AMC's Committee on Nomenclature was created to standardize names and settle disputes. Photo by Jerry and Marcy Monkman.
caption AMC's Committee on Nomenclature was created to standardize names and settle disputes. Photo by Jerry and Marcy Monkman.

History, tragedy, and whimsy determined what we call these White Mountain peaks


By Mark Bushnell

AMC Outdoors, November/December 2011

The news shocked Nancy Barton: Her fiancé had left. She decided to follow him, despite the biting cold on that December day in 1778. Nancy set out on foot from the estate of Col. Joseph Whipple in Dartmouth (since renamed Jefferson), N.H., where she and her fiancé, Jim Swindell, worked. She intended to make the more-than-100-mile trek to Portsmouth, where Jim had supposedly gone.

One version of the story says Jim had taken Nancy's dowry and fled. A variant of the tale casts Col. Whipple as the villain, claiming he disapproved of the match and had sent his hired hand away. Whatever the reason for Jim's disappearance, Nancy's effort to find him was ill advised. She made it as far as what is now known as Crawford Notch. A search party is said to have found her seated beside a brook, head resting upon her hand and walking stick. Her clothes, which had gotten wet when she crossed the brook, were stiff with ice. She didn't stir as the searchers approached. Nancy Barton had frozen to death.

It is small consolation, but Nancy's tragic demise earned her a measure of immortality. People began referring to a nearby mountain as Mount Nancy. The name stuck. A Harvard professor in the mid-1800s suggested changing the name to Mount Amorisgelu, a combination of two Latin words meaning "the frost of love." He thought it a more poetic way to commemorate Nancy Barton's fate. But that mouthful of a name never supplanted Mount Nancy.

Over the years, "Mount Nancy" took the same path to acceptance as the names of most peaks in the White Mountains. It began as a locally known designation. The name gained some renown when it was printed in an early book, the travel writings of the Rev. Timothy Dwight, printed in 1823. Then it was accepted by the Appalachian Mountain Club's Committee on Nomenclature, which was created to standardize names and settle disputes. Lastly, it won approval from the U.S. Board of Geographic Names (USBGN), the nation's final arbiter on place names since 1890.

Indian Terms
American Indians were of course the first to name the White Mountains. During the millennia before Europeans conquered the region, the local people bestowed names on significant landscape features. Most of those names, sadly, have been lost. The ones we still know are descriptive. Mount Waumbek, for example, seemingly derives its name from the word "waumbekket-methna," meaning "snowing mountains" in some local Indian dialects, from "waumbek-methna," sometimes translated as "mountains with snowy foreheads," or from "waumbik," meaning "white rocks" in Algonquin. It is not unusual for the precise derivation to be ambiguous. For example, Mahoosuc Mountain's name might come from an Abenaki word meaning "home of hungry animals" or a Natick word for "pinnacle."

Among the most debated origins is that of Mount Kearsarge—a name so popular that the White Mountains have two, one now known as Kearsarge North to reduce confusion. Kearsarge may come from an Algonquin word meaning "born of the hill that first shakes hands with the dawn," a long, lyrical sentiment for one word. Or perhaps it derives from an Abenaki word meaning simply "pointed mountain." Another theory holds that it owes its name to the contraction of the name of an early white settler, Hezekiah Sargent. Say it several times fast and you can almost hear it.

Many of the surviving mountain names that sound like American Indian terms honor individual chiefs. But white settlers bestowed those names after the tribes of the White Mountains were overwhelmed by disease and warfare. In that sense, these names bear a more tragic legacy even than Mount Nancy. Among the Indians honored are Chocorua (who, after a dispute with settlers in the early 1700s, was either killed or committed suicide on the mountain that now bears his name), Kancamagus (who, after failing to make peace with the English, led a raid on the town of Dover in 1686, then fled to Canada), and Waternomee (who was killed during a massacre in 1712). The fad of naming mountains after past Indian leaders grew so popular that two White Mountains even honor chiefs from far-off tribes—Osceola, a Seminole who lived in the Everglades, and Tecumseh, a Shawnee who lived in Ohio.

The Presidents
White settlers more typically named mountains after white leaders. That's what a group of seven men from the town of Lancaster, N.H., set out to do on July 31, 1820. They wanted to put some names on the map, perhaps knowing that once in print, a name was often picked up by later mapmakers and guidebook writers. So it was no coincidence that they brought along mapmaker Philip Carrigain, an important cartographer who would eventually get his own mountain. The naming party climbed Mount Washington, which was named for George Washington in 1784 for his military actions during the Revolution—he wasn't yet president. By the time the Lancaster men climbed the mountain, however, the former president was the sainted father of the country. They thought his peak deserved august company. That day they picked out appropriate prominences for the most prominent men of the day. With Carrigain's help, they honored John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe with mountains.

