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Frémont’s Folklore: Or the Naming of the Green Sevier, and Virgin Rivers, Revisited

Frémont’s Folklore: Or the Naming of the Green, Sevier, and Virgin Rivers, Revisited

In the spring 1961 issue of Utah Historical Quarterly, Rufus Wood Leigh argued “that the names of the Green, Sevier, and Virgin rivers have their genesis in these original Spanish names respectively: Rio Verde, Rio Severo, and Rio de la Virgen.”1 Leigh contended that the then-current explanations for the name derivations “are the sort of stuff of which folklore is made-up,” and he sought to credit the names with the Spanish and Mexicans who first encountered the rivers.2 But in trying to correct the past, Leigh relied on another source of “folklore”—John Charles Frémont.3 Prior to the publication of Frémont’s 1845 report of his first two western expeditions and his 1848 memoir written after his third expedition, others had published maps and narratives depicting and naming the subject rivers, but Frémont’s were the first that were widely dispersed, and it was the names on his maps and narratives that survive to this time. Lingering with the names, however, are also Frémont’s assertions about Spanish origins—assertions that, upon closer review, were unauthenticated and likely incorrect.

There are indeed a few rivers in Utah whose names are undoubtably of Spanish origin, notably the Colorado, but also the San Juan, Santa Clara, and San Rafael, among others. The Spanish Fork River was not named by but for the Spanish Fathers Atanasio Dominguéz and Silvestre Vélez de Escalante. No documentation suggests that the Spanish called the Green River “Rio Verde.” “Sevier” is likely not derived from a Spanish word, and “Virgin” either had an Anglo origin or was a corruption of another currently unidentified word. As such, the following analysis provides a corrective to Leigh’s conclusions.

Leigh’s choice of analyzing the Green, Sevier, and Virgin Rivers in one article was prophetic; the connections between their names are stronger than Frémont’s assertion of Spanish origins. Both the Green and Virgin Rivers—tributaries of the Colorado—were confused by early explorers with the Sevier, whose waters were confined to the Great Basin. This confusion, documented on early nineteenth-century maps, had been sorted out by Anglo explorers more than fifteen years prior to Frémont’s explorations, but until Frémont tentatively sorted out the geography and names on his maps and reports, it was not widely known. However, Frémont added his own inaccuracies, leading to new myths.

This treatise is not meant to be an exhaustive dissertation of all the past names of the rivers, but an examination of the origins of the current names. By so doing I present new information and correct longstanding assumptions. The history of these three Utah rivers suggests just how complicated toponymy, or the study of place names, can be.

Green River

Before diving into the origin of the name Green River, some historical geography is in order. The existence of the Colorado River was well known to the Colonial Spanish, as it flowed between Mexico City and their missions along the California coast. It was called Colorado because of the large amount of red sediment it once carried (now mostly trapped behind the Glen Canyon and Hoover dams). In 1777 the Dominguéz party, in an attempt to find an overland route between Santa Fe and California, forded it at the “Crossing of the Fathers” in the deep and rugged Glen Canyon. By the name Father Escalante (the chronicler of the party) gave it, El Rio Grande de los Coninas, the expedition members apparently did not recognize the river as the Colorado. But by the time the expedition cartographer, Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco, drew his maps, he had made the connection and called it Rio Colorado, putting together the first pieces of the enigma of the Colorado River system. The Colorado River basin, with its deep canyon gorges, stymied holistic exploration. Explorers saw only parts of the vast watershed and gave them their own names. As such, until early in the twentieth century, the headwaters of the Colorado River did not originate in Colorado. Instead of having a contiguous name for the river from head to mouth, with a separate name for the tributary, the Colorado commenced in southeastern Utah at the confluence of the Grand River, which heads in Colorado, and the Green River, with its headwaters in Wyoming.

Map of the Green, Sevier, and Virgin Rivers, with the course of the imagined Buenaventura River. Map by Sheri Wysong.

In 1921 Edward Taylor, a U.S. senator from Colorado, was determined to ensure that his state received credit for originating the headwaters of the river that shared its name, despite the fact that the longer Green River, with its larger drainage basin, would more logically be considered its head. Upon Taylor’s initiative, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution to change the name of the Grand River to the Colorado River. The Green River was left with the lessor status as tributary.4

In late 1811, a party of sixty Astorians, at least half of whom had been recruited in St. Louis, having crossed the continental divide at Union Pass in Wyoming, dropped into the headwaters of the Green River.8 The party then moved on to eastern Idaho to Fort Henry, named for Andrew Henry of the Missouri Fur Company. Henry had abandoned the fort several weeks earlier and was returning to St. Louis. However, if he did not already know of the “Spanish River” when he left, he likely learned of it after members of the Astoria party returned to St. Louis in the ensuing years.

By that time, Spanish traders from New Mexico—lured to Utah Valley by lingering rumors of the riches of Teguayo and the nearby region imparted by the Dominguéz party—were regularly crossing the Green at the ford at present-day Green River, Utah (the “Ute Crossing”). If the traders had had access to Miera’s map, they would have been confused. Upon crossing the Sevier River near present-day Mills, Utah, Escalante questioned whether the river was the San Buenaventura, the name given to the Green River, which the expedition had crossed in the Uintah Basin near present-day Jensen.9 Despite this reservation, when Miera drew his maps the Green was depicted as flowing southwest, becoming the Sevier. Having pieced together the puzzle of the Colorado, he created a new one for the Green. Miera drew several copies of his map, but they were never published or widely available. However, in 1803 and 1804, the same years that Lewis and Clark were looking for the Northwest Passage, Alexander von Humboldt was exploring Mexico, including a short foray north of Santa Fe. It was either in Santa Fe or Mexico City that he copied a Miera map onto his own Map of New Spain, which he published sometime thereafter. By 1810, cartographers were borrowing from Humboldt’s geography on widely distributed maps.

