Names of the Northern Realm By Roberto H. Valdez | Photographs by Chris Dahl-Bredine
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.
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A portion of the Wild Rivers Recreation Area looking north bisected by the Río Grande Gorge north of Taos.
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