The Crestone Eagle, April 2008:

Crestone Peak or Kit Carson Mountain?
What is the correct name of that big flat-topped peak?

by Keno

For over 100 years in Crestone, there has been confusion over what the real name of the main mountain above town is. Perhaps miscommunication between the town and the U.S. government is why most locals don’t seem to know what the official name of this beautiful mountain really is.

So, what is its real name? Crestone Peak? Kit Carson Peak? Challenger Point? Columbia Point? Something else? Well, officially since 1970 the 14,165’ mountain is named “Kit Carson Mountain” (it was officially named “Kit Carson Peak” from 1906 thru 1969), even if most locals don’t care for that name, nor call it that. Two of its three peaks are officially named “Challenger Point” and “Columbia Point”—named after the two doomed space shuttles. What might be a surprise to many is that the highest peak up there has no official name at all. All of this info comes from the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN).

It also needs to be understood that the nearby mountains, Crestone Needles, Crestone Peak and Broken Hand Peak, are referred to by the BGN as one feature. They were officially named “The Three Tetons” in 1906; then in 1969 the name was officially changed to “The Crestone Peaks”.

Nobody seems to know for sure when all of this confusion first started about what Kit Carson Mountain’s real name was. According to Lou Yost, Executive Secretary of the BGN, their body has rendered two decisions on Kit Carson Mountain in regard to what the name really is. They first looked into this in 1906, but the details of that decision are very sketchy. It appears in 1906 that the BGN was asked to determine if the official name of the feature was “Kit Carson Peak” or “Frustum Peak” (yet nothing was noted about it being called “Crestone Peak”, even though almost all of the locals called it that back then) and the BGN ruled that it was “Kit Carson Peak”.

During field work to revise its maps in the late 1960s, a U.S. Geological Survey employee was supposedly told by the then mayor of Crestone, Earl Williams, among others, that the entire massif containing three peaks was referred to by local residents as “Kit Carson Mountain” and the locals did not discern between the peaks. In 1970, after reviewing the evidence, the BGN revised its description to reflect local use for the whole massif and officially declared the name to be “Kit Carson Mountain”.

Speaking to a few old timers who have lived in Crestone either their entire lives or most of their lives, all of them agreed—adamantly, I’ll add—that the mountain was always called “Crestone Peak”, and all strongly dispute the findings that everybody in town called the mountain “Kit Carson Mountain’” back in the late 1960s.

“We always called it Crestone Peak,” says long time resident Jim Hollmer. Bob King, another old timer who lived here his entire life, agreed, noting that he first heard the name “Kit Carson” used in the 1940s over at the old Crestone schoolhouse. But King insists “The locals always referred to it as Crestone Peak and never called it by that other name at any time.” King, upon hearing what the BGN’s 1969 report claims, states: “Somebody put words in the mayor’s mouth!”

He may be correct. Local John Hayes, who is the late Williams’ stepson, flat out said, “There is no way my dad ever said that!” “He called it Crestone Peak,” and he added that his grandparents, who moved to Crestone in 1900, even back then called it Crestone Peak and nothing else.

Willie McDowell, another lifetime Crestonian, recalls back around the early 1950s when this on-going conflict with the name was festering (yet again!), then mayor Jack Harlan had a letter written up, addressed to, as he put it, “whatever agency” at that time that wanted to change the name to Kit Carson. “Harlan had this letter against the name change and everybody in town including myself signed it,” said McDowell. Yost did comment that, “We did receive some correspondence in the late 1940s and early 1950s expressing disapproval of the rumored proposals to change (the then named) ‘Kit Carson Peak’ to ‘Crestone Peak”’and vice versa, but the BGN’s staff had never received any such proposals.”

Then there is the book Drillin’ Loadin’ and Firin’, by Gladys Sisemore. This book, published in 1982, is written about the old-timers of Crestone, and talks in detail about the Colorado Mountain Club wanting to change the name of Crestone Peak to Kit Carson in 1925—and notes all of the local opposition to that move. In an article dated June 18, 1925, the Saguache Crescent confirms this story, and besides noting the strong opposition to the name change, they add that the mountain had “Crestone” in its name “since it was an old landmark for all travelers and explorers coming up the winding Rio Grande to Del Norte.” Yet ironically, and long before 1925, the mountain was already officially named “Kit Carson Peak”, even if none of the locals—nor members of the mountain club—knew of this!

So it is unclear as to when the problem in town involving the name came about. King said he heard years ago that the name “Kit Carson” came from relatives of Carson who lived in Alamosa. “That’s the story I heard back in the late 1940s,” said King. There is also the suggestion that the name was changed by the BGN by accident back in the early 1900s, and the mistake was never corrected; however, there is no record of such an event, according to the BGN. It has been suggested by others that Native Americans had something to do with this, since they, like other locals, dislike the man the mountain was named after and think of him only as an Indian killer and war criminal.