By 1824 Taos trappers were journeying to the middle reaches of the river in present-day northern Utah and Colorado and calling it the Green, as evidenced by an article published in the April 19, 1825, edition of the Missouri Intelligencer of an account of William Huddart, a member of a trapping party led by Etienne Provost. “On the 24th of August [1824] he, in company with fourteen others, left Taos for the purpose of trapping fur beaver, and traveled for 30 days. On Green River (probably Rio Colorado of the West).”10 Early that same year, a party led by Jedediah Smith was guided to the upper reaches of the “Seeds Kee Dee.” Smith relayed the information back to his employer, William Henry Ashley, in St. Louis.

Ashley happened to be partnered with Andrew Henry, and they probably surmised that Smith had found the Spanish River of the Astorians. No existing maps fit the description of the Astorians and Smith. Any map available to Ashley and his men published in the several years leading up to his travels depicted the fabled river Buenaventura leading to the Pacific. Ashley determined to solve the puzzling path of the Spanish River, or Seeds Kee Dee. On April 22, 1825, three days before publication of the Missouri Intelligencer article, Ashley and several others put in on the Green River near its confluence with the New Fork River in Wyoming. They steered “bull boats” through the rapids of Flaming Gorge and Lodore Canyon, giving up the trip near the mouth of Nine Mile Canyon in Utah after determining that the river was entering the rugged Desolation Canyon. From there they made their way back upstream to the mouth of Ashley’s Creek, where they had stashed a cache a few days earlier. Preparing to travel overland to the

Snake River country, they encountered Taos trapper Etienne Provost. Provost likely confirmed that what he called the Green (or, reflecting his French roots, the Verté) River was the “Rio Colorado of the West.”11 In his journal entry of June 7, 1825, Ashley changed his designation from the Seeds Kee Dee to the Green. A year and some months later, Jedediah Smith reached the Colorado at the mouth of the Virgin. On July 12, 1827, Smith wrote a letter to William Clark, in which he called the Colorado the “Seeds Keeden,” proving that Ashley had solved Miera’s puzzle and had passed the information on to Smith.12

With Kit Carson as guide, Frémont and his men first explored the Wyoming headwaters of the Green River in 1842; at one point they were ten miles east of the river at the Upper Green River Rendezvous Site. On August 10, the expedition camped on what is now called Boulder Lake, the creek flowing from which he described as “the head of the third New Fork, a tributary to Green River, the Colorado of the West.”13 Frémont focused on exploring the Wind River range to the east, then returned east having never seen the main branch of the river. He was in the eastern states only long enough to prepare for another expedition to the west the following spring, when he crossed the Green at a point further downstream in Wyoming. At this location Frémont reported:

August 15 [1843] . . . This is the emigrant road to Oregon, which veers much to the southward, to avoid the mountains about the western heads of the Green River, the Rio Verde of the Spanish . . . August 16 . . . The refreshing appearance of the broad river, with its timbered shores and green wooded islands in contrast to its dry sandy plains, probably obtained for it the name of Green river, which was bestowed on it by the Spaniards who first came into this country. . . . Lower down, below Brown’s Hole to the Southwards, the river runs through lofty chasms, walled in by precipices of red rock. . . . I have heard it called by the Indian refugees from the California settlements the Rio Colorado.14

Frémont’s cartographer, Charles Preuss, also referred to the Colorado as such in his diary.15 On Frémont’s return to the east the next spring, upon crossing the Green at Brown’s Hole, he called it the Colorado.16 He returned west again in 1845, this time crossing the Green further downstream at the mouth of the White River. Frémont offered no elaboration on the naming of the river on this trip or on a subsequent trip when he crossed the Green at the Ute Crossing. Frémont’s assertion that the Spanish had named it “Rio Verde” is limited to the August 1843 passages. Frederick Samuel Dellenbaugh wrote of those passages in his 1913 book, Frémont in ‘49, that Frémont’s assertion “is the only statement I know of that Green River was once called Rio Verde.”17

Photo of the Green River in the vicinity of Frémont’s August 1843 crossing. Photograph by U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management.

Why, then, did the Taos trappers and then Ashley call it the Green River? Leigh, more focused on who named it rather than why, only touches on the probable reason in his 1961 article: the water appears green. This phenomenon was documented by William Octavius Owen, U.S. Mineral Surveyor for Wyoming and U.S. Examiner of Surveys for the Department of Interior in the late nineteenth century:

My own opinion is that the name was given to this stream from the intense and beautiful color of its water, and not, as many writers have claimed, from its verdant banks which afford such lively contrast with the desert country through which it runs for many miles.18 Now, while it is generally known that nearly all bodies of water, under certain conditions, will give forth a greenish hue, it must be understood that these conditions are not at all essential when viewing this particular stream; for the water of Green River is intrinsically green. No matter under what conditions it may be viewed the water of this stream, at least as far as that portion of it above the Green River Lakes is concerned, will be found to possess this color.19

Owen goes on to assert that the hue’s source is erosion of soapstone deposits along its banks.

Despite Frémont’s implication that the Spanish and Mexicans had explored as far north as the Oregon Trail crossing, their known familiarity with the Green River was, with the exception of the Dominguéz party and perhaps a few others shortly after, limited to the Ute Crossing, where sediment from several tributaries had altered the green color, rendering it brownish when observed from its banks. What then did the Spanish and Mexicans call it? Documentation is scanty. In a 1826 letter to his brother (see endnote 7), Potts described his 1824 trip over the South Pass: “we took a more westerly direction over high rolling prairies to a small branch of a considerable river, known to us by the name of Seet Kadu, and to Spaniard, by Green River.” But Potts, who undoubtedly heard this information from Ashley, may have equated the Taos Trappers with the Mexican traders further south. The Spanish and Mexicans may well have called it Rio Verde, but there are many other possibilities beyond the scope of this article.

