Where did Sanpete get its Name?

Sanpete means “tule” or “bulrush.” This meaning is established by numerous reliable sources and consistent lines of evidence evaluated by an eminent reliable scholar. Sanpitch and Sanpits are simply variants of Sanpete and all mean the same thing. Native Americans in the Sanpete Valley before 1849 had an extensive marsh with tules/bulrushes to use not only for food but in numerous ways Catherine Fowler has shown in her book Tule Technology. The most likely plant Sanpete refers to is the hardstem bulrush (Scirpus acutus).

Setting the Record Straight: What does Sanpete mean?
In “Where does Sanpete’s name come from?” in the 29 July 2009 Sanpete Messenger, the idea was suggested that Sanpete came from a nickname, San Pedro, given to a Native American by the Spanish. That story, we now know, is based only on someone’s imagination. The actual meaning of Sanpete is “bulrush” or “tule.” The “San Pedro” nickname story is false and was fabricated by a person who was behind bars while spinning major portions of book after book out of his imagination. This nickname story was picked up by a researcher of Native Americans and put on his website, which was then quoted by the Sanpete Messenger.

With that said, we now proceed to establish the correct meaning of Sanpete (and also Sanpitch and Sanpits) using reliable sources. The most reliable source for the meaning of Sanpete connects the name Sanpitch to its English equivalent. The “Proceedings of a Council held by O.H. Irish Superintendent of Indian Affairs…” dated June 1865 mentions various Native Americans and gives (1) their names, (2) the English meaning of these names and (3) the tribal affiliations of those individuals: "Sanpitch (Bull Rush), Pan-sook (Otter), and Que-o-gand (Bear) represented the “Utahs.” Thus Sanpitch is given the meaning of “bull rush,” which properly joined is “bulrush.” That this meaning is the correct meaning is corroborated by many other reliable sources, including Southern Paiutes by LaVan Martineau. Martineau interviewed Native Americans starting in the 1940s for his book. He says the origin of Sanpete is “Sawmpeets’,” meaning “Tule.” He also mentions in two places that “Sawmpeev” means “Tule, Bulrush Scirpus.” (Scirpus is the Latin name for the genus of plants.)

Martineau also says “Sawmpee’tutseng” or “Sawmpeetseng” means “Tule people.” (An individual, thus, would be called “Sawmpee’tuts” or “Sawmpeets,” based on the singular/plural principles outlined in his book.) “Sawmpeets” sounds very much like “Sampits,” which is quite close to the designation scholars use (i.e., Sanpits) to describe this people in the authoritative multivolume Handbook of North American Indians. “Sanpete” would be an English way of taking what appears to be a plural and making it singular, and thus Sanpete, Sanpitch and Sanpits are all variants of the same root meaning of “tule” or “bulrush.”

The Ute Indians of Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico by Virginia McConnell Simmons puts the Sanpits as among the “tule people.” She says, “East of the Pahvants were the ‘tule people,’ the Sanpits (Sahpeech, Sawmpeet, San Pitch, San Pete) who occupied the upper valley of the Sevier River where Manti and Mount Pleasant are situated. Early white observers considered this group to be comparatively poor and sometimes called them ‘Diggers,’ but the Sanpits enjoyed good hunting territory and were far from destitute. They sometimes roamed far afield to the southeast. Sanpits were eventually relocated to the Uintah Reservation.”

Thus, three reliable printed sources refer to Sanpete/ Sanpitch/Sanpits as meaning “tule” or “bulrush.” In addition to these printed sources, there are numerous other lines of evidence that could be considered. For instance, another line of evidence is the naming conventions of tribes or clans. Native Americans often had tribal or clan names based on geography or on the major resources they used (e.g., “tule people” or “cattail eaters”).

Obviously the nickname story fails to match all the reliable evidence presented thus far. Not all of the evidence can be presented here, of course, but the various lines of evidence were offered for evaluation to the most respected authority on tules/bulrushes and marsh-related plants: Catherine S. Fowler, a former professor of University of Nevada, Reno.

Fowler concurred with the “tule” or “bulrush” meaning of Sanpete and found the lines of evidence consistent. She’s an ethnobotanist who has worked for decades on numerous Native American research questions, including linguistic questions, and her opinion is one of the most reliable and respected in her areas of study. Her husband, Don Fowler, is also an eminent scholar on Native Americans. Catherine’s book, Tule Technology, shows how tules/bulrushes were used widely in the Great Basin until very recent times for a multitude of purposes. In the Great Basin there are hundreds of springs and marshes, and even more in earlier days before the settlers altered the waterways for agriculture.

