By all historical accounts, there is no “River of Lost Souls” running through Durango. So how is it that over the years that’s become the adopted, dramatized name of the Animas River?
“It’s just not a black and white issue,” said Robert McDaniel, a former director of the Animas Museum. “There’s been a lot of different reasons and theories put forth.”
The first documented instance of the Animas River getting its name was from Spanish explorer Juan Maria Antonio Rivera, who led what is considered the earliest known Western expedition through this region in 1765.
Crossing the river south of what would become known a century later as Durango, Rivera called the river, according to his journals, the “Rio de Las Animas” – the River of Souls.
Missing from the name is any mention of “perdidas,” the Spanish word for “lost.”
More than a decade later, Rivera was followed by the Escalante-Dominguez expedition, which also referred to the river as the “Rio de las Animas” when it crossed the same section of the river in 1776.
Nik Kendziorski, archives manager for Fort Lewis College’s Center of Southwest Studies, said none of the old maps from that time period call the Animas a river of lost souls.
“I haven’t seen any maps with reference to ‘perdidas,’” he said. “But for some reason that word gets thrown in there.”
It’s possible, but not likely, that earlier expeditions unsanctioned by the Spanish crown passed through the region, and perhaps they gave the waterway the “River of Lost Souls” moniker, McDaniel said.
Another explanation may be explorers confused another river in Southeast Colorado, in present day Las Animas County, known as the Rio de Las Animas Perdidas en Purgatorio – the River of Lost Souls in Purgatory.
The more probable explanation is that the Animas River took on the myth of being a haven for “lost souls” when English settlers arrived nearly 100 years later, McDaniel said.
He said the first known reference to the River of Lost Souls was in Ernest Ingersoll’s Crest of the Continent, originally published in 1885.
“In the loftier heights beyond, the verdure-clad mountains are seen rising into shapely cones and coquetting with the fleecy clouds,” he wrote. “Such were the elements of the sublime view in the Cañon of the Rio de las Animas Perdidas.”
Role of newspapersAuthor and journalist Jonathan Thompson, a sixth-generation Durangoan, detailed much of the mystery surrounding the naming of the Animas River in his recently released book, River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster.
Thompson said the earliest reference to “lost souls” in newspapers was in 1890 in the Colorado Chieftain. A report said when Mexicans settled the region, “they named the principal stream which flows through the valley in which is Durango, ‘Animas,’ or ‘the river of lost souls.’”
The name seemingly started to catch on, especially as newspapers tied the ominous moniker to deaths and disasters that occurred over the years.
Thompson pointed to a 1900 article in the Durango Wage Earner, covering a story about a recent death:
“Again have the treacherous waters of the Animas River laid their icy hands on one of Durango’s noble young men and stilled his heart in death. Well may this river be called the river of lost souls, for under its cold, cruel waters have numbers of brave souls been lost to families and friends in this life.”
Two years later, the Wage Earner turned the narrative to the pollution contamination in the headwaters of the Animas River farther north, where mining was in its heyday in Silverton.
“Only a few short years ago and it was a puzzle to understand why the Spaniards named the Animas River ‘The River of Lost Souls,’ but looking into its polluted waters now, it is easy to understand that it was an inspiration that moved them. If lost souls could have any worse water to use than those of the Animas, we can hardly conceive how it could be.”
The lore of the River of Lost Souls was likely perpetuated when the Wage Earner gave a false account of the origin of the river’s name, claiming that Escalante had in fact named the river and included “perdidas.”
“After that, it was pretty common for newspapers to just call it ‘River of Lost Souls,’” Thompson said.
Legends large and smallOver the years, it’s a common practice for locals to attribute tragedies on the river to the supposed myth of lost souls.
“Rivers always claim lives … but I would say the Animas definitely could be considered a treacherous river,” McDaniel said. “And yes, there have been lost souls, but as to whether that has any bearing on the name, I don’t know.”
Local historian and Fort Lewis College history professor emeritus Duane Smith said long ago lores continue to feed into the myth that the Animas is a historically ill-fated place.
Smith tried for years to confirm a popular legend that an expedition of Spanish soldiers and civilians drowned while trying to cross the Animas River – to no avail.
“It’s just one of those great legends,” Smith said. “And some of those legends are hard to prove.”
Thompson said that when he was growing up, playing with his friends along the banks of the Animas River, his grandmother used to tell them that if they fell in the Animas, they would end up as one of those lost souls.
“It worked,” Thompson said. “I was scared ... of one section … where the bank had eroded away in a place where there were some big cottonwood trees, so the water was all green and murky and probably pretty deep, and it had these backless stumps and branches sticking out that had been worn smooth by the water so they looked like giant bones of some creature. And because of all the snags in the river there, there were a lot of pretty serious eddies, which my parents called ‘the undertow’ that would allegedly suck you under.”
Another friend’s mom would tell the neighborhood kids the story of “La Lloronoa,” the ghost of a woman who lost her child to the river and now roams the banks, looking to grab other kids into its waters.
“So that just scared us even more, although it didn’t really keep us away from the river,” Thompson said. “At least not in the daytime. At night? Different story.”
Perhaps that’s how a name like the River of Lost Souls sticks.