Sevier River

The name “A Va Pa Noquint” is similar enough to the Uinta Ute name for the Green River, “Piah nut cuit,” that the cartographer Miera may have heard both names and believed they referred to the same river, leading him to depict the Green and the Sevier as one. Branch’s “Pooneca” is also likely to have derived from this name.

Other than assuming a Spanish origin of the name of the Green River, Frémont had no role in naming it, but he did with the Sevier. Leigh discussed the research of Joseph J. Hill, who found what is probably the first written account of the name that would ultimately be spelled Sevier.20 In 1921, the Hispanic American Historical Review published an article by Hill that discusses an 1813 incident after a Spanish trading expedition reportedly traveled to Utah Valley.21

The Spanish expedition followed what was probably an established route down the Spanish Fork River to Timpanogos (Utah) Lake. Since new laws passed by the Spanish prevented them from trading for slaves, which angered local tribal bands (probably Utes), the Spanish party continued on to “Rio Sebero,” encountering it at some point where it flowed north from the Sevier Valley. They then met up with a San Pitch Ute, who offered to take the expedition to trade with the “bearded” Indians encountered thirty-seven years earlier by the Dominguéz party near Clear Lake (south of present-day Delta). This would be about forty miles (as the crow flies) due west of the “Sebero,” which is consistent with the three days the expedition traveled west to reach the band. There they met with more hostility, returned to the “Sebero” where they had left most of their horses, and traveled back to the “Grand” River where waiting Utes demanded they trade for slaves. When they reached Santa Fe with the slaves, they were taken into custody, and all wrote affidavits to the events of the expedition, documenting the use of the name “Sebero” and “Grand.”22

The Sevier River in the vicinity of the Dominguez expedition ford. The river would have been low in late fall of 1776 when the expedition crossed it, but given that a series of dams upstream have significantly altered the flow since that time, the river was probably not this low. The Frémont expedition passed through here in the spring of 1844 when the river was at flood stage, and Frémont and his men used rafts to cross. One man died here in a firearm accident and was buried along the banks. The last documented siting of the grave was in 1849 by Mormon pioneers on their way to Southern California. Photograph by Sheri Wysong.

Hill’s article also discusses the 1829 expedition of Antonio Armijo. Armijo left Santa Fe with an expedition of sixty men, determined to reach California more than a half century after the aborted attempt by the Dominguéz party. According to Hill, having crossed the Colorado River from south to north at the Crossing of the Fathers, he came upon “Rio Severo.”23 Sebero could be easily corrupted to Severo, since “b” and “v” are pronounced similarly in Spanish. Hill, and subsequently Leigh, assumed this was the case and tried to devise a route that would fit Armijo’s belief that he was on the Sevier— an improbable path from the Colorado to the headwaters of the Sevier.24 They then followed the Sevier to Sevier Lake, then south, presumably across the Escalante Desert to Mountain Meadows along the future path of the Old Spanish Trail to the Virgin River.25

Hill devised this circuitous route to try to explain how Armijo could have encountered the Sevier River on his journey. But LeRoy R. and Ann W. Hafen, as well as later scholars, have asserted that the river Armijo called Severo was the Virgin, not the Sevier. Armijo either mistook the Virgin River for the one he had heard pronounced as “Severo,” or he gave it his own name.

How could Armijo have confused the south- and west-flowing Virgin with the north-flowing Sevier segment most familiar to traders and explorers of the region? Escalante’s name for the river, “Sulphureo,” may have at some point been confused with “Sebero,” leading to the belief that the two rivers were one. By the time of Armijo’s expedition, the folklore of the Buenaventura had begun to include an outlet from Sevier Lake to the Pacific Coast. That, in addition to confusion about the route of Green River, may have led Armijo to believe that the outlet ran south to the Colorado River. After dropping into the Virgin River canyon near present-day Hurricane and following it downstream, and upon encountering the mouth of La Verkin Creek, Armijo may have assumed he had reached the Sevier.26

Map of Armijo’s proposed route along the Sevier River and around Sevier Lake, as determined by Hill and Leigh. By contrast, Hafen argued that Armijo’s course to the Virgin River was much more southerly. Map by Sheri Wysong.

Leigh defended Hill’s assertion that Armijo was on the Sevier: “It was winter, the high altitude, cold weather, and swift current of the stream conjoined to confirm the fact that he was on the severe, rigorous river, named by predecessors Rio Severo.”27 This passage in Leigh’s article seems to be the origin of the idea that the Sevier, described by a local tribe as a “big, placid river,” was named for its harsh qualities. However, Dellenbaugh’s analysis is more on target: “The Virgin is certainly a river which for almost its entire course from its sources on the ‘Rim of the Basin,’ to the debouchment at the Colorado, fully deserves the name of Severe. The Spaniards, however, named things not so much from their qualities, as from the day on which they saw them.”28 Thus, while “Severo” could be an accurate description of a section of the Virgin River, as a name for either the Virgin or the Sevier, it doesn’t reflect the nature of either river by those who documented the name. However, it makes sense as a derivation of another name. Evidence points to the idea that Sebero was a corruption of the Paiute name for the Sevier. In his 1992 book Southern Paiutes, LaVan Martineau states that Jimmy Timmican, a Paiute probably of the Koosharem band, told him that the Sevier was called the “Mooyai sevee’u,” which, when shortened to “Sevee’’u u,” may have sounded like “Savarah.”29 In the Paiute language, the letter “b” is “often replaced with a ‘v’ sound and sometimes sound[s] halfway between “b” and “v” when used within a word.”30 The “Sanpuchi,” a Ute band, may have pronounced the name slightly differently. The languages are very similar, but one of the differences is that the Ute sometimes put an “r” in their words.31 So “sevee’u may have been pronounced more like “sevee’ ru.” The Paiute/Ute name for the Sevier River could have been heard by the Spanish in 1813 as “Sebero,” and the American mountain men in the 1830s as “Savarah.”

