We’re standing on the exact spot where, in 1858, Latah Creek suddenly became Hangman Creek.
This old stone monument, about 15 miles south of Spokane, tells the story: Here, Col. George Wright’s men tied a rope around the neck of the Yakama chief Qualchan and hanged him until dead. Several Palouse Indians were hanged the next day.
Within a year, the (infrequent) white travelers in the area were calling it Hangman Creek. The name stuck.
Still, the question remains to this day: What is the name of this creek? What’s the official name and what’s merely an “a k a”?
The answer: Both.
This beautiful creek, which flows 50-some miles from the Idaho foothills through the Palouse and into the city limits of Spokane, has a long-term identity problem. Both names, Latah and Hangman, have their proponents. Both have been declared the “official” name by one governmental body or another.
Yet each name persists and persists, sustained by decades of history and tradition. Grab a selection of maps today, and you will see no consensus: After 139 years, Latah and Hangman are still in a dead heat.
Latah, or something similar, is without doubt one of the original Native American names. Around 1805, William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition drew a map based on Indian accounts. He labeled the creek as the “Lau-Taw River.”
From then on, it was variously recorded as the Lar-too, the Lah-too, the Lah-taw or the Latah.
Even Col. George Wright called it the Lahtoo. According to Terry Boyden, who wrote “Warrior in the Mist,” a biography of Qualchan, Wright often called it the Ned-Whauld, but he always added “Lahtoo” in parentheses.
Lahtoo or Latah is an Indian word meaning either “jumping fish,” “place where little fishes were caught” or “place where we get food” (the words for fish and food being identical). The creek was a productive salmon spawning stream before the age of dams, so the name was both lyrical and descriptive.
Soon enough, Wright played his part in the hanging incident that knocked Latah out of the running for a while. More on the hanging later. Meanwhile, the saga of the name was just beginning.
One year after the hanging, Capt. John Mullan was already referring to it as Hangman Creek. By the time settlers began to show up on the creek in the 1870s and 1880s, the new name had become firmly entrenched.
When a little post office was established on the creek in 1873, the name was Hangman Creek. The name lasted only until about 1881, the victim of a sanitizing campaign.
“Some of the housewives around thought that wasn’t a nice name,” said Glen Adams, 84, former Fairfield postmaster, local historian and owner of Ye Galleon Press, which specializes in area history. “So they changed it to Alpha.”
Alpha didn’t last; the post office and town soon merged with the town of Latah. Yet the creek continued to be called Hangman.
“Colloquially, everybody called it Hangman,” said Adams. “But if you wanted to be polite, you called it Latah.”
Meanwhile, at the request of citizens who didn’t like the sound of Hangman, the Washington state Legislature passed and approved an act in 1899 that stated, “The stream commonly known by the name of Hangman Creek … is hereby named and shall hereafter be known by the name of Latah Creek.”
In 1904, based on that proclamation, the U.S. Board of Geographic Names (yes, there is one) changed the name back to Latah. It then became Latah on all government maps.
You’d think that would be the end of it.
Sorry. You can lead people to Latah, but you can’t make them say it.
Adams, who grew up on a farm in the area, said that almost everybody he knew called it Hangman as long as he can remember, and he can remember most of the 20th century. Even now, almost all of the locals call it Hangman. The name is entrenched in other place names along the stream, too: Hangman Valley, Hangman Hills and the Hangman Valley Golf Course.
One pioneer, Silas Cook, even tried to launch a drive in 1934 to officially restore the name Hangman. He told the Spokane Chronicle that “the first real security ever felt by the white settlers of Eastern Washington dates from the day of the hanging.”
But another resident, E.E. Alexander, responded in a letter to the editor: “There is poetry in Latah, while Hangman suggests coarse brutality. … There is no good reason why we should continuously parade killing.”
So this is how matters stood until 1959: The creek was officially Latah, but nearly everyone called it Hangman. Then the U.S. Geological Survey sent out a field crew to update the maps.
“The field crews came back and said no one used the name Latah,” said Roger Payne, executive secretary of the U.S. Board of Geographic Names. “So in 1959 the board overruled the previous ruling and switched it to Hangman. The most important factor in determining a name is local usage and acceptance.”
The board knew that the state had officially changed the name to Latah in 1899; it had a copy of the law in its files. On the other hand, the board wasn’t sure of the authenticity of that law, because the board also had a letter, dated 1904, from the Washington state secretary of state, which said, “I am unable to find any act of the Legislature regarding the name Latah Creek.”
