The Journal continues “What’s in a Name?,” a twice a month column in which staff writer Elaine Briseño will give a short history of how places in New Mexico got their names.
Long before Angel Fire became a resort, the mountain and surrounding area were home to Native American tribes.
Today people visit the area to ski, play golf, visit Eagle Nest Lake, fish, hunt and mountain bike. However, what most people know about the history of Angel Fire relates to the Europeans who traveled to New Mexico for religious and economical purposes, and later Americans who settled the area and transformed the mountain into a resort for outdoor recreation.
The northern New Mexico community sits east of Taos, nestled in a valley within the Rocky Mountains. Before the Europeans arrival, Apache, Ute and Comanche Indians roamed the mountain. It was the nomadic Moache Utes who named it. Since most Native American history was oral, and written history was controlled by Americans and Europeans, there is no way to truly know how the name emerged, but there are legends.
According to passed-down stories, the Moache Utes would come to the mountain every autumn for a celebration. At some point, they noticed a strange glow of red and orange flickering at the top of the Agua Fría peak. One of the elders declared the light was an omen, the fire of the god blessing the annual celebration. The strange glow was most likely the sun illuminating the mountaintop but the explanation was accepted and the area became a sacred space.
Later, Franciscan friars, in an attempt to convert the Native people to Christianity, claimed it was the fire of the angels. Their religion didn’t take, but the name, influenced by both Spanish and Native cultures, did. From then on, all referred to the mountain and surrounding lands as Angel Fire.
Efforts to convert the area into an outdoor playground began in the 20th century.
Roy H. LeBus established the Angel Fire community and resort in the 1960s and named it after the mountain it would occupy, according to a June 13, 1965 article in the Albuquerque Journal.
In February of 1966, the Taos News printed a story about the Angel Fire development. It said that the mountain was “named by local Indians after a fire ravaged its top more than 100 years ago.” Perhaps the writer misinterpreted the “strange glow of red and orange” in the legend as an actual fire or maybe there are other stories of how the name was assigned.
In his book, “The Place Names of New Mexico,” author Robert Julyan refers to a second legend.
“One account says lightening ignited a fire on the mountain and threatened an Indian camp. Just as the Indians were about to evacuate, the wind shifted, and a rainstorm extinguished the fire. The Indians began calling the peak ‘breath of spirits.’ ” He goes on to say that the Franciscans changed it to breath of angels and later Angel Fire.
LeBus owned the 10,000-acre Monte Verde Ranch and then added 15,000-acres when he purchased the Cieneguilla Tract, which was part of the Maxwell Land Grant. The 1.71 million-acre Spanish land grant was the largest in U.S. history and spanned into Colorado. It’s two times larger than the state of Rhode Island and was named for Charles Lucien B. Maxwell, who once worked as a fur trapper and a guide in the area.
Maxwell eventually married and settled Rayado, New Mexico. His father-in-law gave him 15,000 acres of the grant as a wedding gift. Years later, Maxwell bought out the other grant heirs, bringing the entire grant under his control.
The local Utes and Apaches were not happy with his presence in Rayado and he often clashed with them. Maxwell and other settlers went on to deplete wildlife in the area, which meant local tribes were left with little food. This further increased the animosity between the Native people and the settlers. Maxwell earned a reputation as a brutal man who openly flaunted his wealth. Other accounts say he was a generous and honest man.
Both could be true. What is not disputed is that Maxwell, along with the Moache Utes and LeBus, left their mark on what is today a destination for not only New Mexicans, but tourists from around the country.
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?”