Detail of Warren Angus Ferris’s “Map of the Northwest Fur Country,” with “River Savarah” flowing into “Savarah Lake,” 1836. The map was not published for over a hundred years after Ferris drew it. A publisher in Denver, Colorado, Fred A. Rosenstock, desiring to publish Ferris’s chronicle in book form, found the map in the Ferris family’s possession and published both in 1940. Brigham Young University, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, MSS 1505.

The trapper Warren Angus Ferris spelled it as “Savarah” on the map he drew in 1836. A young man from New York who traveled west in 1830 to join “a trapping, trading hunting expedition,” Ferris returned about five years later and began a serial narrative of his adventures published in a Buffalo weekly newspaper, the Western Literary Messenger, called Life in the Rocky Mountains. Ferris’s map, drawn contemporaneously but not published until 1940, depicted “Savarah River” and “Savarah Lake,” undoubtedly references to the Sevier River and Lake.32 Another source documenting the river’s name as known by mountain men comes from Thomas J. Farnham. On August 12, 1839, Farnham, chronicler of an expedition from Missouri to Oregon, arrived at Fort Davey Crockett at Brown’s Hole, where Frémont later crossed the Green River. During the week Farnham stayed at the fort, he availed himself of geographic information from the hosts and other travelers, and he wrote in his journal: “Between this river (the Colorado) and the Great Salt Lake, there is a stream called Severe River, which rises in the high plateau to the S. E. of the lake, and runs some considerable distance in; a westerly course and terminates in its own lake.”33

After following the Oregon Trail to the Willamette Valley in 1843, the second Frémont expedition turned south through California where they picked up the Old Spanish Trail and began following it eastward. On May 23, 1844, Frémont reported that his party “reached Sevier River . . . The name of this river and lake was an indication of our approach to regions of which our people had been the explorers. It was probably named after some American trapper or hunter, and was the first American name we had met with since leaving the Columbia River.”34

Portion of Thomas J. Farnham’s 1845 Californias map depicting his understanding of the “R. Severe.” Sevier River and Sevier Lake are unnamed in the upper righthand corner.

In his 1848 memoir, Frémont backed off his assertion that Sevier derived from an American name: “Southward from the Utah is another lake of which little more is now known than when Humboldt published his general Map of Mexico. It is the reservoir of a handsome river, about two hundred miles long, rising in the Wasatch mountains, and discharging a considerable volume of water. The river and lake were called by the Spaniards Severo, corrupted by the hunters into Sevier.”35 On his 1843–44 expedition, Frémont had undoubtedly been told Armijo’s name of “Severo” for the Virgin, a name apparently still used by travelers of the Old Spanish Trail, and which could easily be heard as the French surname pronounced “Səvē’ā.” (The river and lake are now pronounced sə-vir’.)36

As to who corrupted Severo into Sevier deserves scrutiny. Frémont’s earlier declaration of a probable American origin may have been an excuse to honor his benefactor, Arkansas Senator Ambrose H. Sevier, who had helped finance Frémont’s western expeditions.37 But by the spring of 1848, when Frémont and his wife Jessie were writing the memoir published later that year and Preuss was finishing their latest map, Sevier had resigned the Senate. In addition, Farnham’s second memoir, published in 1844, had been in circulation long enough that the passage which Leigh quoted in his article—“a river arises which . . . the Mexican Spaniards have named Rio Severe—Severe River”—may have been brought to Frémont’s attention. Frémont changed his previous assertions and honored earlier explorers and geographers, naming the river he had explored on his third expedition the “Humboldt” and attempting to rename the Sevier “Nicolette” for Joseph Nicolette.38 However, by then the 1845 Frémont/Preuss map with the name Sevier had been dispersed too widely; Sevier was the name to survive, and Frémont’s version of Sevier’s origin became the stuff of folklore.

Virgin River

As already established, after the 1776–77 journey of the Dominguéz expedition, Spanish traders from Santa Fe began infiltrating the western Wasatch, referring to the Sevier River as the “Sebero.” After Armijo’s initial journey in 1829 until the Mexican–American War in 1846, Mexicans traveling along the Old Spanish Trail appear to have adopted the derivation “Severo” for the Virgin River. Dellenbaugh’s 1914 analysis of Frémont’s 1845 reports corroborates this: “Frémont says he had been told the Sevier River was a tributary of the Colorado. . . . At some remote time Sevier, or Severe, seems to have been the name applied to the Virgin, probably by Spaniards who traversed the trail in the days of Wolfskill.”39

Another indication that the Virgin was once called Severe comes from Thomas J. Farnham. After leaving Fort Davey Crockett in 1839, Farnham traveled the Oregon Trail to Fort Vancouver. From there he sailed to Hawaii and then back to California. After traveling overland to Mexico proper, he caught a ship to New Orleans in May 1840 and steamed home to Illinois. In 1841 he published the memoir of the first part of his trip, to his arrival at Fort Vancouver, containing information on the Severe River that he had obtained at Fort Davey Crockett. After the success of that volume, Farnham wrote a memoir of the second part of his travels, where he related his experiences, stories, and observations from the entire expedition.

