On a cloudy, windy day in late May, the Montezuma Heritage Museum in Cortez opened the doors of its new building to the public for the first time. Local historians, elected officials, and other community members milled about the mostly-empty space, its wood floors and bare walls soon to be filled with photos, documents, and first-person accounts of the region’s natural, economic, and social history.
According to Ann Brown, chair of the Montezuma County Historical Society, one of the interior doorways contains wood from an irrigation flume built during early Anglo settlement in the region.
The exhibits, which are scheduled to open in the late summer or early fall of 2021, will contain a section about the Sundance Kid, an outlaw who lived in the region for four years, plus discussions of the natural forces that have shaped the region, the resources they used, and the complex stories of the people who came.
The name on the front of the museum, and the name of the town in which the museum is located, also tell a complex story. Why Montezuma County was named after the emperor Moctezuma II (also spelled Montezuma) who ruled the Aztec empire from its capital of Tenochtitlan, in the site of modern-day Mexico City, from 1502 until his murder in 1521 – is based on speculation and indirect historical associations.
And why the town of Cortez was named for Hernando Cortés, the Spanish leader who arrived on the American continent in the early 1500s, took credit for conquering the Aztec empire, began a process of colonization that would lead to the slaughter and enslavement of millions, and never set foot anywhere near Southwest Colorado – is rarely discussed locally. And despite the modern contradictions, the stories behind the names highlight the fraught history not only of European settlement in southwestern Colorado — but also of the Americas at large.
After the ancestors of the modern-day Pueblo people left the area now known as the Montezuma Valley in the late 1200s, most of the area’s Ute, Navajo, and other Indigenous inhabitants did not live in permanent, named towns or bordered settlements. When 18th-century Spanish explorers like Juan de Rivera and, later, the friars Silvestre Escalante and Francisco Domínguez, traveled through the region, they designated landmarks like the Dolores River and the La Plata Mountains. However, they did not give a formal name to the dry sagebrush-filled plains in the bottom of the valley.
Local historic documents don’t refer to the Montezuma Valley until the 1870s, when Anglo European people began to explore the region in search of archeological sites, agricultural opportunities, and silver in the nearby mountains. One of the earliest references to the valley’s naming occurred in the journal of Lewis H. Morgan, an anthropologist from New York who traveled through the region in the late 1870s. In an entry dated July 27, 1878, Morgan’s journal stated that General James J. Heffernan, a former officer in the Union army who lived in Animas City (located several miles north of present-day Durango), “named the Montezuma Valley.”
Though Morgan’s note is brief and lacks other details, a more specific reference to the valley’s naming occurred in several issues of the Durango Herald from October 1887, archived by local historian Fred Blackburn.
In a series of letters to the editor, Montezuma Valley resident Robert C. Schneider referred to accounts by local settlers that the area had previously been called “Shirt Tail Valley” (possibly after an early settler named William Shirtz). Schneider wrote that “this valley was not known by the name Montezuma until February  when in company with Gen. J.J. Heffernan and Mr. Joseph Sheek, I suggested the name it now bears.”
Though other letters from Durango real estate developer E.H. Cooper initially disputed Schneider’s account, Cooper eventually backed away from the argument.
The first historical reference to the town of Cortez is even less definitive. Though the name was in regular use by the time Montezuma County broke off from La Plata County in 1889, primary sources don’t identify an exact person who established the town. Cortez’s settlement began in the late 1880s, when the Montezuma Valley Water Supply Company began construction of irrigation infrastructure from the Dolores River. Company funds paid for a large part of the town’s initial development, which housed company workers and provided basic necessities.
The company’s chief engineer, M.J. Mack, platted the initial layout of the town and named some of its main streets in 1886, and the town was formally designated as the county seat in 1889.
The company, which was financially insolvent and lasted only a few years before being replaced by other enterprises, was led by James W. Hanna, who served as its general manager. Several books and articles about the area give Hanna credit for naming Cortez, but no primary source has been found to prove the claim.
Local government and historical archives do not contain the town’s original founding documents, and the archives of Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company, which took over some of the valley’s earliest water infrastructure, contain no original material written by Hanna or Mack about the naming of Cortez. Few other details about the men exist, and neither appears to have stayed in the area following the company’s disintegration.