“Obviously, something fell through the cracks between 1899 and 1904,” said Payne, who has quite a fat file on Latah-Hangman.
In any case, the board changed the name back to the one people actually called it. And that’s why Hangman is now the official USGS name. Hangman appears on all government documents and maps, including the all-important USGS topographic maps. Many other mapmakers take their lead from these maps, which is why the Official Washington State Highway Map also calls it Hangman, as do many other road maps.
But not every map. The Northwest Map Service (a division of the Northwest Map and Travel Book Center in Spokane), which publishes the Spokane County Atlas and many other local maps, calls it Latah.
Owner Steve Mitrovich said his company simply decided to deviate from the USGS usage several years ago and call it Latah.
“I like the name Latah,” he said.
Latah is also gaining ground in other ways. A scenic calendar, called the Latah Creek 1997 Calendar, was published recently by Adventure Trail, a non-profit nature trail and advocacy group. The name Hangman is never used in its pages.
“We just feel it’s a real derogatory name, a negative name,” said John Lewis of Spokane, the photographer for the calendar.
It can be an emotional issue, and a brief recap of the hanging incident helps explain why:
Col. George Wright had just concluded a peace treaty with the Coeur d’Alene tribe. He sent word to Qualchan, Yakama warrior and the son of Chief Owhi, that he must come in and meet with him or he wouldn’t make peace with the Yakamas. After a three-day ride, Qualchan and his wife showed up at the spot on Latah Creek where Col. Wright was camped.
He and his wife stopped to don their ceremonial finery - they thought they were coming in to sign a peace treaty. His wife planted the ceremonial lance in front of Wright’s tent, and Qualchan presented himself. Unbeknownst to Qualchan, Wright already had his father Owhi in chains. After only a few minutes of conversation, Wright’s guard grabbed Qualchan, dragged him off to a tree (or a makeshift gallows) and had him hanged. His wife watched in anguish and then was sent away. Wright considered it mere frontier justice.
“Wright said that Qualchan was involved in every major murder in the area,” said Boyden. Qualchan had certainly been involved in the bloody wars.
However, even some of the military witnesses were taken aback.
“Even some of the officers present were uneasy about hanging a man without any trial,” said Adams. “I believe that Wright thought Qualchan was implicated in the murder of a Yakama Indian agent. It turns out Qualchan was nowhere near the spot where the murder took place. But after he was hanged, it was too late to make any difference.”
Even now, many people, including some who live along the creek, have never heard the story of the hanging, or at least are unclear about the details.
“When you read the specifics, it brings tears to your eyes,” said Lewis.
With that story as a backdrop, it is no wonder that some people are not thrilled with the name Hangman, including William Yallup Sr., a member of the Yakama Tribal Council and chairman of the tribe’s cultural committee.
“I think the name is disrespectful to Spokane and the other tribes in the area,” said Yallup. “It’s not a very good name. It’s a reminder of something that the people in those days were very sad and mad about it.”
This hasn’t actually been an issue with the council; we approached them on the issue, they didn’t approach us. But Yallup said his personal opinion is that the name should be changed to Latah.
“It should remain the original name,” said Yallup.
However, a case can also be made for keeping the name Hangman as a way of keeping the story of Qualchan’s fate alive.
“While it is not a pleasant name, it’s what people have called it for generations,” said Adams. “And that name may remind us, a little bit, that the civil rights of the native peoples were not respected in the 1800s.”
Today, a state Board of Geographic Names exists to resolve these kinds of two-name questions, but it has never looked into the Latah-Hangman issue. The board didn’t even exist back in 1904 and 1959, when the federal board was making its decisions. Tim Gregg, executive secretary to the board, said the board would look into it if somebody were to send in an application for a ruling.
Yet maybe it’s best left with both names. Some creeks have a history too big for one name. , DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos; Map of Latah Creek area
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: BACK AND FORTH 1805: Named “Lau-taw River” on Lewis and Clark’s maps. 1858: Chief Qualchan hanged; Hangman Creek comes into usage. 1873: Hangman Creek Post Office established. 1899: Legislature changes name back to Latah Creek. 1904: Federal board adopts Latah Creek as official name. 1959: Federal board changes name back to Hangman, based on local acceptance.
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