In the second volume Farnham included the story that Leigh references in his article. However, Farnham’s story of “Rio Severe” deserves a full review:

About four hundred and fifty miles from the mouth of the Colorado, and a short distance north of that stream, a river arises, which, on account of its rough character, the Mexican Spaniards have named Rio Severe—Severe River. Its source is among a small cluster of mountains, where it presents the usual beautiful phenomena of rivulets gathering from different quarters—uniting—increasing—tumbling and roaring, till it reaches the plain, when it sinks into chasms or kenyons, of basalt and trap rocks, and dashes on terribly over fallen precipices for about eighty miles, where it loses itself in the sand. This river was explored by an American trapper, several years ago, under the following circumstances.
He had been hunting beaver for some time among the mountains in which the river rises, with considerable success, and without seeing any Indians to disturb his lonely tranquility. One night, however, when the season was far advanced, a party of the Arapahoes, which had been watching his movements unseen by him, stole all his traps. Thus situated, without the means of continuing his hunt, and being two hundred miles from any trading post where he could obtain a supply, he determined to build a canoe and descend the Rio Severe, in the hope that it might bear him down to the habitable parts of California. . . . Seven days he passed in floating down this stream. Most of its course he found walled-in by lofty perpendicular cliffs, rising several hundred feet high, dark and shining, and making palpable his imprisonment within the barriers of endless solitude. At intervals he found cataracts, down which he passed his boat by means of lines, and then with great labor and hazard, clambered up and down the precipices till he reached the waters below. On these rapids the water was from two to three feet deep, and a hundred yards in width. In the placid sections, the stream was often thirty and forty feet in depth, and so transparent, that the pebbly bottom and the fish swimming near it, were seen, when the sun shone, as distinctly as the like appear in the supposed peerless waters of Lake George. As this man drew near the close of his fifth day’s journeying, the chasms began to disappear, and the country to open into rolling and drifting plains of sand, interspersed with tracts of dark-colored hardpan. About the middle of the seventh day, he came to the sands in which the river was swallowed up, and hauling his shattered boat on shore, explored the country northwest, for the reappearance of the stream. But to no purpose. A leafless dry desert spread away in all directions, destitute of every indication of animal life, breathless and noiseless, a great Edom, in which every vital function was suspended, and where the drifting sands and the hot howling winds warned him that he must perish if he persisted. He therefore left his faithful old boat and made his way back to the mountains, where he lost his traps, and thence travelled to Robidoux’s fort, on the upper waters of the San Juan.40

As noted, Farnham’s description of the Sevier River in the first part of his memoir reflected the river’s true nature. By contrast, the river in this story does not completely describe any particular river in the western United States. Leigh’s assumption that Farnham was writing about the Sevier could be based on the name, but the only descriptive that could be applied to the Sevier is that it originates in the mountains and forms from numerous small streams— hardly a unique attribute for a river. But with a little imagination, one could ascribe the description to the Virgin during spring floods. A sudden turn of the weather could quickly melt the snowpack, causing the river to run high for several days. When the snow was gone the

river would virtually disappear. Had the adventurous trapper run the high water through the gorge and emerged as the flood was dissipating, the story could be attributed to the Virgin—if one dismisses the idea that the Arapaho had stolen his traps, that the water was transparent at thirty to forty foot depths, and that Roubidoux’s fort was situated on the San Juan River.41 As anyone who has traveled down the Virgin River Gorge on Interstate 15 may have observed, the Virgin does diminish considerably after descending the gorge. Historically the Virgin’s flow would have been revived with the introduction of water from the Muddy River (which might have explained why the unfortunate trapper was looking for the river to the northwest). Currently, the confluence of the Virgin and Muddy Rivers is submerged by Lake Mead.

After publication of his second volume, Farnham appears to have collaborated with the cartographer Sidney Morse to create the Map of the Californias, published in Morse’s 1845 North American Atlas. 42 The “Severe,” as described by the story of the trapper, appears on the map but stops short of the Colorado River. The Sevier River also appears on the map but is unlabeled.

Dellenbaugh wrote in a footnote of his discussion of Frémont’s expedition: “I heard long ago that in some manner the original Spanish names of the Sevier and the Virgin got exchanged; that the present Virgin should be the Severe and vice versa. See ante page 22, where Captain Young expected to find the Severe rising from the sands.43 Possibly this idea was founded on the name Severe having been also attached to what we now call the Virgin River.”

Dellenbaugh had it almost right, except for the idea that the “Rio Virgen” was the original Sevier. There is no indication that the Sevier River was ever called the Virgin. Since Dellenbaugh’s book was published several years prior to Hill’s discovery in the Spanish archives of the 1813 incident on the “Rio Sebero,” Dellenbaugh could not have known that Sebero was the original Sevier. What actually seems to have happened is that after Armijo’s 1829 expedition, both rivers were called a derivation of Severe—the St. Louis trappers continuing to call the Sevier River by the derivation, and the Taos trappers and Mexican traders on the Old Spanish Trail referring to it as the Virgin. Farnham’s stories are compelling evidence for this: his multiple references to “Severe River” actually described two separate rivers known by that name.

No source prior to 1844 refers to the Virgin River as the Virgin or Virgen. Leigh cited to Will C. Barnes’s Arizona Place Names, published in 1935, as suggesting that Escalante had named and spelled it “Rio de la Virgen,” but this is erroneous. Escalante’s name for the river, Rio Sulfureo, doubtless derived from the hot and sulphurous water that the Dominguéz party encountered near La Verkin. Barnes appears to have taken liberal license with Frémont’s name, both in assuming that it went back to the Dominguéz party and that it was called “Rio de la Virgen.” Although Frémont defined “Rio Virgen” as “River of the Virgin” in his 1845 report, nowhere did he call it “Rio de la Virgen.” This is telling, because he used prepositions and articles in other Spanish names he documented (Rio de los Angeles, Las Vegas de Santa Clara).

Where, then, did Frémont get the idea that the Virgin River was called “Rio Virgen”? When his expedition reached the Virgin River on May 8, 1844, they thought the name of the river was Sevier. Frémont stated as much in his report, corroborated by Preuss’s diary entry. Two weeks later, by May 23, when they reached the Sevier River after traveling north, they were aware that it was “actually” the name of that river. What happened in those fifteen days?

