southerner, so Robert E. Lee had him kidnapped at the start of the Civil War. The plan was to invite Harney to serve as a general for the Confederacy. This made Harney the first POW of the Civil War, and I believe that he was the only POW who stayed at the home of the Governor of Virginia during his incarceration. Harney rebuffed Lee, so Lee put him on a train and sent him back north.

Harney’s service as a military officer was interrupted in the 1830s when he beat a domestic slave to death. She was named Hannah, and she was owned by his brother-in-law. The viciousness of that crime incensed the city of St. Louis and very nearly led to Harney’s own lynching. Harney had to flee the city for a few months while passions aroused by the killing cooled off. The US Army accommodated him during this period of exile, allowing him to serve remotely.

I am happy that the mountain is being renamed for Black Elk, who was an Oglala Lakota Sioux holy man and medicine man.  The book ‘Black Elk Speaks,’ which is based on his experiences, has become an important book for the American Indian Movement.  I think that it would also have been nice to rename the mountain in a way that honored Hannah as well. As Governor Daugaard says, people could know more about history, and the murdered Hannah, like Black Elk, is someone whose story deserves to be better known.


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