It should be pointed out that most water bodies in the Great Basin have greatly shrunk in size during the last 150 years. Fowler cites one marsh having shrunk so it was 11 times smaller in 1989 than it was 90 years prior.

In The Broken Land, Frank L. DeCourten speaks of Malheur Lake in Nevada: “In the past fifteen years it has varied from five hundred to fifty thousand acres in size.” Thus it can increase/decrease 100 fold in 15 years. “Malheur by some estimates is the nation’s largest freshwater marsh,” he writes.

The final line of evidence presented here concerns the marshes in Sanpete Valley itself. In Saga of the Sanpitch, Robert D. Nielson gives a short historical report in 1998 “about the entire watershed and the environment as it existed before 1925” in Sanpete Valley. He says: “The Sanpitch River was over 50 miles long from its upper origins … to its confluence with the Sevier River near Gunnison. Its course was varied and its flow erratic, depending on winter storms and snow melt. There were broad areas called the ‘swamps’ where there was low stream flow. The main swamp was as much as two miles wide and extended northerly for ten miles above the narrows near what is now Manti. The swamp supported dense growth of sedges, bulrushes and grasses on the muck soils built up over many years. … During the flooded period, October to June, and before and after the cold, icy winter, migrating waterfowl were seasonal occupants en route to and from their winter habitats.” He also says: “Sedges, rushes and grasses were in the swamp areas.”

Confirmation of this large swamp or marsh in Sanpete Valley is found in the Bureau of Land Management’s webpages. Land surveys in 1857 of three townships (R3E T17S, T16S and T15S) in the valley show an extensive section of marsh.

Albert Antrei in The Other 49-ers writes: “The Sanpitch River … was once a respectable barrier to crossing the valley.” He continues: “In the central valley, at its lowest point, the water table is very high; in fact, of the 220 square miles that comprise the valley floor, fully seventy square miles have a water table of ten feet or less beneath the surface. A great deal of acreage on both sides of the Sanpitch River north and south of Ephraim actually is a swamp, with the water table at or above ground level. Paradoxically for an arid region, the water problem over a large percentage of the valley floor is one of drainage, rather than irrigation.”

Albert Smith, an early settler in Sanpete Valley, wrote in his journal, “There are 10 miles and, perhaps more, of marsh that is covered with rushes and grasses.” Smith arrived in the valley in November 1849 (quoted in Albert Antrei, High, Dry, and Offside). He called the Native Americans “Sanpeters” and describes them.

We have very few archaeological sites in Sanpete County that have been examined by archaeologists to establish sufficiently what the Native Americans’ culture was like. However, the knoll on the west side of the southern terminus of 300 East in Ephraim has been investigated, and the findings were published in 1941.

In addition, tule mats have been found in locations throughout Utah. The original publication on “Fremont” Indians in 1931 by Morss refers to “tule mats” that were found in seven of the 27 caves they examined. All of these are within about 75 miles of Sanpete Valley (as the crow flies).

Marwitt in Handbook of North American Indians says: “Along the Basin-Plateau boundary, the typical Sevier Fremont site is a small hamlet or open settlement situated on an alluvial fan near a canyon mouth and convenient to a dependable source of water in the form of a perennial stream. With the exception of … sites of debatable classification discussed above, the settlements also tend to be relatively close to marshes.” He adds, “At Backhoe Village [in Sevier County] and perhaps elsewhere in the Sevier area, marsh resources appear to have been the primary component in the subsistence economy and the most crucial factor that allowed sedentary villages to be present in the locality.”

Thus, “permanent settlements were made possible in large part by exploiting productive marshlands.” Evidence indicates that Native Americans in Sevier County seemed to have used corn and cattails as food sources.

We know, however, based on investigations of early sites in nearby areas, that Native Americans were also able to remain in this valley by taking advantage of one of the major resources available in the large marsh in Sanpete Valley: tules/bulrushes.

More information on what Native American life was like before the settlers arrived in 1849 is available in Steven R. Simms, Ancient Peoples of the Great Basin and the Colorado Plateau. From these reliable sources, we now know Native Americans in the area were taking advantage of the extensive marsh with bulrushes and were known as the bulrush people or the tule people.

Thus, the name of the people and their valley sounded something like Sanpits or Sanpitch and became Sanpete. Sanpete Valley or Tule Valley or Bulrush Valley. It all means the same. Or does it?

The question “What does Sanpete mean?” cannot be answered solely by traipsing back into history. Doesn’t the name Sanpete also mean what the people in the valley choose to make it mean by the ways they live?

by Lyle Fletcher