Terlingua NAME

It has long been a mystery where the name Terlingua came from.   The theories I’ve heard when I first started to wonder about the name origin in 1992 – that Terlingua means three tongues or three languages (English, Spanish, and Indian)  did not have a feel of common logical sense.    There were not simply 3 languages in this area over the ages.    There were several Native American languages before the white man settled the area,   so with English and Spanish,   why would someone limit all of the Indian languages into just one?   Didn’t make sense.

I asked  historians what they knew about the name origin.


” Find old maps”,  the scholars would tell me, ” if you research,  that is where you may find the answer.


So that it what I set out to do and I was surprised how revealing the evolution of the name really was.


“There is a possibility that somewhere,  maybe in Spain,  yet to be translated,   more history from the early Spaniard explorers or missionaries”,   another scholar told me.


This gave me a lot of incentive to search for old maps and look in every  book on the early explorers at the Sul Ross University and on-line for any information that may pertain to the name.


Early map makers were in touch with early explorers as it clearly shows in the early maps and diaries.  I found such satisfaction and entertainment in seeing how the name appears in early maps as the area became more known.


In 2002  the libraries in Alpine had some maps,  the library at Sul Ross in the Archives had an exhibit of early Texas maps,  but the names of the Terlingua area weren’t on those maps.


Then I discovered maps on-line from the websites of the General Land Office and the State Library Archives,  and numerous other sites such as private collections and other university libraries.  I felt I had hit the jackpot.       (note:  since the time of my research the Sul Ross State University has been donated a huge collection of old historical maps –  The Davis Collection).    The maps that had the Terlingua area with names,  I downloaded,  and they are on this site in the Historic Map page .


In the late 1800’s,  names of the Terlingua Creek were variations of “Latis Lengua, Tas Lengua, Los Lenguas,” and other similar names.    The name may have been a corrupted pronunciation of the original name by the people who inhabited the area before the Mexican and Anglo, the people who left their carvings on rocks, their grinding stones, their arrow points.

The 1880’s  Military Maps show the Terlingua Creek as  Latis Lengua  and Tarlinga Creek, exhibiting also Tarlinga Peak.   (see the 1884 map in the historic map page.


In the late 1800’s,  in the  SECOND ANNUAL REPORT OF THE Geological Survey OF Texas, 1890  the name, Lates Lengua is  again called  Tarlinga.  Quoted here, in the report:   Southeast from the Bofecillos towards the extreme southern point of the great bend of the Rio Grande we find located the Tarlinga (Treslinguas) Peak, the Rosillas, Corazones, and Chisos (Specter) mountains”….and….”On the western slope of this divide we find as tributaries to the Rio Grande the Tornillo, draining the valley between the Sierra St. Jago and the Rosillas, Corazones, and Chisos Mountains.West of the three last named mountain groups, the Tarlinga (Treslinguas) takes its course toward the Rio Grande, and some smaller creeks, the names of which I could not ascertain (most of which seem to be only drainage beds for rain water), may be mentioned on this side of the Sierra Bofecillos.” (from http://www.lib.utexas.edu/books/dumble/publications/08/08b671a.html )


In the above report, the earlier name variations of Lates Lengua and Latis Lenguas are beginning to be shown as Treslinguas (with Tarlinga).   The name Lates Lengua did not just occur in a few maps.


Besides the ones that are posted on the Historic map page,  the following maps also show the name as similar to Latis Lengua, or Lates Lengua, and are available at Texas State Library: 1858 Presslers Map of Texas 1870 Texas Pacific Railroad Map of Texas 1873 Map of Texas and Pacific Railway 1873 Colton’s Texas 1878 Map of Texas 1880 Roessler’s Latest Map of Texas   There is also an original framed map showing this version at the Sul Ross library, in the Archives Library. There are many more maps with the name similar to Lates Lengua.



