In 1890, President Benjamin Harrison established the Board on Geographic Names, which was responsible for ensuring and maintaining uniformity in all the place names of the United States. On September 4 that year, he signed an official executive order bringing the BGN into existence, stating that, “To this Board shall be referred all unsettled questions concerning geographic names … and the decisions of the Board are to be accepted … as the standard authority for such matters.”
One of the Board’s first decisions was to establish “Bering Sea” as the standard name for the sea separating Alaska and Russia, consigning the alternative spellings “Behring” and “Behrings” to history, and ousting the Russian preference “Kamchatka”—the name of the enormous peninsula on Russia’s far east coast—from American maps and atlases. In 1917, it voted to add an English transliteration of the full ceremonial name of the Thai capital Bangkok to its database—despite the name containing 168 letters.
But of all the decisions the Board has taken over the years, perhaps the strangest or the most controversial is its on-going war against possessive apostrophes.
In its 125 year history, the BGN has only permitted five natural features in the entire United States to spell their names with possessive apostrophes. According to its official rulebook [PDF], several other uses of apostrophes or apostrophe-like symbols—such as in names with omitted letters, like Lake O’ The Woods, or those that are derived from personal names, like O’Malley Hollow—are permitted. But “apostrophes suggesting possession or association” are “not to be used within the body of a proper geographic name.” (Although they have broad legal power over a range of geographic names, the Board has generally chosen to not deal with “administrative names” such as towns or counties. So Queen Anne’s County in Maryland is perfectly valid, but the apostrophe frequently disappears off of official government maps anyway.)
So why such a hard line against apostrophes? Well, there is a long-held myth that the decision is intended to stop people from confusing a tiny ’ on a map with a rock, a well, a town, or some other cartographic symbol. But the real reason is much more straightforward: the Board excludes as many possessive markers as it possibly can to avoid disputes and issues over the ownership and control of the land. Or, in the BGN’s own words, by removing the apostrophe:
The word or words that form a geographic name change their connotative function and together become a single denotative unit. They change from words having specific dictionary meaning to fixed labels used to refer to geographic entities. The need to imply possession or association no longer exists.
So only one question remains: what are the five places that got through?
1. MARTHA’S VINEYARD, MASSACHUSETTS
The first possessive apostrophe the BGN permitted was the one in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Likely named for the deceased daughter of the English-born explorer and privateer Bartholomew Gosnold, the apostrophe in Martha’s Vineyard was originally eliminated by the Board, but was restored after 40 years—thanks largely to a determined local campaign—in 1933.
2. IKE’S POINT, NEW JERSEY
Eleven years later, in 1944, the BGN allowed Ike’s Point in New Jersey to be spelled with an apostrophe, commenting that the word Ikes “would be unrecognizable otherwise.”
3. JOHN E’S POND, RHODE ISLAND
A similar reason allowed John E’s Pond in Rhode Island to keep its apostrophe in 1963: without it, the Board agreed, the name could be misconstrued as “John S Pond.”
4. CARLOS ELMER’S JOSHUA VIEW, ARIZONA
Born in Washington, D.C. in 1920, Carlos Elmer was a landscape photographer whose work included numerous pictures of Joshua trees taken from a small promontory in Mohave County, Arizona. Two years after his death, in 1995, the Board agreed to name this promontory Carlos Elmer’s Joshua View in his honor—complete with its possessive apostrophe (the Board’s first for 32 years), without which, it was decided, the three consecutive first names could be confusing and “dilute the meaning” of the name.
5. CLARK’S MOUNTAIN, OREGON
The “Clark” of Clark’s Mountain, Oregon, is actually William Clark of Lewis and Clark. In his journal on January 10, 1806, Clark’s partner Meriwether Lewis wrote that “from this summit Capt. C informed me that there was a delightful and most extensive view of the ocean, the coast and adjacent country,” and so, “I have taken the liberty of naming [it] Clark’s Mountain.” Almost two centuries later, in 2002, the Board finally decided to adopt Lewis’s preferred spelling of the name and restored the apostrophe to Clark’s Mountain.