Joseph Walker, best known for his explorations of the Sierra Nevada, had reportedly encountered Sevier Lake in 1840. Walker ascended the Sevier River, presumably following a path similar to that of the 1852 Smith/Steele expedition, as documented by Frederick M. Huchel in his article about the 1852 Rio Virgin Expedition. That path ascended the main fork of the Sevier to its head, over the summit to the head of the east fork of the Virgin, and to the confluence of the Virgin’s east and north forks.44 Walker may have determined that this river had never been exploited by a beaver trap, thus a “virgin” river. The Wolfskill/Yount party, finding the St. George area to be enchanting, with deer elk and antelope unperturbed by the sight of humans, may have called it virgin for a similar reason. When Walker joined Frémont’s expedition in 1844 during the fifteen-day lapse, he may have provided the name virgin and told Frémont that the Sevier River was the one they had yet to meet.

If the name provided to Frémont actually was or meant “virgin” when he wrote his report several months later, the fact that he had been in the territory of the Catholic Spanish/Mexicans may have led him (or his wife) to assert that “virgin” was a noun rather than an adjective.

Another possibility is that Frémont was given a Spanish name that was corrupted to Virgin. Leigh included a clue in his book, Five Hundred Utah Place Names, in his partial entry for La Verkin Creek:

The name La Verkin was extant ‘when the first Americans began exploring the Rio Virgen region’ (Deseret News, April 3, 1852). This creek must have been named by Spanish explorers or traders from Santa Fe early in the 19th century, but the correct Spanish name was not absorbed into American toponymy; the name was badly corrupted. There is no reference to its origin or significance in historic literature. Corruption of Spanish and Indian names was almost the rule rather than the exception in early American times in this region. As the creek is a tributary of Rio de la Virgen and the name of a tributary sometimes follows the prototype name, it is most probable that La Verkin is a shortened and corrupted form of the name of the mother stream: Rio de la Virgen. There is no k in Spanish; but the k sound in Verkin is quite similar to the Spanish g in Virgen.45

The April 3 article Leigh referenced was a letter to the Deseret News written by infamous Mormon pioneer, John D. Lee, who had led an expedition of Parowan settlers searching for a suitable wagon road to California. Lee stated: “We left our wagons and on foot and horseback traveled down ash creek over sand hills the distance of 12 miles which brought us near its junction with the Levearskin river, so called by the spaniards, a stream about as large again as ash creek some cottonwood and ash timber along it.”46 Given the current name of the creek, Leigh would understandably assume that the “Levearskin” Lee spoke of was La Verkin Creek. But another letter published in the Deseret News on August 7, 1852, refutes that assumption. As discussed in the Huchel article, another Parowan party led by John C. L. Smith and John Steele (with many members, including Lee, having comprised the earlier party) struck east to the Sevier River. Ascending the Sevier to its head, they dropped down to the East Fork of the Virgin, as Smith and Steele documented in their letter: “We . . . crossed another ridge to the South and came to the headwaters of the levier skin thence down the levier skin.”47 “Levearskin,” or “Levier skin,” refers to the Virgin River.48

Leigh’s analysis that “the k sound in Verkin is quite similar to the Spanish g in Virgen” requires a hard look. Pronounced correctly in Spanish, “Virgen” sounds like “Beer-hehn” or “Veer-hehn.”49 Leigh also omitted an explanation for the “s” in Levearskin. Whatever word(s) Lee, Smith, and Steele were trying to spell, it was not pronounced “La Virgen.”

Lee’s assertion that the “Spaniards” called the Virgin “Levearskin” was corroborated in a letter to Brigham Young after Lee’s first trip to the Virgin: “I have been gathering all the information that I could relative to the county [country?] from the Spaniards and Walker [Wakara] and have taken a map from them.”50 But as previously demonstrated, Mexicans probably called the Virgin west of this point “Rio Severe.” Regardless, “Levearskin” is too close to “La Virgin” to dismiss as the possible name that Frémont documented. It may be that someone speaking Spanish called it “La Vearskin.” A lesson from Potts’s name for the Green River could also be applied here. “Levear” or “Levier” looks an awful lot like “Sevier.” Just as “Seet kadu” could be corrupted to “Leichadu,” could “Severo” have been corrupted to “Levear Skin” and further corrupted to “La Virgin?” As with the Green River, someday the missing piece of this puzzle may be discovered.

As demonstrated by the naming of the Green, Sevier, and Virgin Rivers, determining the origins of place names often requires solving a

complex puzzle. Although Frémont’s reports and maps were widely distributed and many of the place names he documented or derived “stuck,” they do not tell the whole story. Relying on one source, instead of peeling back the layers of folklore sometimes associated with place names, can deny the true sources credit for their historical contributions. Uncovering available information and performing linguistic analysis can restore that credit. What is certain is that our understanding will continue to evolve in light of new evidence and reevaluation.


1. Rufus Wood Leigh, “The Naming of the Green, Sevier and Virgin Rivers,” Utah Historical Quarterly 29 (Spring 1961): 137.

2. Leigh’s article was adapted from a more comprehensive work he titled “Indian, Spanish, and Government Survey Place Names of the Great Basin and Colorado Plateaus” that he was presumably writing at the time. His 1964 obituary states that he was the author of Place Names of Colorado River and Plateaus—undoubtedly the same book as was listed in the 1961 article, though an internet search of both titles yielded no results. It appears that the information in his obituary was incorrect, and that the originally planned book had been released as two separate volumes: Five Hundred Utah Place Names (1961), and Nevada Place Names: Their Origin and Significance (1964).

3. Frémont’s writings include his report of his first two expeditions, published in 1845; Geographical Memoir upon Upper California, published in 1848; and a memoir of his life and travels published in 1887. Leigh’s use in “The Naming of the Green, Sevier and Virgin Rivers” of both Frémont’s life memoir and the 1845 report was superfluous, since Frémont republished the report in his memoirs. This article only references the report.

4. Luke Runyon, “How the ‘Grand’ Became the ‘Colorado’ and What It Says about Our Relationship to Nature,” KUNC, December 20, 2017, https://www.kunc.org /post/how-grand-became-colorado-and-what-it-says -about-our-relationship-nature#stream/0.

