When I was very young, my grandparents owned a farm on the west side of the Animas Valley north of Durango. Back then, the valley was divided up into roughly 40-acre strips of land, stretching from the top of the hill that divides the valley from Falls Creek, down to the river itself. Houses were mostly situated in the middle of each strip, up along the highway, or what is now known as West Animas Road. Below that were fields and the barn, pasture and sloughs that filled up each spring when the river spilled out of its sandy banks.
In the summertime, we often went down to the river, a place we called “the sandbar,” to fish and play and sometimes camp. The river, which comes roaring out of the mountains for its first 40 miles or so, slows to a nearly stagnant crawl here in this flat-bottomed valley, leveled by a massive glacier some 10,000 years ago. Its waters in the summer are green, and deep enough to be opaque. Just downstream from the sandbar the river had eaten into the bank at some point, and huge cottonwoods had tumbled into the water, leaving behind giant, anchored pieces of driftwood, or snags. We told ourselves that the water was deeper here, the undertow stronger, the nearly black waters teeming with huge brown trout. It was places like this, our grandmother told us, that gave the river its name: Rio de las Animas Perdidas, or River of Lost Souls.
For most of my life, I’ve believed the legend that goes like this: Back in 1765, Spanish explorer Juan Maria Antonio Rivera christened the river Animas Perdidas because some of his companions, or perhaps earlier travelers, had been swept away by its swift current. That, it turns out, is not true. Rivera may or may not have named the river — he crossed it just south of what is now Durango — but called it simply Rio de las Animas. No “perdidas” here. And he may have been thinking less of souls than of spirit, as in the river had a lot of spirit, or strength, making it difficult to traverse.
When the Escalante-Dominguez expedition crossed at the same place in 1776 they, too, referred to it as Rio de las Animas, as did John M. Macomb, exploring the area in 1859, and members of the Hayden party, surveying the San Juan region for the United States Geological Survey, in 1874. The notion of a river teeming with aimlessly wandering souls was, I realized, a lie. I started to feel like I had been duped.
Then my brother, Geoff, who had dug up the Rivera reference, saved me. The 1889 Bulletin of the U.S. Fish Commission, he pointed out, refers to the river as Rio de las Animas Perdidas:
Our grandmother referred to it as such, as did our parents and just about everyone else around these parts. Allen Nossaman, in his authoritative history of the Silverton area, Many More Mountains, uses the original Spanish name, Rio de las Animas, but adds “lost” to the translation, saying that it’s implied (though it’s not clear why he thinks that). Maybe it was. Or maybe the name was enhanced sometime between 1874 and 1889 for good reason — the Animas’s cold water has certainly taken its share of souls over the years.
Besides, who’s to say that the original Spanish name is set in stone? Rivera, after all, was not the first to give the Animas River a name. Before that, the Navajo called it Kinteeldéé’ ´Nlíní, according to Laurence Linford’s Navajo Places. That roughly translates to “Which Flows from the Wide Ruin,” referring to Aztec Ruin, or Kinteel (thanks to the Gamblers House blog author, teofilo, for the tip). The Utes surely had a name for the Animas prior to that, as did the Puebloans who built and lived in the dwellings at Aztec. Place names, in other words, can be fluid.
In 1907, the editor of the Durango Wage Earner wrote, of mill-tailings sullying the Animas:
The farmers along the Animas river are sitting down and permitting the waters of that river to be so tainted and polluted as that soon it will merit the name of Rio de las Animas Perdidas, given it by the Spaniards. With water filled with slime and poison, carrying qualities which destroy all agricultural values of ranchers irrigated therefrom, it will be truly a river of lost souls.
So it is that I’m sticking with “River of Lost Souls.”