What is the correct name of…?

By Mark Milligan

Among the more commonly asked questions we receive at the Utah Geological Survey (UGS) are those dealing with the correct names of Utah’s geographic features.

Perhaps the best tool for answering these questions is a searchable database established and maintained by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, which is part of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). This database, called the Geographic Names Information System (GNIS), is available online at geonames.usgs.gov.

Following the American Civil War, a surge of exploration, mining, and settlement of western territories created many inconsistencies and contradictions in geographic names, which became a serious problem for surveyors, map makers, and scientists.

To address this problem, President Benjamin Harrison signed an executive order that created the U.S. Board on Geographic Names in 1890 (the current form of the board was established by a 1947 law). Technology, such as geographic information systems, global positioning systems, and the Internet increases the need for standardized data on geographic names, but it also makes accessing that data quick and easy through the GNIS.

The database includes current and historical information for over 2 million physical (e.g., mountain ranges, summits, lakes, arches, and streams) and cultural (e.g., populated places, churches, airports, and cemeteries) geographic features in the United States, associated areas, and Antarctica. However, it does not include roads and highways.

Named features are located by state, county, USGS topographic quadrangle map, and geographic coordinates. Other attributes include elevation (another commonly asked question at the UGS), alternative and unofficial (variant) names and spellings, feature class/type, historical and descriptive information, and citations.

In addition to finding official names, elevations, citations, and such, all sorts of name curiosities can be investigated using the GNIS. The following list illustrates some of the more entertaining results of our GNIS name queries.

  • The San Rafael Swell, in Utah, has the company of 12 other Swell places across the U.S.
  • Based on “feature names,” Utah has more Bars (29) than Arizona (1), Nevada (3), and Wyoming (3). Also based on “feature names,” the density of Bars is apparently not directly related to how dry a state is; Florida has 10, while Idaho has 115. But based on “feature class,” Florida, Idaho, and Utah have 211, 116, and 40 bars, respectively. Note: a bar is an elongated ridge of sand, gravel, or other sediment that forms in a river, lake, or ocean.
  • Of the 99 U.S. Nipples, nearly one-third (29) are in Utah; Mollies/Mollys is most common (8).
  • The U.S. has 365 Eggs, but only Utah, Virginia, and Texas have Eggnog.
  • Utah has only two wives (Wife), but this is one more than any other state in the nation.
  • Devil (U.S.–1,853 and Utah–69) is more common than Hell, but God and Jesus are omnipresent. Each has “more than 2,000” matches in the U.S. In Utah God has only 37 matches, while Jesus has 1,126. This is due to the inclusion of church names in the database (the devil is in the detail).
  • Hell on earth (or at least in the U.S.–983 matches, and Utah– 55 matches) is much more common than Heaven (U.S.–327 and Utah–13).
  • Utah has a Mitten Canyon in Uintah County, but the famous Mittens (East and West Mitten Buttes) of the Navajo Nation’s Monument Valley are on the Arizona side of the border.
  • Shite Creek is in Idaho. Shitten Creek is in Oregon. Shitamaring Creek is in Utah. None of these states contain one of the nation’s 28 Paddles.
  • Scape Ore Swamp in South Carolina has not always been named such. Feature names can be and are changed for political correctness and other reasons, but the original name is maintained in the database. (You will have to look up the original name yourself.)
  • Curiously, Utah contains none of the 104 Strange U.S. names and not one of the truly Odd (311) U.S. names.
  • While 23 names across the U.S. include Goblin, Utah’s “Goblin Valley” is unique.
  • Unique is not unique (12 in the U.S.), but nothing is Unique in Utah.

Survey Notes, v. 43 no. 2, May 2011