Last December, the Washington State Committee on Geographic Names officially approved the designation of a small unnamed area along Olympia’s East Bay “Howard Point.” This name honors Alexander and Rebecca Howard, an African-American couple who lived in the area in the late 19th century. Although it will take many more months for the name change to become law, it is a big step to restoring the historic name of the feature.
Rebecca (1827-1881) and Alexander (1810-1890) Howard moved to Olympia from Massachusetts in the late 1850s. They operated the Pacific House, Olympia’s premier hotel and restaurant, at what is now State Avenue and Capitol Way. The site of the Pacific House, now a parking lot, is commemorated by a mural on the side of the Bread Peddler (222 North Capitol Way).
In 1864, Rebecca and Alexander bought the northern half of the Calvin H. Hale donation land claim, establishing a successful farm. This property included a small point of land on East Bay jutting out into Budd Inlet. Locals began calling this point of land “Howard Point,” but the name dropped out of common usage after the early 1900s. Seeing “Howard Point” on an 1890 map of Olympia at the Washington State Archives is what alerted historian Ed Echtle to this forgotten place name.
He wondered if the name was connected to the Howards and did a little digging to discover that they had lived there. Since 2012, Echtle has been part of a collaborative project to document and preserve the history of African-American pioneers in Olympia. The project began when the City of Olympia hired Echtle and Dr. Thelma Jackson to create a walking guide brochure about early African-American residents of Olympia. Collaborators in this project have included the Olympia Heritage Commission, Olympia Historical Society, and historians Dr. Thelma Jackson, Roger Easton, Edward Echtle, among others. According to Echtle, he is currently researching early residents while Dr. Jackson is compiling oral histories of more recent residents. Getting the name Howard Point restored was a logical part of this project.
Howard Point is located on the east shore of the East Bay channel of Budd Inlet. The shape of the point has changed dramatically over the years because of infills and road construction, but it has been charted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and is large enough to be eligible for an official name.
After the Howard Point name proposal was submitted to the Washington State Committee on Geographic Names, it underwent initial consideration at their meeting last June in Tacoma. The Committee voted to move the proposal to final consideration in December. Meanwhile, Echtle and other historians gathered letters of support for the name from community members and organizations.
On December 7, 2018, the Committee convened at the Department of Natural Resources Building in Olympia. Supporters of the proposal, including Ed Echtle, Dr. Thelma Jackson, and a representative for East Bay residents, spoke. The Committee voted in favor of the name.
Mary Schaff, the Washington State Librarian’s designee representative on the Committee on Geographic Names, has outlined what the next steps are. The name will undergo final approval at the Committee’s next meeting in May. After being approved by the Department of Natural Resources, the name will be submitted to the United States Board on Geographic Names. Schaff does not see any reason the Board would not approve the name. The U. S. Board on Geographic Names normally agrees with state recommendations of names. It does not have the power to impose geographic name changes.
The process for national approval is slow and will probably take about a year until the name receives final official approval.
Every state, Schaff emphasized, has its own process of approving geographic place names. Washington operates a committee as part of the Department of Natural Resources. Currently the committee is made up of representatives from the Commissioner of Public Lands, State Library, Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation, Washington State tribes, and the public. Members of the public can suggest new names and renames of existing geographic features.
The Washington State Committee on Geographic Names emphasizes local support for name proposals. Some proposals with other merits are often rejected for failing to show local support. Howard Point’s naming enjoys much local support from the East Bay residents, Olympia Historical Society, local historians, and governments.
Schaff is excited to see names that honor minorities that have historic roots to the area of the feature named but are “often missing from the historical record.” Howard Point, Schaff believes, fits this description well. Echtle is also excited about the name, since it is rare for places to be named after individual minority members.
Bringing back the name Howard Point is a step forward in commemorating Olympia’s rich history. The Howards have often been overlooked in the past. Thus it is fitting to name the point along East Bay Drive after them, both restoring a historic name and honoring important contributors to the community.