HOW TUCUMCARI GOT ITS NAME

Cerro

(Spanish for larger than a hill but smaller than a mountain) Tucumcari is thought to be among the oldest place names in New Mexico. Unfortunately, the real origin and meaning of Tucumcari is not known for certain. Most historians and linguists believe that it is derived from a Plains Indian term, possibly Comanche, meaning “lookout point” or “signal peak.”

T.M. Pearce, an English professor at the University of New Mexico, researched the origin of Tucumcari. He says that Elliot Canonge, an Oklahoma linguist, has the most convincing explanation. Canonge believes that the name comes from the Comanche Tukamukaru which means to lie in wait for someone or something to approach. According to Felix Kowena, Canonge’s Comanche informant, Tucumcari Mountain was frequently used as a lookout by Comanche war parties. The mountain peak was an excellent lookout point since it can be seen from the Texas Panhandle more than 50 miles away.

According to Herman Moncus, a local historian, another possible meaning for the word comes from the Jemez Indians who lived in the Rio Grande Valley, but hunted in Eastern New Mexico before 1800. Moncus believes that Tucumcari can be translated from the Jemez language to “place of the buffalo hunt.” Moncus’ research determined that the Jemez Indians probably learned the name from other tribes and he believed that it could be a name surviving from the pre-Indian or paloe-Indian periods.

On a less scholarly note, in 1907 a Methodist minister created a story about how the name evolved. The two finest warriors of an Apache tribe that made their home at the mountain met in combat to determine who would succeed their dying Chief Wautonomah. The survivor would also win the hand of the chief’s daughter, Kari. Tocom, the brave loved by Kari, was slain by Tonopah in the battle. Overcome with grief and rage, Kari seized her knife, killed Tonopah and took her own life. Heartbroken at this tragic turn of events, the old chief stabbed himself, crying out as he died, “Tocom-Kari, Tocom-Kari.” This story is what became known as “The Legend of Tucumcari.”

Information from: 
Robert Julyan, The Place Names of New Mexico, Revised Edition. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998.

Gil Hinshaw, Tucumcari: Gateway to the West (A History of Quay County).

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