How a Slow News Day in Washington Invented the Filipino McKinley Islands

The assassination of William McKinley

No matter how long one has been studying Philippine history there is always something new. It is one of the pleasures of diggingthrough dusty tomes and digital libraries. I belong to some of the better Facebook history groups, which means once in a while something comes up that gets my investigative juices going, like the report that the Philippines could have been called the McKinley Islands, after US President William McKinley who allegedly promised to Christianise and civilise the Archipelago as he pinned a paper US flag into a map in 1901 while pitching for the Methodist vote in an upcoming election.

Had McKinley run for another term he might well have won, but for two bullets fired at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York on 6 September 1901 by Leon Czolgosz, a Polish-American anarchist born in Michigan. McKinley died a week later.  On 26 October,  three 1,800 volt charges were sent through his body, he was declared dead and his body dissolved in sulphuric acid and what was left buried in prison grounds.
It was claimed that one of Czolgosz’s complaints against McKinley was the US actions in the Philippines.

According to several Facebook posts and websites,  in the wake of  McKinley’s death, in fact, within days and before Czolgosz’s execution,  there was a serious proposal to remain the Philippines to the McKinley Islands. I was intrigued because it was the first time I had heard of such a proposal. Couild Filipinos really have ended up being called “MacKinley’s”,, Would ‘Flips’ be replaced by ‘Macs’?
 So, some digging was in order, starting with the US Congressional Record. Sure enough, there was a proposal made in February 1902, at the urging of geographers and others, to rename os islands to The McKinley Islands. But these were not the Philippine Islands but the Danish West Indies, or the Danish Antilles, which the US was negotiating to buy – the Danes had been trying to sell the unprofitable territory since the mid-19th Century. That proposal fell on deaf ears and when the US bought those islands in 1917 they became the US Virgin Islands.
The US paid $25m for those islands, compared to $20m for the Philippines in 1898.
Next came Oscar William Couirsey’s The Philippines and Filipinos; a treatise on the history, the civics, and the mathematical, physical and political geography of the Philippine archipelago, published in 1914: “A few prominent Americans have suggested that the name be changed to McKinley Islands in honor of our martyred president to whose wisdom we are now indebted for the possession of them but this will undoutedly never be done.”
The Kinsley Graphic, October 4, 1901

Coursey does not tell us which ‘prominent Americans’ made the suggestion but does suggest it was a non-starter.

More poking around came to a reference to the proposal on the McKinley Museum webpage
 providing a wire report From The New York Tribune dated 29 September:

“A proposal was put forth to rename the Philippine archipelago after the late president. From The New York Tribune:

Washington. Sept. 29 —A suggestion, emanating from a high source, and which is meeting with widespread favor, is to change the name of the Philippine Islands to the McKinley Islands. The object is, of course, to perpetuate the name and glory of the martyred President and his administration. It is intended to bring the proposition before the next Congress, and it is not doubted that it will be accepted without question if presented in the proper manner.

The appropriateness of the suggestion is generally conceded, as. save for the foresight and persistence of President McKinley, the Philippines might to-day occupy a different and far less intimate relation to the United States than is now being shaped for them. It is pointed out that this proposed change would link his name with the government of the country for all time and also would be a constant and conspicuous reminder to future generations throughout the world that it was in his administration that the republic expanded its beneficent influence to the Orient and there established in enduring for its institutions and systems.

The proposition, though at present entirely tentative, contemplates a complete change of nomenclature in the whole archipelago. For example, the entire group is to be named the McKinley Islands, and the process of Americanization is to be carried out to the minutest detail by giving to the different islands the names of distinguished Americans of the past and present time. This part of the scheme embraces the idea of bestowing upon the different islands and provinces the names of the men most prominently identified with the acquisition and management of the islands. For instance, the members of the American Commission which negotiated the Paris Treaty would thus be honored, as well as the names of Admiral Dewey, General Law, Governor Taft, General Otis, Secretary Root and others.  It is expected that within a few days the proposition will take a sufficiently definite shape to warrant its promoters permitting the use of their names in its advocacy.”

This single uncreditted, unsourced report is the only basis for the claim that the Philippines was ‘nearly’ called The McKinley Islands.

And it was fake news, according to Robert Lincoln O’Brien, editor of the Boston Herald, cited in What Is News? by Lula O. Andrews in The Sewanee Review Vol. 18, No. 1 (Jan., 1910). The proposal was a ‘hot weather’ hatched by a group of resourceful reporters … when there was a dearth of news.

So, the Philippines was never ‘nearly’ called the McKinley Islands and the reported proposal was a fiction written on a slow news day.

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