People & Places

Then Again: State geologist wanted to change many Vermont mountains’ names

The name of Mount Ascutney probably derives from the Abenaki word “Ascutegnik,” meaning “meeting of the waters.” Wikimedia Commons

Vermont state geologist Edward Hitchcock and a group of Amherst College students were on a mission. At 1 o’clock one morning in 1860, they boarded a train from Rutland to East Dorset. They had spent the day measuring the height of a section of the Green Mountains. 

In the morning, they planned to wipe Dorset Mountain off the map, literally. That is, they wanted to change its name.

The name Dorset Mountain struck Hitchcock as underwhelming and nonspecific. It was, in fact, he argued, “no name at all, as there are more mountains than one in Dorset.” In fact, as if to prove his point, the town had another peak in its northwest corner also known as Dorset Mountain.

Hitchcock, who was a professor and president of Amherst before becoming Vermont’s state geologist, had a thing against the way Vermonters named their peaks. Too often, he believed, mountains were given names that “derived from some trivial circumstance.” Such names were “not only devoid of all good taste, but convey only low or ridiculous ideas.”

Hitchcock, who was also a Congregational minister, provided numerous examples of such “vulgar” names: Mount Tom, Joe’s Hill, Tug Mountain, Bone Mountain, Cobble Mountain, Potato Hill (he knew of at least two of those in Vermont), Devil Hill, Swearing Hill (supposedly named for an incident in which two hunters exchanged choice words over who should claim some game) and Camel’s Hump, or, worse presumably, Camel’s Rump.

Hitchcock was an educated man who believed Greek and Latin words were more poetic than English ones. He seemed to believe that these words were more timeless, though you could argue that his fixation with the Greeks and Romans, which was common in the United States during much of the 19th century, was merely faddish. Other acceptable names, according to Hitchcock, were ones in Hebrew or Native American languages.

Poring over Vermont maps as the state geologist, Hitchcock must have found some names to his liking. The state has a few mountains that are identified from Native American names, including Ascutney (apparently arising from an Abenaki word “Ascutegnik,” though some claim it somehow came from either “Casadnac or “Mahpscadna”), Moosalamoo, Nickwackett and Pico. The Hoosic and Taconic ranges both also owe their names to Indian words.

So too does Mount Equinox, maybe. Some suggest that the name is an Anglicization of an Indian word, “Ekwanok.” Competing theories claim it originated from an Abenaki word meaning “place of fog,” or a word from the distant Chippewa tribe meaning “place of the woman.” A prominent scholar of Native American languages, however, questioned whether such a word actually existed. Yet another story states that the state surveyor general dubbed it Equinox, in 1823, because he surveyed the mountain near the autumnal equinox.

As a minister, Hitchcock would probably have found nothing wrong with the state’s biblically inspired peaks, among them Bible, Carmel, Christian, Job, Madonna, Pisgah (of which there are several) and Zion. He also probably would have approved of Minister Hill, if only Vermonters hadn’t created at least three of them.

How they were named

People often name mountains after what they resemble. That gave us numerous peaks named for colors. The state has several mountains and hills named black, white, green, sable and so on. The color choice might have come down to the season during which it was named.

Some peaks carry the names of plants or animals. Refer to Bear Mountain or Bear Hill and you 

wouldn’t be narrowing things down much. The state has at least 10 heights honoring bears, and a similar number named for Hedgehogs.

Camel’s Hump got its name from its supposed resemblance to a dromedary. Apparently whoever named it had never seen a camel. The French were closer to the mark. They called it Le Lion Couchant, which can be translated as Lying Lion, but that sounds a bit ridiculous in English. It could also be translated as Sleeping Lion, which might have appealed to Revolutionary-era Vermonters, who wanted to be seen as a menacing presence if disturbed by their various foes, be they Yorkers or Brits.

Naming mountains after people was also popular. Mount Abraham in Lincoln was originally Potato Hill, because early settlers thought that’s what it looked like. Others called it Lincoln Mountain after the town in which it sits, which was itself named after Benjamin Lincoln, a Revolutionary War general.

When Joseph Battell purchased the mountain, he renamed it Mount Abraham for the martyred president, Abraham Lincoln. He could of course have just kept the name and told people it now referred to another, more famous Lincoln. But who can resist getting to name a mountain? Apparently not Battell.

Mount Ellen seen from the summit of Mount Abraham. Joseph Battell, who owned both mountains, named one for the protagonist of a novel he wrote and the other for President Lincoln. Wikimedia Commons

An early conservationist, Battell used his inherited fortune to purchase and preserve many of the Green Mountains, including Camel’s Hump. Among the mountains he named were Nancy Hanks Peak, in honor of President Lincoln’s mother, and Grant Mountain, after Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Battell’s own name adorns a mountain in Ripton.

In addition to being generous, Battell was rather eccentric. He wrote a 1,300-page novel that featured an intellectual young woman named Ellen who liked nothing better than to talk about such topics as sound theory, trigonometry, sleep and death — to a tree. Battell named Mount Ellen after her.

Wheelock Mountain was named for Dartmouth College’s founder, Eleazor Wheelock. Wilcox Mountain in Pittsfield was named for a leading citizen, Samuel Wilcox, during his lifetime. Wilcox tried to hike to the summit but found the grade too much for him, so he never saw the view from the peak that bears his name.

About Mansfield

Mount Mansfield is indirectly named for Maj. Moses Mansfield, who settled a town in Connecticut. People from that town bought grants in the town of Mansfield, Vermont, sight unseen, not realizing that much of the land lay atop the state’s highest peak — hardly a convenient situation. The Legislature eventually dissolved Mansfield, the town, dividing the land between Stowe and Underhill, but the name stuck to the mountain.

The name Mansfield is perhaps less poetic than the Abenaki name for the peak, Mozodepowadso, which means Moosehead. White settlers tended to believe the mountain more closely resembled a human face looking skyward and named various parts of its summit the Nose, the Lips, the Chin and even the Adam’s Apple.

Bone Mountain in Bolton was named for an early French settler in the area, not a body part. The man, known by the Anglicized name John Bone, moved to the area in 1782. In about 1798, he climbed the precipice, supposedly in hopes of curing a headache. He got lost and was still on the height when night fell. Soon he fell too, having taken a false step. Today Bone Mountain is popular among mountain climbers, who are drawn to the same sheer face that claimed Bone’s life.

Few of these names would likely have won Edward Hitchcock’s approval. In his efforts to replace what he saw as insufficiently lofty names for Vermont’s highest places, he suggested that in some cases the existing names could be improved by using their Greek or Latin equivalents. He suggested converting Bull Mountain into Mount Taurus, Buck Mountain into Mount Cervus, Snake Mountain into Mount Ophis, and Rattlesnake Mountain into Mount Crotalus, which derives from the Greek word for “rattle.” He wanted to rename Dummerston’s Black Mountain as Mount Albus, which means white. As a geologist, it annoyed him that a peak made of white granite would be named Black Mountain.

For Dorset Mountain, he decided a more suitable name would be Mount Eolus, for the ruler of the winds in Greek mythology. Eolus kept the winds inside a cave, waiting to be unleashed at his whim. The mountain in Dorset features a large cave, so Hitchcock and his students thought the name was perfect. Hitchock wrote: “Eolus is eminently appropriate, being classical, poetical, euphonical and suggestive.” He got his wish. The name remains on maps today, though they use its more common spelling, “Aeolus.”

Hitchcock was less successful when it came to rebranding the state’s other mountains. Mount Aeolus was Hitchcock’s one victory in his renaming campaign. Vermonters seemed to prefer their mountain names “vulgar.”

Mark Bushnell

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