But the naming party still had mountains it wanted to name, so it added one for Benjamin Franklin—this being 1820, they had run out of presidents. They also named a nearby pinnacle Mount Pleasant, having apparently run out of better ideas. More presidents have since been added to the range. The USBGN supported a push to change the name of Mount Pleasant to Mount Eisenhower in 1970, shortly after the death of the former general and president. The Presidentials also include John Quincy Adams and Franklin Pierce, who got in because he was a New Hampshire native. (Some people still know the peak by its former name, Mount Clinton, after Dewitt Clinton, an important New York politician of the early 1800s.) In 2003, the New Hampshire legislature tried to add another president to the range, voting to change Mount Clay, named for 19th century statesman Henry Clay, to Mount Reagan. But the USBGN voted to keep the former name. In 2010, a peak in the Presidentials named simply Adams 4 was renamed Mount Abigail Adams to honor her life as wife and vital private counsel to John Adams. She was, of course, also the mother of John Quincy Adams.

Other presidents—both great and not so great—have been honored with mountain names elsewhere in the Whites. They are: Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield (who was honored shortly after—and presumably because of—his assassination), Grover Cleveland (he summered nearby), and Calvin Coolidge (perhaps because, as a native Vermonter, he was a New Englander). Some people might think Mount Jackson should be added to the list, but that summit is named not for Andrew, the sixth president, but for Charles Thomas Jackson, a New Hampshire state geologist who conducted research in the Presidentials.

Local Heroes
Perhaps it is appropriate that many of the summits honor people of local rather than national renown. Among the locally prominent people celebrated are Thomas Starr King (a Unitarian minister and early proponent of tourism in the region, who wrote about the Whites in purple prose), Arnold Henri Guyot (a Princeton geology professor who had a mountain named after him by AMC to recognize his extensive research throughout the Appalachians), and Ezra Carter (a physician from Concord, N.H., who explored the mountains for medicinal herbs).

Entire families whose lives were entwined with the mountains have also been honored. Mount Pickering got its name from a family that included Charles, a naturalist who climbed Mount Washington in 1826, and his nephews, Edward and William, both astronomers who shared their uncle's passion for mountains. Edward Pickering helped organize AMC and became its first president.

For generations, the Weeks family was prominent in the Whites. One John W. Weeks was a member of the 1820 party that first named the Presidentials; a descendent of the same name was a congressman and Coolidge administration official who crafted the Weeks Act of 1911, which led to the creation of the White Mountain National Forest. Mount Weeks, previously known by the rather dull name Round Mountain, honors the family.

Perhaps the most celebrated family is the Crawfords. Abel Crawford and his sons Tom and Ethan Allen Crawford were early innkeepers and helped open the region by cutting trails through the wilderness, including the bridle path up Mount Washington, still in use today as a hiking trail and considered the oldest continuously maintained footpath in the United States. Ethan's wife, Lucy, helped run the inn and published an important history of the White Mountains in 1846. Today the family name adorns several prominent geographical features, including Crawford Notch and Mount Crawford. Mount Tom is named for Tom Crawford.

Other innkeepers have also been honored. Mount Hayes is named for Margaret Hayes, who ran the White Mountain Station House starting in 1851, while Mount Oscar is named for Oscar Barron, who managed the Fabyan House. At least one guest also had a summit named after him. Tom Crawford named Mount Willard as a tribute to climbing companion Joseph Willard. Crawford was being magnanimous. That mountain had previously been known as Mount Tom. More than 30 years later, a second Mount Tom, the one that remains today, was christened.

Features and Events
But not all White Mountains were named after people. Some were named by referring to a distinctive characteristic of the peak. Thus we have such obvious name origins as Long Mountain, Table Mountain, Stairs Mountain, Mount Tripyramid, and even Old Speck, whose rock is speckled. Mining activity gave us Tin Mountain and Iron Mountain. Hurricane Mountain and Mount Mist are named for weather conditions, and Eagle, Wildcat, and Rattlesnake mountains for one-time inhabitants.

If most people seemed to prefer stately names like Mount Washington, some of the mountains' namers preferred to bring a bit of whimsy to the task. So it was that we got names like Old Speck or, better yet, Goback Mountain, an apparent reference to what hikers decided to do when they saw its steepness. Or Tumbledown-Dick Mountain, which has puzzled mountain etymologists for generations. Some suggest the origin is clear: It was named when someone named Dick took a memorable fall. Others believe it comes from an Anglicization of an Indian name, the meaning of which we have lost.

Perhaps the oddest name in the Whites, or at least the one memorializing the most trivial-seeming event, is Mount Mitten, which supposedly got its name after an early visitor lost his mitten while hiking there. But we can let that name stand. According to Lucy Crawford, that visitor was Timothy Nash, who lost the mitten in 1771 while climbing a tree to get a better view. Nash, who was tracking a moose that day, noticed a notch in the mountains. Perhaps he noticed the notch from the tree that claimed his mitten. Nash's discovery sparked interest. New Hampshire's governor promised a land grant if Nash could prove a horse could travel through the notch. Nash and a companion, Benjamin Sawyer, did just that. The notch became a vital route that opened the White Mountains to settlement and made trade easier between Maine and points west.

The notch isn't named after Nash. That honor went to the Crawfords, who built and ran a hotel there, on the site of what is now AMC's Highland Center. And no White Mountain has been named for Nash, though he did get his land grant, and a mountain named after his missing mitten.