5. The Astorians were a party of explorers sent by John Jacob Astor to find an overland route to the mouth of the Columbia River. In an 1821 account, Wilson Price Hunt claimed that since the Indians said the river ran from Spanish territory to the Gulf of California, they called it Spanish River. Wilson Price Hunt, “Voyage of Mr. Hunt and His Companions,” journal entry dated September 16, 1811, in New Annals of Voyages: Geography and History, Vol. 10 (Paris: J. B. Eyris and Malte- Brun, 1821).

6. The letters of Daniel Potts, employee of Ashley and Smith, reveal an interesting evolution of this name. In a July 16, 1826, letter to his brother, he called it “Seet Kadu.” Then, in another letter to his brother almost exactly a year later, he spelled it as “Luchkadee.” The same day (July 8) he wrote a letter to a “Dr Lukens” in which he called it the “Leichadu.” Potts stated in that letter that his exploratory group ascended the East Fork of the Sevier, then “we went east across the snowy mountain above mentioned to a small river which discharges into the Leichadu.” This river was the Paria, which drains to the Colorado. Jerry Bagley, The First Known Man in Yellowstone: The True Story of Daniel Trotter Potts (Old Faithful Eyewitness Press, 2000), 202, 205, 208.

7. The Taos Trappers were Americans, many of French descent, who traveled down the Santa Fe Trail from St. Louis, originally trapping fur in the southern Rocky Mountains of Colorado and New Mexico, then moving north into the Uinta Basin of Utah.

8. Peter Stark, Astoria: Astor and Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire, A Tale of Ambition and Survival on the Early American Frontier (Harper Collins, 2015), 131–32.

9. Silvestre Vélez de Escalante, The Dominguéz-Escalante Journal (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1976), 64.

10. LeRoy R. Hafen and Ann W. Hafen, Old Spanish Trail: Sante Fé to Los Angeles, Vol. 1 in The Far West and the Rockies Historical Series, 1820–1875 (Glendale, CA: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1954), 94. The article’s reference to “Rio Colorado of the West” is indicative of the fact that the Colorado was mostly known for its western reaches.

11. Near Westwater Creek is an inscription made by Antoine Roubidoux, also a Taos trapper with French roots who called it “R. Verte.”

12. A. M. Woodbury, “The Route of Jedediah S. Smith in 1826 from the Great Salt Lake to the Colorado River,” Utah Historical Quarterly 29 (Spring 1931): 44. In his memoir, written in 1830–31, Smith described traveling through Castle Valley, recognizing that the east-flowing streams ran to the “Colorado” (Green River). Upon reaching the Colorado at the mouth of the Virgin, he stated: “it could be no other than the Colorado of the west which in the Mountains we call seets-kee-der.” Jedediah S. Smith, The Southwest Expedition of Jedediah S. Smith (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1977), 47, 66. It would be eleven years until a map reflecting this knowledge, although still incomplete, would be published by Albert Gallatin, and another four years before Robert Greenhow published a map drawn by David H. Burr, Northwest Coast of North America and Adjacent Territories, 1840, that the name “Green River” was used. The geography of that region on both maps derived from the now lost maps created by Jedediah Smith, Ashley, and others in 1830–31. Neither Smith nor Ashley had been as far south as the Green’s confluence with the Grand/Colorado and relied on information from Provost. As a consequence, on both this map and his more famous 1839 map, Burr placed the confluence a degree too far north, about at the location of the Ute Crossing.

13. John Charles Frémont, Report of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the Year 1842 and to Oregon and North California in the years 1843–‘44 (Washington, DC: Gales and Seaton, Printers, 1845), 62. The names of the rivers most likely came from Carson who, in the mid-1830s, attended rendezvouses at the site, now a National Historic Landmark.

14. Frémont, Report of the Exploring Expedition, 129.

15. Both Frémont and Preuss kept journals of the expedition, although Preuss’s can be characterized more as a diary.

16. Frémont, Report of the Exploring Expedition, 279.

17. Frederick S. Dellenbaugh, Frémont and ’49 (New York: Putnam, 1914), 133.

18. Owens’s “many writers” probably reflects the wide repetition of Frémont’s 1845 report.

19. Charles G. Coutant, The History of Wyoming, Vol. 1 (Laramie, WY: Chaplin, Spafford & Mathison, 1899), 123.

20. Joseph J. Hill, “The Old Spanish Trail” Hispanic American Historical Review 4, no. 3 (August 1921). Much of this article was republished in Utah Historical Quarterly 30, no. 1 (1930) under the title “Spanish and Mexican Exploration and Trade Northwest from New Mexico into the Great Basin, 1765–1853.”

21. Theonorio, Miguel, et al., Rio Arriba, September 6, 1813. This is document 2511 in Ralph Emerson Twitchell’s Spanish Archives of New Mexico, II, an index to documents that came into the possession of the United States after the Mexican American War and that are archived in Santa Fe, New Mexico. A microfiche copy of the archives is available in the research library of the Utah State Historical Society.

22. The Utah State Historical Society has a microfiche copy of the archives, including the affidavits.

23. This information comes from Armijo’s diary, a translation of which can be found on pages 159–65 of Hafen and Hafen’s Old Spanish Trail.

24. This would be the opposite path of Daniel Potts’ expedition.

25. This expedition by Armijo was excluded from the 1930 article in UHQ, probably because in the ensuing nine years, Hill’s route to the Sevier was the topic of controversy.

26. Later travelers along the north branch of the Old Spanish Trail would have realized that Armijo’s “Severo” could not have been the “Sebero” they left at the head of Circleville Canyon, because they would have had to cross it somewhere in the vicinity of Cedar Valley as it flowed south, but Armijo’s name switch persisted.