How Montezuma met Cortez
Regardless of when and by whom the localities were named, local historians and articles about the region generally agree that early settlers developed the names based on the assumption that the archeological sites in the region had been built by the Aztec peoples.
June Head, local historian and founding member of the Montezuma County Historical Society, said in an email in August 2020 that she saw this as the most likely explanation.
“I have heard the early settlers of our area thought the ruins in our area were from the Aztecs and therefore, the name[s] Cortez and Montezuma were used,” she said.
Evidence from that time period corroborates Head’s belief. Many Durango Herald and Montezuma Journal articles published in the 1880s and 1890s refer to the dwellings as being inhabited by ancient Aztec peoples, and speculate on the sites’ connections to the emperor Montezuma and earlier Mesoamerican civilizations. Landmarks, such as Aztec Divide and Aztec Springs (including the archaeological site later re-named Yucca House), were named by expeditions that came slightly before.
A post office called Toltec – a reference to the Indigenous peoples who pre-dated the Aztec civilization – operated for less than a
year at a site several miles south of Cortez in 1887, according to local historian Patricia Lacey. References to Mesoamerican cultures dropped off by the early 1900s, when archaeological studies drew more accurate links to the modern-day Pueblo people in Arizona and New Mexico.
Understanding why the town of Cortez was named after Moctezuma’s enemy is more difficult. “There’s speculation among some people that Cortez was named because he was a leader; Montezuma was also a leader, but Cortez defeated Montezuma in the Aztec world,” said Brown, though she cautioned that her answer was only speculation.
Barbara Stagg, capital campaign manager for the Montezuma Heritage Museum, agreed that it is difficult to find an explanation for “why” the localities were named.
“Maybe Mr. Hanna only chose Cortez for its relationship to the Montezuma Valley name without really thinking of the irony that Cortes killed Moctezuma,” Stagg said in an email. “I really think both names simply relate to the assumption in those times that the ruins in the area were Aztec – and neighboring New Mexico was already using Aztec as a place name and ruin name.”
Some of the answers may lie beyond the local level, according to Matthew Restall, professor of History and Latin American studies at The Pennsylvania State University and author of the 2018 book When Montezuma Met Cortés: The True Story of the Meeting that Changed History.
“There’s a fascinating history that can be unlocked simply by those names,” Restall said in an interview. “That history is not just about Mexico, but about the whole of North America.”
He said earlier settlers’ knowledge of the region was likely influenced by national narratives of the Mexican-American war, when the United States invaded Mexico between 1846 and 1848 under president James Polk. Through a series of annexations, battles, and treaties, the U.S. Army seized over 900,000 square miles of Mexican territory, which stretched across most of the present-day American Southwest and opened the door to Anglo-American settlement in later decades. Restall called the war an act of “naked aggression.” The captured territory included the portion of southwestern Colorado that would later become Montezuma County.
Restall explained the United States government used various forms of propaganda, especially an overarching narrative of “conquest,” to justify the war.
Much of that narrative was based on a popular book by William Prescott, written in 1843, which chronicled the Spanish colonization of Mexico through a lens of Spanish religious and cultural superiority over Indigenous peoples. Restall explained the United States justified its invasion of Mexico by claiming the Spaniards paved the way for the Americans to bring civilization and democracy to the territories.
That propaganda likely influenced the region’s early Anglo-European inhabitants a few decades later, according to Restall. But he said the settlers were likely skirting around complex issues relating to how that land became part of the United States, as well as the multiple cultural layers of civilization that already existed in the region.
“Naming the county Montezuma and saying it’s because this is where the Aztecs came from is an interesting act of appropriation,” he said.
Prescott’s narrative, as well as other texts that drew upon Spaniards’ accounts of their arrival in the Americas, also still influences many people’s perceptions of the story today, according to Restall. Many people still think of the “conquest of Mexico” as an incredible victory over millions of Aztec people by several hundred Spanish explorers, led by Cortés, culminating in the downfall of the empire and the death of Moctezuma.
