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Two books on White Mountain history and lore

As the winter sets in and I look back on another snowless season exploring the White Mountains of New Hampshire, it seemed like a good time to pick up a couple books on the region and read a little bit about the history behind these old mountain forests I’ve experienced. In my mind, one of the most inspiring parts of exploring the wilderness in the northeast is that it is not only full of beautiful scenery, but it also has a nice bit of mystique around the 18th and 19th century history found in and around its forests. The names bestowed on these majestic mountain peaks, glens, rivers, waterfalls and old homesteads tell a story, while the countless logging artifacts, rock walls, and lilac bushes you come across tell another. Each generation since the French and Indian War left it’s mark on the Whites and each had it’s secrets. One thing I’ve come to appreciate is the way modern conservation efforts have allowed time and mother nature to reclaim many of the places ravaged by mankind over the years, stirring in these old vestiges of man as if they were just one more vegetable in the pot of White Mountain stew. This rich history found scattered throughout the region adds a little more to the flavor of discovery in these mountains, and also gives me hope in the power of mother nature to recover from our wrong-doings.

Towards the end of October, Amy and I stopped at the AMC Highland Center in Crawford Notch to pick up some Advil (an essential back-country item) for our 22 mile backpacking trip over Zealand Mountain to the Bondcliffs. The place has a interesting little bookshop where I found a couple books covering White Mountain history and lore. Since the goal of our backpacking trip was to climb the last four of the New Hampshire, 4,000 footers, we spent a lot of time on the trail that trip reminiscing about all the places this peak bagging list had taken us. By the end of the hike, I was determined to find out a little more about all these places and put a background story to that which I have witnessed. The two books from the Highland Center have proven to be the perfect place to start.

The White Mountains – Names, Places & Legends by John T.B. Mudge

The White Mountains Names, Places & Legends book cover

If you were going to pick up one complimentary book to AMC’s White Mountain Guidebook, you could not go wrong with John T.B. Mudge’s The White Mountains – Names, Places & Legends. This book is a brief encyclopedia of names which covers most all the names you’ll come across during your adventures in the Whites. He does a good job of mixing in facts and figures with good old fashion mountain lore and includes several old paintings, illustrations, and photographs to aid the reader’s imagination. In his excellent introduction, Mudge frames the stories well with a summary of the region’s history which includes maps and a most interesting timeline of historical events. After reading this book, I feel I could attempt to write a play about the White Mountain’s past since European arrival, breaking it into 6 major acts. We have early exploration & legend, post French & Indian war, the settlers of the Early Republic, tourism and grand hotels, the timber industry and crisis, and finally the return of the wild.

Many of the place names are named for people who first came to settle the area. After the French and Indian War, it became possible to settle tracts of land of land in the north country during relatively peaceful political conditions. Many tracts of land were granted by the colonial government to people for their military service. Others came to carve out a future of their own. These brave families led tough lives, braving the elements and farming in rocky soil unfavorable for farming. Many of these farms supplemented their incomes by hosting weary travelers passing through the area and it was not long before some of these families began looking for another industry to get by. Much of the White Mountains are named after these folks who catered to travelers and an industry based on tourism was born.

The Willey House by W.H. Bartlett

The Willey House by W.H. Bartlett

By the early 19th century there were many local guides and services available for people escaping to the north looking for adventure and healthy climate. Local families such as the Crawfords, built trails, bridle paths, and large guest houses to entertain and accommodate these tourists. Eventually as the word spread about all the natural wonder available (and enabled by the families like the Crawfords), roads and rail infrastructure grew and then finally guests houses gave way to grand hotels and resorts. Many of the characters involved with these processes have left their names to many of the places we visit today.

While the bulk are named after these folks there are some more esoteric names that are more interesting. In the Whites we can find many Native American names that have survived, mostly words from the Algonquin language, but also names of famous Native American historical figures. Other popular figures of the time were used to name peaks. The Presidential Range was named for our nation’s presidents up until 1820 (although of interesting note, Mt. Washington was named after George Washington before he was president).  Mt. Washington has always attracted scientists, so was see many ravines and trails named for scientists that worked on the mountain. And finally there is a share of place names that have more interesting sources. There are some named after a semblance, such as the Imp face, Elephant’s head, and Indian Head. And finally, some are named after an event that happened there — Mt. Mitten, the Fool Killer, Mt. Deception, Nancy brook to name a few.

Presidential Range from Jefferson Highlands by Edward Hill

Presidential Range from Jefferson Highlands by Edward Hill

The book provides information about names and places in the Whites in alphabetical order, so it’s easy to jump around. However, I found it was an enjoyable read from cover to cover. This approach rewards the reader with the perfect introduction to the many characters in White Mountain history and a sturdy framework of understanding how things have come to past in this region. For me being enabled to break the timeline down into 6 manageable parts, it then became easy to dive further into the different eras and find books about specific subjects. Which lead me to:

Historical Relics Of The White Mountains. Also, A Concise White Mountain Guide by John H. Spaulding

Historical Relics of the White Mountains book cover

It’s in John H. Spaulding’s White Mountain guide where the characters in the aforementioned book start to come alive. This book was first published in 1855 and is a guide to the White Mountain region for both the historian and the tourist. A native to the area, Spaulding was a surveyor, teacher, hotel manager, and business man. Among his many achievements, he was on the team who surveyed the permanent border between New England and Canada, and later he managed the Tip Top house and Summit house on Mt. Washington for 9 years before moving to New York to be a superintendent of a cement company for over 20 years. In 1862, Spaulding and two companions were the first people to spend a night on top of Mt. Washington in the dead of winter. After New York, he moved back to NH and climbed Mt. Washington for the last time on his 70th birthday before passing away in Whitefield, NH at the age of 72.

Spaulding Historical Relics of the White Mountains, reveals his deep roots in the region providing a detailed history for many of the characters of the region’s past in addition to many hard facts useful to a tourist to the area. In the book, he spins tales that are sometime fantastical, sometimes factual, but all times intrinsic to appreciating the area and it’s surroundings. Some of the more colorful stories involve a horrific account of Captain Rogers’s brutal campaign to St. Francis, Quebec during the French and Indian War, a tragedy involving a Native American and how the demise of his family at the hands of a drunken white man turns him into a wretched soul, and, perhaps most interesting of all, a most excellent account of the “White Mountain Giant” Ethan Allen Crawford and his many escapades.

The many tales he weaves in this book are clearly the reflection a man with intimate knowledge of the region. His prose style lends to the authenticity of these stories, even to the stories that are clearly fantastical. Legend or not, these stories will be cataloged in your mind providing a rich source of campfire tales and that extra bit of insight sure to flavor your hike through the Whites.





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