One thing that is clear, the mountain had “Crestone” in its name at one time, as an old Hayden Geographic Survey (from which the BGN and US Geographic Survey evolved) map from 1864 clearly shows Kit Carson Peak well east of its present location, with a mountain just named “Crestone” where Kit Carson Mountain is located today.

To be honest, back in November of last year when I was first asked to write an article on this subject, I had no clue what this would blossom into. An official proposal, which I started in late December 2007, has been accepted by the BGN. It suggests changing the name of Kit Carson Mountain to “Mount Crestone”. With this new proposal, the current Crestone Peak and other surrounding peaks would remain named as is. The town of Crestone in their last council meeting on March 10 voted 9-0 to sign on as co-proponents to the name change proposal, with at least 2 of the 3 current Saguache County Commissioners, Sam Pace and Linda Joseph, supporting the name change. It is expected to take the BGN several more months before any decision is made on this proposal.

True, most locals who want to see the name change would rather see it just called “Crestone Peak”, but this leads to two problems with the BGN. First, the BGN is very technical, and they have pointed out that the present Kit Carson Mountain is not a peak, but a mountain, and they no longer will name a mountain, a peak. Second, if it was changed to “Crestone Peak”, then the current Crestone Peak would need a name change, and they feel all of that change would become too confusing. They seem more responsive to this proposal using the name Mount Crestone. The locals I’ve spoken to about this new name seem happy with it, as long as “Crestone” is officially in the name, as that seems important to most folks.

As far as naming the top peak “Tranquility Point”, the name reflects the town and the (San Luis) Valley down below it. “If the town was named after one of the local mountains, why not have one of the other mountains up there named after something that reflects the Valley?” says local Jackie Goodhart.

The thing is, the town of Crestone was named after the mountain above town, which, regardless of what the government calls it, has been called Crestone Mountain/Peak by the locals in the Valley since at least the 1860s. Cresta in Spanish means crest or comb (of birds), and the ending on shows great size, hence, creston or the anglicized Crestone would mean big cockscomb, which the big mountain does resemble; but the official Crestone Peak doesn’t look that way. Many locals feel that alone shows proof that the mountain had to have had the name “Crestone” in it at one point in the past.

So perhaps now, in 2008, our government will finally recognize this problem and change the name to something close to what the people of the greater Crestone area have been calling the mountain for well over 100 years now. Stay tuned!


Kit Carson—good guy or bad guy?

by Keno

Who was the man that our main mountain over Crestone is named after? Christopher Houston “Kit” Carson was born in Madison County, KY, on December 24, 1809. Most of his upbringing was in Missouri, where his family moved when he was a child. At 15 he ran away from home and headed west, ending up in Santa Fe, NM where he started working as a trapper in the Rocky Mountains. By 1835 he killed his first man, a Native American, while coming to the aid of a friend. Around that time he became a guide to help survey the West.

So was Carson really a cold blooded killer of Indians, or a friend to them? Was he a war hero or a war criminal? It really depends on who you want to believe. His first two wives were both Native Americans. Some Indian tribes called him “Father Kit”, but other tribes hated him.

There are many other interesting stories about Carson, the only illiterate general in U.S. military history, yet he could speak several native languages. Some claim his actions saved various Indian tribes from extinction, yet others say he was cruel, brutal, and nothing but a heartless killer.

It seems that Carson had two sides to him. One thing for sure was that he was a man of his times, and he never disobeyed an order, which in turn might have been his downfall and why he was held responsible for the deaths of thousands of Native Americans.

Most of his problems stemmed from his carrying out orders to relocate the Navajo in 1863. Carson’s treatment of them was harsh. He instituted a scorched earth policy, burning Navajo fields and homes and confiscating or killing their livestock. Carson rounded up and took prisoner every Navajo he could find. In January, 1864, Carson sent his men into Canyon de Chelly to attack the last Navajo stronghold. The Navajo were forced to surrender after he ordered the destruction of their livestock and food supplies. In the spring of 1864, 8,000 Navajo men, women and children were forced to march over 300 miles to Fort Sumner, NM. The Navajos called this “The Long Walk” and many of them died along the way, or during the next four years of imprisonment. Carson later felt he made a major mistake in carrying out the orders to drive all of the Navajo, and other tribes, from their lands and homes.

Kit Carson never lived in Colorado, but he did die here from an aneurysm on May 13, 1868, in Fort Lyon, Colorado. He was 59 years old.