But according to Restall, that narrative doesn’t hold up to present-day scrutiny. Modern explanations of European cultural, technological, and civilizational superiority over Indigenous peoples don’t take into account actual historical evidence, which generally shows the Spanish colonists as disoriented, maladjusted to the climate and landscape, and reliant on violence and coercion rather than diplomacy or strategy.
Cortés and his contemporaries’ accounts of the events were heavily embellished in order to impress Spanish leaders. And their arrival, rather than culminating in a clean takeover or conquest of the territory, instead led to a general destabilization of the existing political structures and the inordinate slaughter and enslavement of hundreds of thousands of people.
Even Moctezuma’s murder, commonly credited to Cortés, may have instead occurred at the hands of other Aztec peoples, according to Restall’s research.
“This ‘glorious conquest’ by the Spaniards wasn’t two years by three hundred people; it was 30 years by thousands and thousands,” Restall explained. “It was only done through the collaboration and cooperation of Indigenous rulers, who did not see themselves as Indigenous or as Indian, but saw themselves as people from a particular local area.”
Present-day talks in the ‘Halls of Montezuma’
Today, Montezuma Avenue runs through the center of Cortez. The Montezuma-Cortez High School song opens with the line, “From the Halls of Montezuma,” sung to the tune of the U.S. Marine Corps Hymn. (Incidentally, the Marines’ use of the line refers to a battle in the Mexican-American War.) The city and county names are enshrined permanently on maps, government documents, and in over a century’s worth of local, regional, and national references. Local businesses, non-profits, and government institutions bear various versions of the names, and words like “Montelores” have even been created to identify the broader region.
But the names represent the only local traces of the historical figures. No statues, plaques or other depictions of Moctezuma or Cortés exist in public spaces, though city stationery and printed clothing included a depiction of a Spanish conquistador at one time in the past. The municipal golf course is also named for a “conquistador,” though it doesn’t include Cortés’s name.
When asked about the town’s earliest founding documents, Cortez City Clerk Linda Smith, who has worked in local government for over three decades, said no one had ever asked her about the history behind the town’s name.
Les Nunn, Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company board member and lifelong county resident, also said he had never heard locals talk about the names’ origins, even when growing up in the area.
“Back then it was just assumed that this was the Montezuma Valley and the town of Cortez,” he said. Local historians interviewed for this article said they hadn’t thought much about the names’ origins, and that their classes in school had only briefly discussed the historical figures.
The Ute language also demonstrates a complex relationship to the labels. According to tribal elders Helen Munoz and Alfred Wall, Jr., their language contains unique words for the city of Cortez, as well as names of other towns and municipalities around the region. This adoption occurred after the U.S. government pushed Ute people onto reservations and permanent settlements following the 1879 Meeker Incident in northwestern Colorado. The southern dialect of the language, which the elders have been compiling to create a dictionary of over 20,000 words, refers to Cortez as kwatiis, and also contains words for other towns around the region such as Mancos (maakis), Durango (turaakuh) and Denver (tiapih).
The town name of Towaoc, which was established as the tribe’s first permanent settlement in the late 1800s, translates to “thank you” or “it’s ok,” they explained. According to Munoz, the Ute language doesn’t contain a word for Montezuma County.
Restall said when he learned of the names for Montezuma County and Cortez while writing his 2018 book, he “wasn’t surprised,” and was “kind of amused.” He said locals should see the only county in North America named Montezuma – and containing a town named Cortez – as a claim to fame.
But he said the multiple layers of history are also a teaching opportunity.
“This is a good place to begin [the] story. And the story isn’t just about what happened 500 years ago, but how it has been perceived for the last 500 years,” he said. “People who live there should treasure the names, be proud of them, but also understand how complicated [they are],” he said. That story, he explained, “is going to be interpreted differently by people of different backgrounds.”
As regional depictions of Spanish colonists spark criticism, debate, and occasional removal or replacement – and as the nation and the world come to terms with the violent legacy of European colonization, the names for Cortez and Montezuma County could still outlast the area’s current inhabitants. But the multilayered histories behind those names – and how we come to terms with those histories— can allow us to reflect more deeply on the places we also call “home.”