by Lyle Fletcher, Sanpete Messenger
? Easy question, right? Of course the name comes from the name of the San Pitch River that flows through the area. And the river, in turn, gets its name from the band of Indians that lived here at the time the Mormon pioneers moved in. Tracing back further, the Sanpitch Indians got their name from a leader, one Chief Sanpitch, who led the tribe in the late 1700s. Simple as that.
Maybe not, says Phillip Gottfredson, a man who has studied Native Americans for many years. It’s not uncommon for people who live in Sanpete to face questions about the county’s name. For instance, they often encounter the name of the county written as “San Pete” or even “St. Pete,” as though it came from the Spanish custom of naming places after saints or holy people. In Spanish, the word “san” means “saint,” so “San pete” looks like many other Spanish place names sprinkled across the West, such as San Francisco, San Bernardino and San Diego. But those who live here know better than that.
Or do they? Gottfredson says that “Sanpitch” comes from “San Pete,” which was a nickname the Spanish gave to the old Indian chief. Gottfredson says the names Sanpete and Sanpitch “both have their origins in the Spanish name San Pedro,” which, in English, means Saint Peter. He also says, “There would be no Indian translation for Sanpete or Sanpitch because they are not Indian words.” How, then, did a Native American receive the name of Sanpitch, if “Sanpitch” is not a Native American word?
Gottfredson can answer that question also. He makes the point that what people call themselves is often not what others call them, and provides an example: “The name Black Hawk [the Indian chief] is not Ute. It is a name Brigham Young in jest called him, and the name stuck.” He makes a few more points on names and languages: “The Ute have a hard time determining a lot of the names because they are spelled phonetically and cannot be translated.” So when Gottfredson gives us a Ute name, he’s giving us no more than hints on how to pronounce it.
Gottfredson says, “The word ‘Sanpitch’ phonetically in Ute sounds like ‘saw-peesh.’ That’s why the different versions of Sanpete, Sanpitch and so forth.” But who was this original Sanpitch/Sanpete, and what was his life like? Gottfredson can tell that story as well. Gottfredson says the man called “San Pedro” was really named Pan-a-pitch (again, only a hint of how he thinks the Utes would pronounce it). So here’s the story of Pan-a-pitch, based on Gottfredson’s website (www.blackhawkproductions.com). It’s the story of the man who was later known as San Pedro by the Spanish, and then known as Sanpitch or Sanpete by those who spoke English.
Pan-a-pitch was born in the Uintah Basin on the banks of the Green River around 1752. When he was 3 or 4 years old, his father was forced to leave their homeland. So Pan-a-pitch rode from the Green River about 150 miles to what was known as the Timpanogos River (now the Provo River which flows through Wasatch and Utah counties) tied to the back of a pony. Pan-a-pitch was a great warrior, and his feats of daring made him legendary among the neighboring tribes. He stole horses from other tribes and ranged as far south as Santa Fe to sell Piede and Paiute slaves to the Spaniards.
On one expedition, the Spaniards captured him and tortured him to get him to tell the source of the Ute gold, which the Indians wore as trinkets on their bodies. He refused to tell them, saying he’d die rather than betray his people. “The Spanish governor devised a plan to convert him to Christianity in the hopes that he would then reveal his secrets. Pan-a-pitch was sent to a monastery in Mexico where he was held by the provincial minister of the Franciscans. He was shorn of his long hair, made to wear Spanish clothing, and taught the Spanish language, as well as the rudiments of Catholicism. He was fitted with a metal collar and chained to the floor at night,” says Gottfredson.
He continues, “After several years of captivity, Pan-a-pitch was able to effect his escape and returned to his mountain home in the north, with an undying hatred of the Spaniards. For many years thereafter he would raid their territory and steal their horses, until the [Ute] warriors became the best mounted and best experienced in the region.” The Spaniards gave Pan-a-pitch a new “Christian” name- San Pedro (Saint Peter). Gottfredson says, “In time this was shortened to simply ‘San Pete,’ though his people, wrapping their tongues around the syllables, called him ‘Sanpitch.’ The place where his tribe lived came to be known as Sanpete Valley.”
In about 1815, a detachment of Spaniards came up from Santa Fe and once again captured Pan-a-pitch (aka San Pedro/Sanpitch/Sanpete) and tried to convince him to lead them into the mountains to the source of the Ute gold. “When he still obstinately refused, they fired a cannon into his tepee, killing his favorite wife and at least one of his young sons. He finally agreed to lead them,” Gottfredson says. He continues the sad tale: “After the Spaniards had found the source of the gold, they put Chief Sanpete and two of his men to death and buried their bones in rock cairns in the mountains. But his people found them and rode hard for the valley to warn the tribe of the treachery.”
Sanpete"s son, Uintah (Old Uinta), then in his late 30s, was now chief of the Sanpete Utes because of the death of his father. Old Uinta was the father of another Chief Sanpitch, who ended up being killed near Fountain Green in 1866 during the Black Hawk War. In fact, this second Sanpitch was the father of Black Hawk, or Nooch- the one Brigham Young named in jest.
So there you have it. Many years have come and gone since the original Sanpete/Sanpitch lived, yet his name remains on San Pitch River (earlier called San Pete Creek), the San Pitch Mountains, and on the county itself. And assuming Gottfredson is correct, the name traces back to relationships between the Spanish and Native Americans during pre-Revolutionary War times, more than a century before the Mormon pioneers arrived.