© Loran Hugh Parker – All rights reserved
There is a saying about Tucumcari, New Mexico, dating back to the early days of the first transcontinental highway; “If you travel Route 66, sooner or later you’ll spend the night in Tucumcari.”
The Tucumcari Chamber of Commerce did their part to make that saying come true. As you travel toward the town from east or west, you will see numerous signs that announce: “Tucumcari tonight, 283 miles,” or “Tucumcari tonight, 131 miles.” And in its heyday, Tucumcari boasted more motel rooms per capita than any other place I know. They also had an abundance of restaurants and fast food places.
My one night spent in Tucumcari was caused by a series of wintertime events. First, a cold rain fell, freezing as it hit the ground. Second, about three inches of powder snow fell. Then, a strong north wind swept the snow off the highway, leaving nothing but the slick ice. Not wanting to drive on ice at night, we were stranded.
One of the attractions of Tucumcari is the medium sized, mesa-type mountain of the same name that lies to the south of the eastern section of town. It has a distinct shape; as if someone built a mesa, then sat a smaller mesa on its top. Driving from east or west, you begin seeing the mountain about 40 miles before getting to Tucumcari. And there’s no mistaking it for any other mountain in the area. It has a distinct shape. It can be recognized even from a jet liner.
There is an oft-repeated legend of how Tucumcari Mountain—and the town of Tucumcari—got that name. It’s an “Indian type” Romeo and Juliette story.
I have no definitive recollection of where I first heard the legend of Tucumcari Mountain. Perhaps it was told me by the owner of one of several restaurants where we dined while traveling through the town. It was a fascinating tale, but I often wondered how much of it was true.
The legend, as told me, was thus:
“As the Apache Chief, Watonomah was nearing the end of his life, he was troubled by the question of who would succeed him as ruler of the tribe. He had two fine braves, either of which would make a good chief. They were called Tonopah and Tocom. But, there was a problem. They were sworn enemies, and were rivals, each one vying for the chief’s daughter, Kari.
Now, Kari knew her heart belonged to Tocom. She loved him, and hated Tonopah.
Even knowing that, Chief Watonomah summoned Tonopah and Tocom to his side and announced, “Soon I will die, and one of you must succeed me as chief. Tonight you will take your long knives to the mountain and meet in mortal combat. You will settle this matter of hatred between you. The one who survives shall be Chief and shall have my daughter, Kari as his squaw.”
As ordered, the two braves met on the mountain with knives outstretched, in a fight to the death. Unknown to either brave, Kari was hiding nearby. After a long fight, Tonopah’s knife found the heart of Tocom. As he lay dying, the young squaw rushed from her hiding place, and with her knife, took the life of Tonopah. Then, using Tocom’s knife, took her own life.
When Chief Watonomah was shown this tragic scene, he was heartbroken. He plunged his knife into his own heart, and cried out in agony, “Tocom – Kari!”
Today, a slight variation of Chief Watonomah’s dying words lives on as “Tucumcari,” and the mountain that bears that name stands as a reminder of unfulfilled love and devotion.”
Some people credit this folktale to Geronimo.
But, some historians who are less romantic have a different explanation as to how the mountain got its name. They believe the word “Tucumcari” is a different form of the Comanche word “tukanukaru,” which means to lie in wait. There is historical validity to this explanation. The mountain was known to be a lookout many years ago, when the Comanche Indians ruled this part of New Mexico.
On the blog http://danphillips.blogspot.com/, Dan Kenneth Phillips related what he has found out about the above legend. He owns a book, Great Plains, by Ian Frazier. On the back flyleaf of the book cover is a picture of Frazier with the caption: Ian Frazier, LeDeane Studio, Tucumcari, New Mexico. Near the picture of the author, there is an autograph, not of Frazier but of the photographer, James Crocker.
On a trip through New Mexico, Phillips decided to look up the LeDeane Studio and see if he could talk to James Crocker. He found the studio, and Crocker still worked there. While Phillips was talking to the photographer, Crocker became nostalgic.
The old Elk Drugstore was to the west of the studio. Crocker looked toward the west and said, “The old Elk drugstore was owned by Herman Moncus, a dear friend of mine.”
Using this statement, Crocker began his story of the legend.
“Every morning Herman Moncus had a ten-minute spot on the local radio station. He collected all sorts of old artifacts, and on that show, he talked about the latest relic he had collected.
“Every day, the old timers and the Chamber of Commerce people would gather at Moncus’ drugstore and talk. One day, they decided to build and Indian village on top of Tucumcari Mountain. They stretched rawhide over old tepee frames and seeded the area with old Indian arrowheads. All this was done to attract tourists.
“You could see those tepees for 40 miles. The men decided they needed a legend to go along with the Indian village. So, one morning they sat there and concocted the ‘Legend of Tucumcari Mountain.’
“Each person would contribute a little bit, and then they would laugh. ‘Reckon anyone would believe that?’
“And Herman would say, ‘If you write it down, they’ll believe it.’
“And they wrote it down—and it became fact. This story, as kooky as it is, is the one that lasted as the Legend of Tucumcari.”
“You mean the Legend of Tucumcari is not true?” Phillips said unbelievably.
“Just one big lie,” Crocker answered.
That interview has put a crimp in the Legend of Tucumcari Mountain. I wonder how many other legends were started this way?