It could be the local geography, a nearby landmark, folklore, practicality, famous people, landowners or even the local farmer that inspire the bestower of names. That’s what makes unraveling the origins so fun and interesting.
In honor of the season, this week’s column will explore holiday and/or religious-themed names from around the state. The why behind each name is as varied as ever. There are dozens of places honoring saints, but that would take a book, not a column, so they’ve been left out of this holiday round-up.
Angel Peak: This mountain top in San Juan County in the northern part of the state stands at nearly 7,000 feet. The peak is 13 miles southeast of Bloomfield and is within the Angel Peak National Recreation Area managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The surrounding area has been nicknamed the Garden of the Angels.
T.M. Pearce said in a 1962 New Mexico Quarterly article titled “The Lure of Names” that he believed the peak “was so named by the stockmen in the region because of two small points on top resembling figures that must have flown up there.” Pearce is also the author of “New Mexico Place Names: A Geographical Dictionary.”
Beulah: This now abandoned settlement was in Sapello Canyon in San Miguel County. It’s named for the old Methodist hymn “Beulah Land.” The biblical Hebrew meaning of Beulah is “married” and the mythical land, which some believe is heaven, is mentioned in the King James version of the Bible.
Bible Top Butte: Also known as Bible Top Hill, Bible Top Butte is a summit in Union County, which is in the northeast part of New Mexico. According to Robert Julyan in his book “The Place Names of New Mexico,” it was its appearance the earned the butte this name.
“A crease centered in the top of this flat-topped butte makes it look like an open book when viewed from the east.”
Bishop Peak and Bishop’s Cap: The Bishop Peak is in Catron County and named for “Uncle” Henry Reynolds, a bishop of the local Mormon church who lived nearby. The summit is approximately 8,850 feet.
The Bishop’s Cap is another peak, but it’s located further south in Doña Ana County and the name isn’t related to a person. The peak is in the Organ Mountains and is a series of ridges shaped like a bishop’s cap.
Church Mountain: This 8,800-foot mountain is in Lincoln County. According to Julyan, in 1882, a prospector named Church told his companions he was going to travel to the top of the mountain with his burro. They scoffed at the idea but he proved them wrong and made it to the summit. He literally hammered home his victory by carving his name on a board and sticking it to a monument he built at the top.
He came down from the mountain and returned to his life in Texas. Years later, after returning to New Mexico, he bought a survey map of the area. According to Julyan, Church was astounded to find that the government surveyors had been to the top of the mountain, had found the board with his name, and had given his name to the mountain.
Church Rock: The shape of this well-known natural landmark led to its name. According to the same article by Pearce, it was so named because it resembles a church with towers. This prominent natural structure is within the Churchrock Chapter of the Navajo Nation in McKinley County. The chapter was named after the rock formation.
The area became the site of a nuclear disaster in 1979 when a dam containing 1,110 tons of uranium waste failed and released 94 million gallons of radioactive water into the Rio Puerco, poisoning the land.
Cuba: Some might be wondering how this name fits in here. It doesn’t. But the original community established there in the 18th century was called El Nacimiento de Nuestra Se ñ ora (The Birthday of Our Lady). They most likely took the name from the nearby mountains. The community was abandoned and the current day Cuba re-established in the late 1800s just east of the original village.
Holiday Mesa: This mesa is located in the Jemez Mountains. A man named Holiday once maintained a logging camp near there and it’s reputedly named for him. Local Native Americans called the mesa Pueblo Chise.
Holy Ghost Spring (Ojo del Espíritu Santo): These thermal springs are located on the Jemez Pueblo. According to Julyan, a local legend explains the origins of its name. The thermal springs “were named when a member of an expedition one night saw two wraithlike spirals rising from the ground and rushed to his camp crying ‘El sp í ritu santo!’ Other members of the expedition followed him back to the place and discovered columns of steam rising from the hot springs.”
Spirit Lake and Holy Ghost Creek: Spirit Lake is in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains near Santa Fe. The name for Holy Ghost Creek, which heads at Spirit Lake and runs into the Pecos River, was inspired by the lake. There is also a Holy Ghost Campground near Pecos that takes its name from the creek.
Author and conservationist Elliot Barker said the lake’s beauty could inspire thoughts of the Holy Spirit. He wrote, “I used to hear the old native Spanish Americans refer to the lake as La Laguna del Espíritu Santo (The Lake of the Holy Spirit) or Holy Ghost. It was, perhaps, originally so christened, and the creek naturally took the same name, while the lake’s name was shortened to just Spirit Lake.”
Curious about how a town, street or building got its name? Email staff writer Elaine Briseño at email@example.com or 505-823-3965 as she continues the monthly journey in “What’s in a Name?”