In the 19th century, Russian residents called the mountain Bolshaya Gora (the big mountain), an attempt to translate the local Indian name into Russian. In 1896, gold prospector William Dickey wrote an article for the New York Sun in which he suggested the name "Mount McKinley." This was soon after William McKinley, a supporter of the gold standard, received the Republican Party nomination for president. At first, this name was treated as a political joke. After McKinley was murdered in 1901, the name Dickey had bestowed seemed a fitting tribute to the slain president. The 1911 edition of Britannica gives the name as "Mount McKinley," and this was the only name that was widely used at the time.
In June 1913, Hudson Stuck and Harry Karstens led the first expedition to the summit. In his account of the expedition, published in 1918, Stuck argued that the name of the mountain should be changed to "Denali," which he claimed was the traditional Indian name of the mountain.
There are seven Alaskan languages with native names for the mountain. None of them use a name that corresponds to "Denali" exactly. The closest is Koyukon. In this language, the mountain is called Diinaalii ("the tall one") and pronounced dee·nah·lee. As of 2007, about 300 people could speak Koyukon.
In 1972, Sylvain Saudan skied down the mountain's sheer southwest face, earning the title "skier of the impossible."
In 1975, the State of Alaska requested that the federal government change the name of the mountain to Denali. The U.S. Board on Geographic Names has authority over U.S. geographic names, but it rarely rejects a state's request for renaming. However, if a name is under discussion in Congress, it won't act on its own accord. By biannually introducing a bill, Ohio Congressman Ralph Regula was able to use this little-known rule to keep Alaska's request on hold for years: it wasn't necessary to vote on such a bill, it was sufficient that it was discussed. Finally acting on the 1975 request, the Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell used her prerogative to decide on naming in cases when the U.S. Board on Geographic Names doesn't act in a timely manner, and issued the order to change the name to Denali in 2015. This was announced by President Barack Obama.
- U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey
- "Denali or McKinley? How a 19th century political ‘joke’ turned into a 119-year-long debate", Washington Post, August 31, 2015.
- "Alaska," Encyclopedia Britannica (1911).
- Woodside, Chris, "Who led the first ascent of Denali?"
- Stuck, Hudson, The Ascent of Denali (Mount McKinley): A Narrative of the First Complete Ascent of the Highest Peak in North America. (1918)
- Krauss, Michael E. 2007. "Native languages of Alaska", In: The Vanishing Voices of the Pacific Rim, ed. by Osahito Miyaoko, Osamu Sakiyama, and Michael E. Krauss. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Table 21.1, page 408))
- "Mount McKinley Will Again Be Called Denali," New York Times, 30 August 2015.
- Palin Code Name: 'Denali', Washington Post, September 10, 2008.