Thursday, August 29, 2019

A bird, a plant, or mountain streams?

Three different takes on how the name developed

By Rob Carrigan,

In the holy trinity of story telling,  the fables of how the Sangre de Cristo mountains were christened drifts across the centuries, though different cultures, and into different languages and traditions. Will C. Febril,  of the Rocky Mountain Herald lays it out this way, as reprinted in Wet Mountain Tribune, June 28, 1912.

"The more popular legend associated with the name of the Sangre de Cristo ( Blood of Christ ) mountains in Colorado is based on the story that the early Spaniards found in this picturesque and beautiful range, springs of crimson colored water. Another legend, also of Spanish origin, is founded on the discovery of a cruciform, red flower , that blooms near timber line . Still another , the newest to me, and associated with Spanish lore, is the legend of a bird, a beautiful songster, with a crimson head and breast. The Sangre de Cristo mountains extending from near Salida, southeast, separating the San Luis and Wet Mountain valleys, both as a range and in the formation of its peaks , some with an elevation of more than 14,000 feet, have a clearness of outline that charms and, delights the tourist," wrote Febril, more than a century ago.
These massive and awe-inspiring mountains, stand out with such distinctness that they may be seen from several branches of the Denver & Rio Grande Railway, as its trains rush through gorges and canons, or cross the timber-lined passes. Seemingly over in sight, it is not strange that, so constant in the vision of the Spanish explorers, that the richest of legend and lore should be connected with their name — Sangre de Cristo.  Febril tells of how he came by the stories.

Bird Legend

"I first heard the bird legend, in the following way, when curator of the state Historical and Natural History Society of Colorado. Once, when in field work for the museum of that society at the State House, I spent a winter s day and night, near timberline, on one of the highest ranges of the Rocky Mountains, in Colorado. I was collecting birds, and a study of these species whose habitat is in the regions where amid the storms and blizzards that sweep the continental crest, they struggle for food and assistance . I was especially interested in the leucostiste, known as rosy finches, and in the vernacular of the trainman and mountaineers, sometimes called the little red snow birds . Returning to the home where I was stopping, after a hard day struggle with the elements and snow bunks, the wife of the mountaineer, on learning the nature of my work, related to me tho interesting legend, also said to to be of Spanish origin, of the Sangre de Cristo bird. She explained that her informant was an old time mining man in the southwest, whose work, and interests had brought- him into frequent contact with Spanish settlements, where he heard the story.
According to the legend, it is associated with the crucifixion. All nature was in sorrow, in which bird life was in sympathy. There was a bird inour-southwest, dull in - color, but a glorious songster. It ceased its song and lowered its head in- grief and shame. When its head was raised it was found that that noble head had become crimson, as well as its throat and breast. The coloration had become that of the crucified Christ, but the glory and beauty of its song remained. Such was the lore attached to it to it by the Spaniards , and they named it the Sangre de Cristo bird. The description us given by my informant would apply to several species.

Flower Story

The flower story of the Sangre de Cristo has heen told by John Shepherd, for many years connected with-the daily press of Denver, and a well known writer on the Rocky Mountain News. He wrote a poem on the Sangre de Cristo , published in the Denver monthly Commonwealth Magazine in the issue of April, 1889, with the following instruction:

In the mountains of Colorado, particularly in the southern range, there blooms far up near timber-line, a beautiful but strange flower which the early Spanish explorers have named Sangre de Cristo, or Blood of Christ. It is a plant ten or twelve inches in height, the leaves of which are arranged about the stalk in the form of a cross, surmounted at the top with a crimson blood-like crest. It invariable attracts the attention of the traveler over the mountains. The range,  known as the Sangre de Cristo derived its name from this flower, which there grows in profusion.

Far up on heights in, regions of the mist.
Where silvery-lakes, by shadowy spectres kissed,
Sleep calmly near eternal banks of snow —
The source of the life, which blooms so sweet below;
Touch'd with the sheen of sunlight, changing skies,
Midst nature's scarce disturbed paradise;
Where hardy pines scarce essay to grow,
And hardier oaks are stunted, weak and low ;
Where mountain gorge and canon, faraway,
Whose darken'd depths do scarce reflect the day,
And distant cascade, leaps some dark abyss,
But scarce disturbs the mighty loneliness;
Where trail of miners leads to hidden wealth.
By nature stored, as if by miser stealth;
There hides this sacred plant, this Blood of Christ,
As  it 'twere, a solmn penitential tryst
Thy crimson crest, like drops of holy blood,
Which from some sacred form had erstwhile flowed,
With emerald foliage cruciform
In glowing sunlight shining soft and warm
Gleams with a humble, solemn beauty there,
Fairest and best of all these flowers so rare;
Blest, brightest emblem of a martyred God
Whose ebbing life-blood stained once earth sod,
The early Spaniards, with religious love
Or inspiration, born of realms above,
Have named thee well; and trailing o'er the slope,
Many a traveler s breast s been filled with hope
And faith he gazing on thy sign of heaven,
And blessing thee for cheer 'thoust given.

Shepherd's poem is also credited, in a little different form, published in the May, 1883 of the Grand Army Magazine of Denver, when Will Visscher was its editor.

Crimson water tale

The old water legend is equally interesting in its religious signification and lore.
Narrated in brief, a party of early Spanish explorers, who are said to have discovered these mountains, and when in that range, came upon springs of water, colored crimson, percolating through porous red rock.
Hence, the name Sangre de Cristo Mountains .
This is the common story—linked with geology.
But what significance should be given to the Sangre de Cristo bird? May not ornithology claim something as to the origin of the name of these mountains? The Sangre de Cristo flower may be able the botanist to set forth a still further calm. When the three legends are considered, the question may as well be asked: Was the inspiration that named this beautiful range suggested by a bird, flower, or crimson water?

Photo Info:
The Sangre de Cristo mountain range rises above the dunes. Photo by Steve Peterson, Rocky Mountain News. 2007.

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