From what I see, folks in Nevada–which became a no-slave state on the Union side in 1864, during the Civil War–are feeling smug about all the Confederate memorials and statues being taken down across the South. Not to mention buildings and institutions named after slave-owning politicians being renamed, especially in the North and elsewhere. The Nevada attitude: nothing to see here.
But maybe not so fast. The state’s third highest point is Jeff Davis Peak. That’s right. It’s named for the same Jefferson Finis Davis of Mississippi who was the slave-owning president of the Confederate States of America during the four-year-long conflict from 1861 to 1865.
The 12,677-foot-high Snake Range summit is 300 miles due north of Las Vegas, southeast of the small city of Ely, off U.S. 6 near the Utah border in the scenic Great Basin National Park. That makes its owner the Federal Government, for those interested in seriously complaining about the name.
Oddly, Jeff Davis Peak got its label a half-decade before Davis assumed the mantle of defending slavery. From 1853 to 1857, he was the U.S. Secretary of War (now called Secretary of Defense). In 1855, a squad of U.S. Army soldiers mapping the West for future settlers came upon the prominent feature, which at the time sat in the Territory of Utah. No fools, they named it for their civilian boss. (Congress switched the area to Nevada in 1866.)
Jeff Davis Peak sits a mile from Wheeler Peak, at 13,065 feet Nevada’s second-highest point (and named for a Mormon explorer). The topper, at 13,147 feet, is Boundary Peak, just off the California state line 250 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
Now you know why Nevada was chosen for the state’s name; in Spanish it means “snowy,” which is what all of these high mountains are most of the year.
The U.S. has an strange history when it comes to geographic feature names. Like Jeff Davis Peak, Mount Rainier in Washington State (where I lived before becoming New To Las Vegas) and Mount Hood in Oregon also are named for military leaders who fought against the U.S. There is another Jeff Davis Peak just outside Nevada in Alpine County, Calif., near Lake Tahoe.
Our Jeff Davis Peak is the only Confederate-themed feature I know of for sure in Nevada. That is, if you don’t count the state’s sole grave of a Confederate solider in Las Vegas’s Woodlawn Cemetery, which is a twin memorial with the grave of a Union soldier.
Last year, the University of Las Vegas, Nevada, changed the name of its student newspaper–which long ago sported a Confederate flag on its masthead–from “Rebel Yell,” a Confederate battle cry, to the less inflammatory “Scarlet & Gray Free Press.” The school’s athletic teams remain the Rebels. But despite playing the 1968 football season with helmets sporting the Stars and Bars, the nickname is now officially described as a reference not to the Confederacy but to the historic resentment of UNLV, founded in 1955, over its former status as a dependent southern outpost of the northern University of Nevada, Reno–mascot the Wolf Pack–founded in 1874. You know, that North versus South thing.
However, just up Interstate 15 from Las Vegas (after driving through 30 miles of Arizona) in the ski resort/retirement town of St. George, Utah, sits Dixie State University. That name–can it scream “Confederacy” any louder?–came from slave-owning Mormons who settled the area in the late 1850s in such numbers that the region quickly became known as “Utah’s Dixie.” A century later, Ebony Magazine drew wide attention in 1954 by calling nearby Las Vegas the “Mississippi of the West” for its racial segregation, especially along the Strip.
Ratified four years after Nevada became a state, Section Three of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment specifically barred rebellious people like Davis from ever holding federal or state public office again. (Besides serving in the Cabinet, Davis previously had been a Congressman and U.S. senator.) But it said nothing about mountain names.