In the Lt. William Echols Camel Expedition Map, 1859-60 map, and diary, (see map page), Echols describes a watering place called LaHita, and lists it on the map.   This location is what appears to be Coltrin’s Camp, (as shown on the 1902 Terlingua District map).   Echols refers to Lachita Crossing, and La Hita.    In most of the early (1855 to 1880’s) maps that title Terlingua Creek, it is listed as names that are very similar to Lates Lengua.



The Spanish word Lengua interpreted into English is  tongue .  Also in the Spanish dictionary,  I found the Spanish term  lengua de tierra translated into English  as tongue of land.


Where Terlingua Creek meets the Rio Grande, the creek often has water at this confluence, and is quite large after rains.  And everyone familiar with Terlingua Creek knows that the Northern watershed for this creek extends almost to just South of Alpine, at the O2 Ranch.  This is a huge  watershed.   (The watershed to the south extends all the way to the Chisos Mountains,  where the Basin’s rainfall  pours down  into Oak Canyon Creek which empties into Rough Run which empties into Terlingua Creek.


The Spanish words La Jita translated into English is  flat rock.


Since Echols knew of the name La Hita, or Lachita, the name was probably used in maps that they may have been using, many likely being hand drawn sketches.   But the name La Hita did exist prior to Echols’ camel expedition.   Echols’ map is in a large format in the maps page.  In his diary he noted that the location – La Hita –  was a known source of good water.   However when they arrived,  it was dry.     A good source of water would be the first place anyone would need to know about,   especially in the dry extreme heat of the Big Bend.   ( The Camel Experiment in Echols’ diary can be seen online )


As time would progress, one can see how the name pronunciation, Lahitas, (for Lajitas) or La Jita (Flat Rock)  could have been mispelled,  or  copied wrong,  becoming the spelling Lates.    Just miles from the “Lachitas” crossing,(from Echols’ diary,  is  the  large river of the Rio Grande, at the “Grande Puerta”, (Grand Door), or Mouth as we call it today.  The creek backed up into this larger body of water, at the Mouth of the Santa Elena Canyon.


It seems possible that  the name Lajitas Lengua  could easily have been heard or written on paper, and corrupted by the Anglo as “Lates Lengua”.   This corruption could have initially occurred with an error in tracing, or copying a poor copy of another map, which is how maps were copied by the early mapmakers.


How does Lates Lengua evolve into Terlingua?


We  have maps that show how Terlingua  (or Tarlinga) is listed simultaneously with Lates Lengua, (see the military maps of 1883 & also 1884).   County Survey Maps and survey field notes by Gano, the Deputy surveyor for Presidio County in the 1880’s, recorded the creek  as TOS LINGUAS and TASA LINGUAS ARROYA.


When considering where the word latis or lates came from,   look back at the map that shows La Hita,  (in Echols’ map of 1860) and those before and after.

It is easy to for one to see how the early travelers were aware of an area on the map that was close to the mouth of the  river (Rio Grande),  which was known on these maps as La Hita,  corruption of words La Jita.     When the cartographers would see La Hita so close to the mouth of the Rio Grande,  or tongue,  it is not that hard to imagine how the words La Hita Lengua evolved into Terlingua.


Remember also that the old adobe and rock ruins on Terlingua Creek that are known as Terlingua Abaja, or Terlingua Abajo,  in the Big Bend National Park,   located a short distance upstream from the mouth of the Rio Grande,  was a Mexican farming  settlement known as TERLINGUA.   ( The settlement became known as   Terlingua Abaja,  or lower Terlingua when the Mariposa mine became the mail post called Terlingua).        The first Terlingua  was located quite near La Jita ( La Hita)  and the confluence of Lates Lengua and Rio Grande.     La Hita   became the name Lates in maps.     All of these early variations  of names  are listed in the  maps on this site.    One early map even titles the Creek Tos Lengua.    Not far at all from the word Terlingua.


(Bonnie Wunderlich, Terlingua)


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