PUEBLO — Speaking to a capacity crowd at El Pueblo History Museum during San Luis Valley Day on Sunday, educator and historian Dennis Lopez shared the history and meaning of San Luis Valley place names.
His presentation “Place Names of the San Luis Valley” was part of a special day celebrating the Borderlands of Southern Colorado exhibit, which includes the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, in Colorado for the first time on loan from the National Archives Museum in Washington, D.C.
More than 150 people crowded in the lecture room to hear Lopez’s presentation on Sunday morning, followed by lunch, music by the Cancioneros del Valle trio and a presentation in the afternoon by Shirley Romero Otero on the “Land Grant Struggle in the San Luis Valley.”
Southeast and San Luis Valley Regional Partnership Councils of El Pomar Foundation provided support for the exhibit and the free day at the museum.
Lopez shared the results of his extensive research regarding the naming of the numerous villages, towns, rivers, passes and mountains in El Valle de San Luis. Some places were named by what they resembled or by the animals found there, others after settlers or postmasters and others after saints. Lopez said religion played a big part in the Valley’s history, including its names.
“People were very religious,” he said.
For example, San Antonio was named after St. Anthony because the explorers reached the area on St. Anthony’s Day, and the town of San Luis was so named because it was established on the feast day of San Luis in 1852. San Pedro and San Pablo were also named after saints.
San Acacio had a miraculous story attached to its name, Lopez explained. When settlers saw Indians on a ridge above them ready to attack, they prayed to San Acacio, the patron saint of soldiers, and the Indians turned back. Later the settlers found out the Indians turned back because they saw an army up in the sky, which they believed were sent by God, so they figured they had no chance of defeating such an army.
(Lopez clarified, by the way, that San Acacio hosts the oldest church building in the Valley while Conejos hosts the oldest parish.)
Priests often accompanied explorers or those bringing settlements into the Valley, Lopez explained. It was a priest who named the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, or blood of Christ. He was with a party that included Indian slaves, and when the Indian slaves revolted, the rest of the group escaped to San Luis Lakes but not before a fatal volley of arrows pierced a priest who exclaimed as he lay dying on the raft on the lake and watched the red glow over the mountains, “sangre de Cristo.”
Faith was also present in the naming of Manassa, named by Mormon pioneers in honor of Joseph’s son, and Sanford, named for Silas Sanford Smith, the first president of the L.D.S. Stake here. Bowen, south of Monte Vista, was named after a leader of the Presbyterian Church in Iowa where the land developer for that area was from.
Some of the names associated with shapes included La Sierra Costilla, or mountains resembling ribs, as well as the Culebra, curving like a snake, and the town of Mogote so named for the nearby hills that resembled stacks of corn, “mogote.”
Seeing wolves in the western mountains of the Valley led to the obvious Wolf Creek Pass name. Mosca was so named for the flies there.
Platoro was a combination of the words for the metals found there in 1880, “plata” (silver) and “oro” (gold.)
Red willow brush or “jaras” contributed to the naming of La Jara Creek while another type of willows contributed to Jaroso, willow trees gave Los Sauces its name, and plentiful chokecherry trees gave Lopez’ hometown Capulin its name. (Lopez said the original site of the town was moved upriver after the initial site in the flood plain flooded.)
The town of La Jara also moved from its original location, Lopez explained. Originally along La Jara Creek, the town moved towards the railroad when the rail lines came through to make it easier for farmers to take their crops to the train.
Indian names were also part of the Valley’s history. For example, Cochetopa Pass in the Ute language is Buffalo Pass, Saguache is “blue water” in the Ute language, and Mount Blanca or Sierra Blanca is Sisnaajiini in Navajo. The mountain marks the eastern boundary of the Navajo nation.
Names related to people included Medano Pass, named after a family that lived near the pass, and Fort Garland was named for General John Garland. Hooper was named in honor of Major Shadrock Hooper, although the town was originally called Garrison. Creede derived its name from Nicholas Creede who discovered the rich Holy Moses vein of gold, silver and other precious metals in 1889.
Some names have changed over time, Lopez explained. For example, the Rio Grande was first named El Rio Bravo del Norte, which in 1598 was a raging (“bravo”) river with no reservoirs or ditches to divert its flow. “Nothing was holding the water back,” Lopez said.
The town of Henry was renamed Monte Vista, and the stagecoach stop of Basterville became South Fork. Alamosa had originally been named for its river, Rio Bravo, but was renamed for its cottonwoods.
The Valley’s first community was originally named Plaza de los Manzanares but was renamed Garcia after the town’s first postmaster. Ortiz also received its name from the town’s first postmaster, Nestor Ortiz. Romeo would have been named Romero, after its first postmaster, but that name was already taken in Colorado, Lopez said.
Some names were lost in their translations. La Una de Gato (the nail of the cat) simply became Cat Creek, for example, and La Piedra Pintada (the painted rocks, where petroglyphs were discovered) simply became Rock Creek.
Some communities such as Waverly had a tough beginning. Lopez described the fateful settlement of Dutch from the East Coast who were drawn to the San Luis Valley by the promise of cheap land and a warm climate conducive to farming. Twenty-eight families arrived in November. Many froze to death. Others moved away. Only one of the 28 families only one remains, the Heersinks, Lopez said.
Lopez said his research is ongoing. Audience members encouraged him to publish his work in a book.
The Borderlands of Southern Colorado exhibit including the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo will be on display through July 4 at El Pueblo History Museum, 301 N. Union Avenue in Pueblo. The museum is open daily, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Regular admission is $5 for adults; and $4 for students, seniors (65+) and children (up to 18); and free for children under 6. Borderlands of Southern Colorado is included with museum admission.
Captions: Dennis Lopez presents “Place Names of the San Luis Valley” during San Luis Valley Day on Sunday at El Pueblo History Museum./Courier photos by Ruth Heide
Attendees of San Luis Valley enjoy lunch at El Pueblo History Museum on Sunday. Many visitors took advantage of a 52-seat bus that brought Valley residents to Pueblo for the day.
Award winning Los Cancioneros del Valle (Trío Cancioneros del Valle), comprised of Rose Vialpando, Salomon Lopez and Ruben Dominguez, entertain attendees at San Luis Valley Day on Sunday at El Pueblo History Museum.
Southeast Regional Partnership Council and San Luis Valley Regional Partnership Councils of El Pomar Foundation provided support for the Borderlands exhibit.