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What's in a Name? Sleuthing a Mountain Called Mansfield

State of the Arts


At 4393 feet in elevation, Mozodepowadso ranks as the biggest thing in Vermont.

What? Never heard of Old Mozo? OK, maybe you know it by the translation of its Abenaki name: Moosehead Mountain.

Still doesn’t sound familiar?

That’s because neither the native name nor its English-language version remained in use after the mid-18th century. Vermont’s most prominent natural feature instead came to be called Mt. Mansfield.

No one knows for sure why a few Abenaki place names — Winooski, Missisquoi and Ascutney among them — survived the coming of the white man while many others, including Mozodepowadso, did not.

Colin Calloway, a professor of Native American studies at Dartmouth College and author of a book on Abenaki history, offers a general explanation.

“In lots of cases Indian names are replaced as part of the erasure of the Native past (and presence),” he writes in an email. “In cases where Indian names survive, it can be because the name just sticks and enters the local language, or it may be that the newcomers want to keep them as romanticized reminders of the area’s Native heritage.”

It’s also not entirely clear why the mountain got labeled Mansfield. Any topographical-anatomical resemblance notwithstanding, we can state with assurance that it is not named for 1950s Hollywood sex kitten Jayne Mansfield.

As is the case with many Vermont place names, there are “several theories” for the origins of this one, writes Robert Hagerman in his 1975 book Mansfield: The Story of Vermont’s Loftiest Mountain.

He starts by dismissing the suggestion that the name has something to do with farming — as in “Man’s Field.” Hagerman doesn’t argue the point on his own. He cites an 1861 letter to the editor of a Montpelier newspaper from a certain “R.L.P.” of Stowe. “Man’s Field,” this letter writer scoffs, would be “inappropriate for a locality so little adopted to agricultural purposes.”

In her authoritative 1977 book Vermont Place Names: Footprints of HIistory, Esther Munroe Swift offers the standard explanation for “Mansfield.” Her exegesis is echoed in the Wikipedia entry for the mountain.

Swift and others say the mountain shared the name of a since-vanished Vermont town, whose early settlers included a contingent of flatlanders from Mansfield, Conn.

Hagerman doesn’t buy that, though. He turns this time to Dr. W.G.E. Flanders, whom Hagerman describes as an innkeeper on Mansfield’s western flank during the 1920s. Claiming to have given the matter “considerable study,” Flanders concluded that the mountain and town alike were named for a chief justice of England, Lord Mansfield.

Flanders rejected the Connecticut connection because, he noted, the town called Mansfield in that state didn’t come to be known as such until 1774. That’s 11 years after Benning Wentworth, the governor of the British colony of New Hampshire, issued a charter to a group of grantees in what he dubbed the town of Mansfield, Vt. (Its territory was later divided between the towns of Underhill and Stowe.)

Wentworth “had good reason to honor Lord Mansfield by naming the town after him,” Hagerman says. He notes that Mansfield and another English official had jointly ruled in 1752 that the land between the Connecticut River and Lake Champlain should be considered part of the Wentworth-governed royal province of New Hampshire, and not of New York, which also claimed that territory.

Footnote: Even though Mansfield is indisputably the tallest mountain in Vermont, it probably is not the best loved. Mansfield’s anthropomorphic profile — forehead, nose, lips, chin — can’t match the shapely appeal of its more glamorous neighbor, Camel’s Hump. French settlers thought the shorter mountain resembled a lion, so they called it Le Lion Couchant.

And that moniker has occasioned its own dispute. Vermont peaceniks hate it when Le Lion Couchant gets translated as Crouching Lion. It’s “couching,” they insist, because, as Hagerman relates, that term signifies “rest and repose rather than alertness of imminence of attack.”

Thanks to Green Mountain Club director Will Wiquist for passing along the relevant section of Robert Hagerman’s book. Thanks also to the GMC summit caretakers who have worked for decades to protect the alpine vegetation atop Mozodepowadso.