When my inquisitive ancestors asked the Pueblo people about the geography of Taos, responses in the Tiwa and Tewa languages described a high country, or la sierra as we say it in New Mexico’s Spanish dialect. This high and isolated country fostered a way of life associated with hunting, and for centuries the wardrobe of its people mostly consisted of the skins of animals. Access to timber, excellent summer and winter grazing lands and mineral wealth later drew in Anglo people with the necessary technology to develop these resources.
The place-names found along the Enchanted Circle auto tour, which this article roughly parallels, includes the highest mountain in the state, Cerro de Taos, at 13,161 feet above sea level, incorporating the common Spanish word for mountain, cerro. However, modern maps use a different name: Wheeler Peak, which commemorates Major George M. Wheeler of the U.S. Army, who was in charge of land surveys performed during the 1870s.
The Tiwa word Taos may be related to Tua-thaa, meaning “Down at the Village.” However, the Spanish learned a similar-sounding name, Thaa-wi’i (“To Live at the Gap”), from Tewa neighbors 40 miles downstream. The Spanish pluralized the word by adding a gentle s. Taos Pueblo was likely established during the 1400s, consolidated from earlier villages in the region. The Spanish introduced Roman Catholicism through Franciscan friars, such as Fray Francisco de Zamora, who served from 1610 to 1617. A church named San Geronimo de Taos was begun around 1619, its name coming from St. Jerome.
A trip northbound from Taos reveals a landscape with several forested extinct volcanoes surrounded by an expansive sage and grassland plateau. Taos County is set within a rift valley, where earth’s crust has pulled apart, forming shield volcanoes — mountains with peculiar round pot shapes — from relatively gentle eruptions. Among these are Cerro del la Olla (“Mountain of the Pot”) and Cerro del Yutah (“Ute Mountain”). The latter is named for its association with a nomadic tribe that ranged in today’s Valle San Luis of Colorado, just north of Taos and farther west. The name was learned by the Spanish from the Tewa and gave rise to the place-name Utah.
Not far from Ute Mountain is the town of Questa, a name bestowed in 1883 on the local post office. The village’s traditional name is San Antonio del Río Colorado (“St. Anthony of the Red River”). But Cuesta with a c means “slope” or “upslope,” and this meaning is said to be associated with the efforts of Don Francisco Laforet in 1829 to settle along the river; he found greater safety from nomadic raiders upon a low ridge.
Up the Río Colorado, today’s Red River, is the town of Red River, which was called Red River City up until the 1930s. The canyon it sits in was examined by miners from nearby Elizabethtown perhaps around 1870. By 1882 the Aztec and California Placer Companies were operating sawmills just downriver. Three brothers — Sylvester, Orin and Jerome Mallette from Fort Garland, Colorado — homesteaded at today’s town site in 1892. They were bought out by an entrepreneur named E. I. Jones from Colorado Springs two years later. He organized what would become today’s town, which attracts tourists looking for a convenient immersion into the Old West, winter skiing and a respite from summer heat.
Climbing over Red River Pass, one enters the Moreno Valley. Some locals suspect that the name needs a tilde (Valle Moreño) but agree that the valley was named after the inhabitants of Mora, to the southeast, who used this vast grassy mountain valley to pasture sheep. Some 8 miles to the north is Valle Vidal, a beautiful 4½-mile-long high country meadow filled with wildlife. The name, found here and there in the region, derives from an unknown Hispanic New Mexican. Some sources erroneously translate the name as “Valley of Abundant Life.” The valley drains into Comanche Creek, which runs through another lovely grassy valley before joining the Río de la Costilla (“River of the Rib”), so named for a broad curve near the end of its course. During the 18th century, the Comanches staged large and deadly raids throughout the region. But eventually a peace treaty was made and the Comanches became regular trading partners with Hispanic and Pueblo inhabitants.
Elizabethtown was laid out on paper in 1868 and became the first incorporated town in New Mexico and the first seat of Colfax County. The boomtown’s name was initially Virginia City, after the Nevada mining town, but one town founder, John W. Moore, eventually applied his daughter’s name to it and it stuck. Gold was extracted from deposits of gravel in almost every nearby creek. Some of it was unearthed with water from the remarkable 41-mile-long Big Ditch, diverted from the Red River and sprayed on the gravelly hillsides using large high-pressure hoses. By 1875, “E-town” was in decline as the gold played out. Later, a new way to dredge gold briefly renewed life here, but a 1903 fire sealed the decline.
Returning to Taos requires a climb out of the Moreno Valley through Puerto del Palo Flechado, or “Pass of the Arrow-Pierced Wood.” Although this gap in the chain of mountains was the easiest thoroughfare through them, it nevertheless was a steep and difficult route. Its name is said to have arisen when travelers chanced upon a rotten log shot full of Apache arrows. Below the pass is the Valle Escondido (“Hidden Valley”). A narrow canyon called Cañón Fernando de Taos channels the traveler along the Río Fernando de Taos and below the mountain chain of Sierra Don Fernando.
This brings us to an explanation of the repeated local use of the name Fernando. During the late 1600s, the Spanish established a few farms and ranches in the vicinity of Taos, on what was then the extreme northern settlement of the inland Spanish Empire. Among the settlers was Don Fernando de Chávez. During an insurrection of the Pueblo people, the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, Chávez and his family were killed. But the Spanish and Pueblo peoples reestablished neighborly relations after 1696, and Taos was resettled. Chávez was remembered when Cristóbal de la Serna petitioned in 1710 for a grant of land and with his entourage developed the village known as Don Fernando de Taos, using the respectful title don.
Initially, members of the Spanish community lived within Taos Pueblo itself because of their common need of defense against the Comanches, and in 1795 there were still some Spanish residents in Taos Pueblo. But eventually, the Hispanic colonists moved just outside the pueblo and established the town of Taos. The rich soil so abundant in the Taos area lends itself to corn, beans and squash, despite a short growing season of about 140 days. A shared interest in agriculture, village life, trade, protection from enemies and adaptation to the environment has kept the communities of the areas’s Hispanos and Pueblo Indians close and unified, yet separate and distinct, ever since.
Roberto H. Valdez is a native New Mexican whose ancestors settled here in 1598. He holds a master’s degree in geography, with an emphasis on human-environment interaction, from the University of New Mexico and is currently a history and geography instructor at Northern New Mexico College in Española.