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Thunder Mountain Changes its Name

Thunder Mountain Changes its Name

Death of the Thunder Bird Wipes Out a People and Brings the Desert

New Mexico

By Rose Jasper Nickell

The most nearly perfect extince [sic] volcanic crater in North America is found in Union County, New Mexico. So unusual is this crater—so unique its location—detached, alone, apart from other mountains or chains—that it has been set aside by the government as one of the great national monuments of the West.

The mountain receives its name from an old Indian Legend.

Many, many years ago when the only inhabitants of the region were Indians, a happy and peaceful tribe lived on the sunny slopes of this, at that time, perfect mountain. The peak, whose sides were covered with fragrant pine, spruce and balsam with clusters of snowy bodies aspens mingling with the darker green of the other trees, towered far, far up into the azure sky.

Some days a thin lavender-gray haze concealed the highest pinnacle; other days heavy mantle of gray clouds descended the sides of the mountain hanging jewels of mist on every leaf and spine of the trees; and yet there were other times when the sun shone with brilliant splendor flodding [sic] the mountain with light from the base to its crown of perpetual snow, which supplied the tribe with water through out the year, and in the summer filled their ditches from which they irrigated crops of beans, corns and pumpkins.

The Indians called the peak “Thunder Mountain” because at intervals faint rumbling sounds were heard within its depths. Sometimes the mountain trembled as if in fear or anger. This always happened when some one of the tribe had offended the Great Spirit. But no harm was ever done because the tribe was guarded by the sacred “thunder bird” whose picture can be seen to this day oramenting [sic] almost all Western Indian pottery. When the mountain shook the thunder-bird appeared, flew to the highest craig [sic], and with out spread wings remained until all agitation within the mountain ceased.

The chief of the tribe was  growing old. He had two sons— Capulin, who would be chief some day, and Oogah, a lazy vaunting buck, who boasted that he was the best hunter in the tribe— when he wanted to be.

One day the chief called a council of all the braves. After an impressive silence he said: “The roving Indians—the Apaches— too lazy to plant beans and corn, come nearer each day. Our food is almost ready to be gathered and put away for the winter. If they come and steal, braves, papooses, squaws go hungry. They drive the buffalo far away. Our meat is scarce. I wish to send a peace message to them. Who will go?”

Silence. Each brave looked steadfastly on the ground. At last Oogah said, “Let Capulin go. He needs to know them. One day he will be chief. Let him meet the danger now— if he is brave enough,” he added flauntingly.

Capulin flushed, looked at his father, who nodded his head, then rose at once and went to the communal house to be made ready for the journey by a pretty black haired squaw— his squaw of a week.

Equipped with the arms of a hunter, he also carried a skin full of sacred meal to be scattered along his pathway to ward off evil spirits or to be thrown into the air lest the bird of ill omen—the owl—might beset his path with trouble. Twelve potent ears of “squaw corn” were tied to another skin bag.

As he walked down the path toward the plain he lifted his eyes to the top of Thunder Mountain where the thunder-bird was hovering high in the air— a good omen.

The bright eyes of his squaw watched him until a bend in the path hid him from sight.  

Capulin was expected back within the week. But weeks, even months came and went, yet he did not return. The entire tribe, except his faithful squaw, had given up hope of ever seeing him again. Many braves tried to woo her but she always said, “Capulin will come.”

Oogah, who now expected to be chief, become more arrogant and cruel each day. Often as he sat beneath the shade he drew an arrow, fitted it to his bow and ruthlessly killed any object within range, not for the benefit of himself or tribe but for the sheer love of shedding blook [sic]. If the victim of his skill struggled in its death agony it added pleasure to the success of his marksmanship. One day he and another buck walked on the mountain together. He boasted of his skill with his bow, and vauntingly said, “I can kill anything—anything that crosses my path.”

The other replied, “But there is one thing you must not kill— the thunder bird.”

Oogah became enraged, “Who says I must not? I am soon to be chief. My father weeps daily for Capulin who will never return. Who dares say, ‘I must not?’”

At that moment a shadow flickered across their path. Both looked up and there, floating above them was the thunder-bird. Quicker than thought Oogah drew an arrow, fitted it to his bow— and shot. For a sickening moment the bird hung in the air, then careened to one side, the great wings falling limp as it dropped at the feet of Oogah, an arrow through its heart.

