Nevada County supervisors on Tuesday tabled a decision to rename a Rough and Ready creek that one resident said was offensive.
Supervisor Hank Weston — whose district includes the creek — had initially wanted to send a letter to U.S. Board on Geographic Names denying its request to change the name of Negro Creek to Butterfly Creek.
On Tuesday, Weston said he preferred to consult with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) before making a final decision.
The rest of the board agreed.
“Maybe we’re not the best jury of what is and what is not pejorative in this particular case,” said board Chairman Ed Scofield.
The issue was initially raised by Nevada County Assistant Clerk-Recorder Gail Smith, who emphasized she was providing public comment during the special meeting as a private citizen and Rough and Ready resident rather than a county employee.
She told the board that she recently purchased property in Rough and Ready and was disturbed to learn the stream running through her backyard contained an offensive term.
She contacted the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (USBGN) and requested they change the name to “Butterfly Creek,” due to the large amount of butterflies she witnessed in the area.
The argument balanced two schools of thought; the first being that the word “Negro” is pejorative and offensive to black people and should be changed, with the other side maintaining that the name is historically significant and its eradication from county documents and maps amounts to irresponsible historical revisionism.
Board members said they did not want the name changed to “Butterfly Creek” due to the historical significance of “Negro Creek,” but said they would consider a different moniker, if the name proved widely offensive.
Pat Chestnut, with the Searls Historical Library, said the creek known as Negro Creek was published under that name in maps dating back to 1867 and 1895.
“Nevada County was an important part of the California Gold Rush,” Chestnut was quoted as saying in a staff report compiled by Weston. “Many place names were given to streams, valleys and/or mountains based on the miners known to work the areas.
“The name Negro Creek is therefore of historic importance as it is one of the few designations that allude to the importance of the Negro miners in the area. The current efforts of many to eliminate what are called derogatory names in this case would actually cause the efforts of these early miners to be deleted from the historical record of this area.”
Supervisor Ted Owens said he was not in favor of a name change, unless a compelling case was made by the NAACP.
“I am not a fan of revisionism of our history,” he said. “I want to honor the history, but still do the best we can not to offend. For me, Butterfly Creek did not have any association with the history of that creek and the men that toiled along that creek.”
Weston said the original deadline for submitting a letter to the USBGN regarding the creek name was Nov. 30, but said the deadline could be moved back while the board awaits further comment.
All board members said they would consider renaming the creek to something more amenable to modern sensitivities, such as “Black Miners Creek”; however, Supervisor Terry Lamphier cautioned that erasing history, especially its more unseemly aspects, in the name of political correctness, leads to forgetfulness and an inclination to repeat mistakes.
Resident Lee Dixon pointed out that there are many geographical names in Nevada County that are named after ethnic groups or nationalities, including names of Native American tribe.
Weston said the board will decide on whether to write a letter to the USBGN opposing the name change or supporting its change to “Black Miners Creek” or a less offensive alternative at its Dec. 6 regular meeting.