San Luis Valley Place Names, by Ron Kessler

Review by Ed Quillen

Local lore – December 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

San Luis Valley Place Names
by Ron Kessler
published in 2002 by Adobe Village Press
ISBN 0-9644056-6-0

THIS BOOK CERTAINLY lives up to its title, listing more than 400 spots from Airdale (a school near the Medano Ranch in Alamosa County) to Zinzer (a railroad siding near Monte Vista). It includes current and past settlements, about a dozen hills, and an assortment of passes, schools, springs, railroad sidings, and the like. Plus, it has a few maps and a lot of photos, as well as source notes. The listings are alphabetical, but they’re also indexed in several ways, making the book even easier to use.

That’s all to the good; San Luis Valley Place Names lists scores of spots, from prominent to obscure, and it will be a useful resource for any local history buff.

But it’s not exhaustive. Although most places I was curious about were included, I couldn’t find an entry for one of my favorite areas, Luder’s Creek above Saguache, and even though there’s a picture of ruts on Sangre de Cristo Pass, there’s no entry for it. The entries always specify a location, and often, a time period (when a settlement was founded and, perhaps, abandoned); here are a couple of examples:

“MILNER SCHOOL (1897) (Rio Grande County) was originally located halfway between Monte Vista and Center.”

“GUNBARREL (Conejos, Rio Grande and Saguache County) is the local name of the long nearly straight fifty-five miles of highway from Centro north to Saguache. This includes Colorado State Road 15 south of Monte Vista and U.S. Highway 285 to the north.”

“CENICERO (Conejos County) [say-ne-say-ro] is a Spanish word meaning ‘this pile of ashes’ because of the fine sand at the base of the nearby hills. In 1902 the name was changed to Lobatos, after the first postmaster, Jesus Maria Lobato.”

As you can see, some of the entries explain where the place name came from — but not enough do. I’d like to know where the “Mishak” in “Mishak Lakes” came from, or who the Margaret was who gave her name to a post office in Costilla County, or why those folks who founded Streator decided to change its name to Mosca. I felt somewhat deprived of information that generally comes with books about place names — i.e., the source of the name.

Some of the information we do get isn’t correct. A couple of years ago, it was true that Alamosa County, established in 1913, was the newest county in Colorado, as the book says. But as of Jan. 1 of this year, Broomfield County holds that honor.

Of the Baca Grant, we read that “In 1823 King Ferdinand of Spain gave the 99,000 acre grant, located northwest of the Great Sand Dunes National Monument, to Luis Maria Baca and his family.” But by 1823, Mexico was independent of Spain, so the King of Spain couldn’t have been issuing land grants out here.

The actual Mexican grant to the Baca family was in the area of Las Vegas, N.M. Since there were so many settlers and squatters on that property after the Mexican War, the U.S. offered to settle the Baca land claim by giving the family other parcels of the public domain — one of which was the Baca Grant in Saguache County. So, San Luis Valley Place Names is a good start, and it’s worth having around if you need this kind of information. But don’t expect to find much information about the sources of the place names, and it wouldn’t hurt to double-check what you find here.