Dismayed, Oogah started. After several moments he lifted the bird, hid it in the crevice of a large boulder, piled small stones and sticks over it, and without a word turned toward the communal house at the foot of Thunder Mountain.

That evening at sunset the mountain rumbled and shook. So prolonged and so intense was the trembling that the entire tribe rushed from the house to scan the heavens for the thunder-bird.

 It was nowhere in sight.

The mountain continued to tremble from top to base. Great cracks appeared in the walls of the communal house. The assembled braves implored the protection of the Great Spirit, praying Him to send the thunder-bird.

 All night the quaking continued.

The next morning thin spirals of foul-smelling smoke coiled in the air as they hissed through fissures made in the mountain top during the night.

The old chief called the entire tribe together. The old man prayed to the Great Spirit by throwing earth into the air and allowing it to fall on their fear-stricken faces. The young men performed almost miraculous feats of strength in an effort to persuade the Great Spirit to send the thunder-bird.

The women threw sacred meal into the air and along the paths. Even the chubby little children, waving wands of green twigs, danced until exhausted, in an effort to divert the impending disaster.

 Oogah and his companion of the day before participated in it all; each silent for fear of losing his life at the hands of an angry tribe.

Each day the mountain grew more violent. Huge boulders flew into the air, crashed and rolled down the mountain. Molten streams of rock hissed through the snow cap. Fierce flames shot upward. The snow melted and the air became intensely hot.

The people no longer stayed in the communal house but sought the open loain [sic]. The water became foul. Children cried of thirst. Still they hoped and prayed for the return of the thunder-bird. Although many of the Indians were too weak to continue the dance or supplications.

The mountain and surrounding plains rocked at each explosion. Great spouts of boiling water coursed through the cracked surface. A mantle of smoke and ashes constantly emitted from the angry peak completely hid the face of the sun. Late one evening an explosion equaling all previously combined thunders of wrath tore away the entire mountain top, hurling rocks, mud and lava over the land and mantling the plain near the mountain base with a thick covering of debris.

All life was snuffed out.

After an absence of several months, Capulin, who had been taken captive and made a slave by the enemy tribe, escaped and returned to the land of his fathers. Fear and dismay assailed him as he viewed the lifeplain [sic] over which he passed as he approached the mountain, of his birth. As he turned a point of land which brought the half mountain, blackened and lifeless, to his view he gazed, transfixed, on the ruin before him. With leaden heart and weary step he toiled up the side of the crater over which continued to pour isolated streams of lava. He reached the top; gazed into the lake, whitehot [sic], seething and rolling below him. With arms outstretched over the burning crater and eyes lifted to the sky. He cried, “O, Great Spirit! Some evil has wrought this. If my life will atone, it is thine.” Then he threw himself in the fiery mass below.

The thick black smoke became lighter. The lurid glare against the sun drew dimmer. The streams of lava diminished; became smaller and smaller. No longer it poured over the edge of the crater. Large buggles [sic] burst with a clash in the cooling basin. Hissing steam quieted to a simmering.

Later all was still.

Thunder Mountain had become an extinct volcano.

Many, many years later when other Indians ventured to climb its sides they saw a magnificent pine tree growing from the heart of the crater. As the wind from the western mountains moaned through its branches they heard the Great Spirit Whisper. “Capulin: Capulin: He gave his life to right a wrong. Capulin.”

Thus “Thunder Mountain” has become “Capulin” – the most nearly perfect crater in North America.


(Courtesy Amarillo News-Globe)

(Taken from the New Mexico Magazine of June 1934, Published by the Bureau of Publications, State of New Mexico)


Mount Capulin.


Henry H. Lawrence


So desolate and lonely on the plain

This mountain stands, where once the fires of the earth

Fought for supremacy and then gave birth

To Lava flows that spread like waters after rain.

The vegetation must have felt the pain

Of unaccustomed burning on the hearth

And over all the land there was a dearth

Of grass until spring returned again.


But now the rounded, silent cratered cone

Is a majestic monument of Time

Recording the travail the earth passed through.

The mantle of its past is ‘round it thrown

In scientific messages and rime

To crown a conquering mountain standing true.

*Works Progress Administration Files, Box 25, File Folder 240. Courtesy of the State Records Center and Archives.
Reproducing prohibited without express permission from the State Records Center and Archives.