JACKSON, N.H. — Up here in the White Mountains, things frequently aren’t what they seem. The January showers in this Mount Washington Valley town often take their form as snowfalls in the high summits. The expert-rated Maple Slalom ski trail on Black Mountain just up the road from the Christmas Farm Inn isn’t as forbidding as its reputation. The Mount Clinton near the Presidential Range peaks of Mount Adams, Mount Jefferson, Mount Madison, Mount Monroe and Mount Eisenhower isn’t named for Bill Clinton — and in any case often is called Mount Pierce.
So no one should be surprised that for the past two weeks, the town of Jackson (population 891) no longer is named for the seventh president.
And though the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs no longer bears the name of the university’s onetime president, Woodrow Wilson, and though multiple facilities and programs at Tufts University no longer bear the name of the Sackler family (widely blamed for the opioid epidemic), you can still take out a book at the Jackson Public Library. Those who battle the town’s intermittent blazes still are volunteer members of the Jackson Firefighter’s Association, and the fabled red covered bridge across the Ellis River — perhaps the most picturesque in all of New Hampshire — still bears the carved wood sign saying it is the entryway to Jackson, New Hampshire.
That’s because the five dozen residents who attended an outdoor town meeting this month voted to change their community’s name and yet to keep it the same. It no longer commemorates the memory of Andrew Jackson. It now celebrates the legacy of Charles Jackson, a onetime state geologist.
The covered bridges, the public buildings, the postcards displaying images of a town that looks as if it belongs on a postcard, even residents’ magazine address labels — none of that has to change.
But the change that townspeople sitting on white folding chairs under a white tent beside the community center fomented is a sign of the times — or more properly, a story of how signs, statues and place names commemorating colonial explorers and exploiters, Confederate heroes and even presidents are being altered in response to the nation’s racial reckoning and its fresh understanding of the dark side of some of the country’s founders, builders and leaders.
Jackson’s name change is causing far less disruption than similar moves elsewhere.
Port Elizabeth in South Africa, once named for the wife of a British colonial governor, now is known as Gqeberha. Barrow, Alaska, named for a member of the British admiralty, now is known as Utqiagvik, which means “a place for gathering wild roots,” which is a pretty accurate description of a tiny community sitting where the Beaufort Sea meets the Chukchi Sea and where temperatures are at or below zero degrees 160 days a year. Both were renamed as statements against colonialism.
At least the residents of Jackson won’t have to buy new stationery.
In truth, name changes have been part of the culture of American history for centuries.
The Mount Washington here in New Hampshire, still covered by a mantle of snow, once bore several names, including Agiocochook, the native Abenakis’ name for “Place of the Storm Spirit.” (The far smaller Mount Washington that looms over downtown Pittsburgh once went by Coal Hill.) The Mount Pierce that once was called Mount Clinton had earlier been called Bald Hill; the Clinton who inspired its name until about a century ago was DeWitt Clinton, a governor of New York who ran, unsuccessfully, for president in 1812.
The New Hampshire legislature thought the Presidential Range should include the state’s only president, Franklin Pierce, who entered the White House in 1853 for a single term. That name now is under siege, because the 14th president was a pro-slavery Northerner who in his inaugural address argued that “involuntary servitude, as it exists in different States of this Confederacy, is recognized by the Constitution,” adding, “I believe that it stands like any other admitted right, and that the States where it exists are entitled to efficient remedies to enforce the constitutional provisions.”
While Pierce’s claim to the 4,311-foot peak may not survive the fresh examination of his record, the name of one of his predecessors, Andrew Jackson, has been expunged from this tiny town a 35-minute drive away. He’s on his way out of the $20 bill also, and several Democratic state parties have removed his name from their annual fundraising dinners.
Once championed as a great defender of the Union and the stalwart voice of the people, Jackson — regarded as a hero by liberals such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson and conservatives such as Donald J. Trump — since has become a symbol of slavery and genocide. “There’s been a broad but not universal overturning of Jackson’s reputation,” said Daniel Feller, emeritus editor of the Jackson papers at the University of Tennessee. “By the 1970s, his reputation was being reevaluated because of the removal of Native Americans. Then his connection to slavery altered it further.”
In a town meeting here where residents deliberated on 11 topics — including passing a $2.4 million budget, raising $268,500 for a reserve fund for the fire department, a police cruiser and an ambulance, and settled a controversy about fireworks in town — they also engaged in a debate about the legacy of Andrew Jackson.
This debate pitted the two colliding arguments that the issue has spawned nationwide: whether a figure such as Jackson should be reviled in our history — the argument proffered by Jerry Dougherty, who holds the title of assistant town moderator — or whether he should be judged by what Frank Benesh, who worked in finance before retiring, described to me as “the standard of his own times.”
Town moderator Willis Kelley counted about 39 or 40 votes in favor of stripping Andrew Jackson from the town’s name, with between 24 and 27 Jacksonians voting to retain the president’s ties to the community.
So today the town is named after the Jackson who completed a 19th-century geological survey of the Granite State. But there will be no movement to change the name of the 4,052-foot Mount Jackson in the Presidential Range. The mountain, with its summit along the Appalachian Trail, was named for the geologist and not the president in the first place.