27. Leigh, “The Naming of the Green, Sevier and Virgin Rivers,” 141.

28. Dellenbaugh, Frémont and ’49, 256.

29. LaVan Martineau, The Southern Paiutes (Las Vegas, NV: KC Publications, 1992), 184. Mooyai means “to hang down the head,” and Seeve’u is the name of an animal that was seen only once on the banks of the river near Joseph. Martineau speculates on what the animal— described as “large”—may have been, discounting the idea of a buffalo and wondering if a nearby petroglyph of what looks like a mammoth or mastodon may be the source. What seems more likely is that it was a newly re-introduced horse that found its way to the area before the Utes made them a familiar sight.

30. Martineau, xviii. The Ute and Paiute languages are both of Numic derivation and tend to differ in dialects and accents.

31. Martineau, xix.

32. Warren Angus Ferris, Life in the Rocky Mountains: A Diary of Wandering on the sources of the Rivers Missouri, Columbia, and Colorado, 1830–1835, edited by Leroy R. Hafen, with a biography of Ferris by Paul C. Phillips (Denver, CO: The Old West Publishing Company, 1983).

33. Thomas J. Farnham, Travels in the Great Western Prairies the Anahuac and Rocky Mountains and in the Oregon Territory (Wiley and Putnam, 1843), 107.

34. Fremont, Report of the Exploring Expedition, 272. When Frémont first heard the name, Sevier River, he considered it a reference to the Virgin River. “According to the information we had received,” he asserted in the May 4, 1844, entry of his 1845 report, “Sevier River was a tributary of the Colorado, and this [a stream they had come upon, the Muddy River] accordingly, should have been one of it affluents. It proved to be the Rio de los Angeles (River of the Angels) branch of the Rio Virgin. (River of the Virgin).” Frémont, Report of the Exploring Expedition, 266. When the expedition reached the Virgin on May 6, they called it the Sevier, as evidenced in Preuss’s diary. Frémont’s retrospective report reflects their erroneous belief at the time.

35. Frémont, Geographical Memoir, 9.

36. American Heritage College Dictionary (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002), 1270.

37. Alpheus H. Favour, Old Bill Williams, Mountain Man (1936; reprint ed., University of Oklahoma Press, 1962), 167.

38. Frémont could have bestowed the name Nicolette on an unnamed river, such as the Beaver. He seemed determined to both remove the name of Sevier and, after the Mexican American War, reluctant to revert to the Spanish derivative.

39. Frémont unfortunately did not elaborate who had provided the information that the led the expedition to believe the tributary of the Colorado they came upon in early May 1844 was called Severo, but the expedition did encounter a Spanish speaking Indian and a Mexican man and boy on the trail prior to reaching the Virgin. Note that Armijo was Mexican, not Spanish as Dellenbaugh claims. Dellenbaugh, in Frémont and ’49, 255–56, claimed that although Jedediah Smith named the river the Adams River, some have suggested that Smith later renamed it “after one of his men, Thomas Virgin, who was wounded at the battle with the Mohaves and killed by the Umpquas.” In his previous book, Breaking the Wilderness, Dellenbaugh reveals the source for the idea that the Virgin was named for Thomas Virgin: the historian Hiram Chittenden in his 1901 A History of the American Fur Trade of the Far West. Maps and documents found since Chittenden’s theory give no indication that Smith intended to change his original name.

40. Thomas Jefferson Farnham, Travels in California, and Scenes in the Pacific (Sayton and Miles, 1844), 318–20. The same story is repeated in the 1849 volume Leigh referenced on page 142 of “The Naming of the Green, Sevier and Virgin Rivers.”

41. The Arapaho ranged east of the Continental Divide and were very unlikely to have stolen traps anywhere near the Sevier or Virgin Rivers. The waters of neither reach depths of forty feet unless possibly under extreme flood conditions, at which point they would be clouded with sediment, not transparent. Although Roubidoux’s fort on the Uinta River is better known, he also established one on the Gunnison River, not the San Juan River, called Fort Uncompahgre.

42. Brother of Samuel Morse, the inventor of the Morse Code.

43. Dellenbaugh is referencing another story in Farnham’s Travels in California. “Captain Young” is Ewing Young, and the story is as specious as Farnham’s trapper story.

44. Bil Gilbert, Westering Man (Atheneum, 1983), 173; Frederick M. Huchel, The Rio Virgin Expedition: A Chapter in the History of Southern Utah, 1852 (The Frithurex Athenæum, 2016).

45. Rufus Wood Leigh, Five Hundred Utah Place Names (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1961), 52.

46. John D. Lee, “Letter from Elder John D. Lee,” Deseret News, April 3, 1852. Lee dated the letter February 20, 1852.

47. J. C. L. Smith and John Steele, letter from Parowan dated June 26, 1852, Deseret News, August 7, 1852.

48. A Mormon party led by Parley P. Pratt had previously explored the region. On December 31, 1849, party member Robert Campbell chronicled: “cross a large branch of the Rio Virgin, 18 yards wide. 1 foot deep. Rocky bottom.” William B. Smart and Donna T. Smart, eds., Over the Rim: The Parley P. Pratt Exploring Expedition to Southern Utah, 1849–50 (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1999), 92.

49. Barbara and Rudy Marinacci, California’s Spanish Place-Names: What They Mean and How They Got There (Houston, TX: Gulf Publishing Company, 1997), 303.

50. Journal History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, July–December 1852, 234, Church History Library. Just who these “Spaniards” were is also enigmatic. Travel along the Old Spanish Trail had dwindled to a trickle by that point, though Hill, in his 1930 UHQ article, documented ongoing slave trading forays from Santa Fe. One party in particular was in the Sanpete Valley as Lee was moving his family south from Salt Lake City in late October 1851. Lee may have diverted his path to meet with them, knowing that they may have information useful to him in his upcoming exploration. Unfortunately, the whereabouts of Lee’s journals of that time period are unknown, and this cannot corroborated.