Pause, if you will, and take a few moments out of your busy schedule to accept an introduction to a colorful individual named Smokey Jack. He’s not the main topic of this story, but meeting him will serve as an interesting path to the real subject of this tale, and that in turn will eventually lead us to the final destination of discovering how a 7,818 foot mountain peak in the Sierra Nevada Mountains got its name. Smokey Jack was not the man’s real name, of course, but an acronym settled upon his colorful personage by those who repeatedly chanced upon him over the years as he tended his flock of sheep in the higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This was just one of many acronyms which were tossed about, which included not only Smokey Jack because of his countless hours spent alongside a campfire, but also Baked Bean Johnnie because of his limited diet, and the inevitable Sheepshit Jack because of his years spent trailing along behind his herd of sheep and plodding through the byproducts of his profession. Unusually – at least in the case of mountain men – the gentler nickname of Smokey Jack was kindly settled upon as the more commonly used phrase to reference him.
Smokey Jack was a loner, yet cheerful in the company of his sheep. As he roamed through the mountains, camping for a week or two at one meadow before guiding his animals on to the next, he survived almost entirely on a diet of beans, slowly baked in his cast iron Dutch oven over a campfire and seasoned with mountain herbs he would pick along his walks. Rarely would there be any meat to add to the pot – Smokey Jack was a shepherd, not a hunter. Jack would begin each day with a bowl of beans, and after he had eaten his fill he would then proceed to stuff the pockets of his greatcoat with them, taking large handfuls from the pot and simply dumping them into the various pockets until they were full to overflowing, which he would them dip into and eat along the way, all day long. As evening fell he would again sit by the campfire and eat more beans, and the next day begin the same routine all over again; the Happy Shepherd with the pockets full of beans. As the days, months, and years passed without Smokey Jack ever changing his clothing, his pants and shirt as well as the greatcoat inevitably became soaked through with bean juice. The thick liquid also dripped down onto his socks and into his boots, which also became saturated with the stuff. But becoming saturated with beans did not, as one might imagine, destroy Jack’s clothing. Instead as it seeped into the cloth it made the fabric thicker and stiffer as it hardened. It also became more compact as Jack sat and laid on it, building upon the cloth and eventually burying the fabric within a sort of bean sandwich. As Jack walked through the hills and the valleys, pieces of the mountains and the meadows began to stick to him. When parts of his wardrobe upon which the beans had not quite completely dried brushed against a tree or shrub, then a leaf or twig would attach itself and become a part of Jack’s outfit. When Jack laid or sat down, then an insect body or dead animal part might become likewise affixed to his wardrobe, as would small stones. Butterflies and bees which flew into him were destined to remain forever. Eventually almost all of Smokey Jack’s original clothing and footwear lay hidden within layers of an impressive collection of botanical and biological specimens, all held in place by an ever-thickening layer of increasingly aged baked beans. With a large fur hat on his head, an impressive crop of facial hair, and a long wooden staff held in the hand that wasn’t being used to feed gobs of beans into his mouth, Jack might rightfully be construed to be someone in whom more than a passing interest would be taken.
Yet Smokey Jack continued to walk through life in the company of his sheep, blissfully unaware of any discomfort to himself or any perception of being slightly strange in the eyes of others. And yet, when Smokey Jack did happen to venture near towns or mining camps – such as on his annual pilgrimages to and from the mountain meadows in the spring and summer, or when he was taking shelter from the winter snow in one of the relatively civilized wooden structures of a mining town – then he was indeed looked upon with wonder. And sometimes with horror. For the mining camps and mountain towns of the Sierra Nevada were filled with immigrants from all over the world, and those new arrivals had brought along with them many of their traditions and much of their folklore. One of those traditions from the Germanic areas of Europe was that of the Habergeiss, which told of a giant goat-demon with snapping jaws and who was clothed in animal hides; a demon who could steal one’s soul as it menacingly approached and gazed into your eyes, jaws moving and teeth grinding; a salivating soul-devourer risen from out of the shadows. So when Smokey Jack walked out of a snow storm on a windy moonless night and pounded on the door of some unfortunate miner who had recently arrived from Germany, then that unlucky fellow might well be excused for having a wardrobe accident of his own as his bladder let loose and he screamed in fright at the sight of this Habergeiss, this demon who had followed him halfway around the world and was here to lay claim to his soul.
But, as I mentioned earlier, Smokey Jack is not the real topic of this story. He’s more of an introduction, useful in illustrating the fact that many of the immigrants to California in the mid-1800’s; many of the miners, loggers, and trappers who made up most of the population of these mountains, may have been Californians in the physical sense but were still rooted in Old Country ways as far as their culture, traditions, and patterns of thinking were concerned. And it was those deeply ingrained ways of thinking that helped to shape their reality.
Jacob Bockweiss was a German immigrant who lived near the town of Coloma in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Although he had started life in California by panning for gold, he soon tired of the backbreaking work and decided to trade in his pan and long-tom for a good rifle and a set of traps. He was an excellent shot, and providing food for the camps proved to be easier work than competing for the elusive yellow flakes with thousands of other men. He could sell the meat in town, send some of the pelts to sell in San Francisco, and still have enough leisure time to barter for a native wife and start a family – which he did. Jacob’s wife was named Sally – at least, that’s what he called her. Her real name and tribal affiliation are unfortunately forever lost. Jacob was one of many men in California who boasted German ancestry, and he was one of many first-generation immigrants who still held German culture and tradition fresh in their minds and hearts. It was one such aspect of this Germanic folklore – the Anklopfnachte - which inadvertently led to the naming of a mountain, but naming it not quite in the way which one might expect.
The German tradition of Anklopfnachte, or Knocking Nights, has in modern times lost its historic affiliation of mingling with The Dead and has instead evolved into a passive musical visitation akin to Christmas caroling. But in the mid-1800’s the tradition of Knocking Nights was still frightening in its Other-Worldly elements which it held over from centuries past. The Knocking Nights tradition dictated that the door to another world could open and allow a group of masked, caped demons through who would quietly approach a house or a farm, creeping silently toward the place where animals were kept, then knock loudly on a barn door or corral fence. The sudden noise in the middle of the night would startle the animals and they would vocalize their fear. And, if one listened closely, within these frightening squeals could be heard the names of people in the house or in the village; not just any people, but the names of those who were fated to die within the coming year, their fates foretold by the masked demons and given voice through the animals.
And so, late on the night of the Fifth Day of the Twelve Days of Christmas, there came a group of darkly cloaked and masked men to the cabin of Jacob and Sally Bockweiss; a group of his friends; a group of fellow German immigrants out in the night to play a joke on their German compatriot. They knocked and ran, waking the animals into an uneasy clamor as the masked men made their way off down the road laughing, still visible in the night as Jacob and Sally went out to see what was causing the disturbance. Upon seeing the backs of the retreating men and remembering what night it was, Jacob chuckled and went to settle the animals. But Sally was unfamiliar with the tradition, so after quieting the stock Jacob sat down by the fire to laughingly explain it to her. But Jacob was shocked when, instead of seeing his wife laugh at the prank as he expected, a look of horror fell across Sally’s face. When Jacob asked what was wrong, Sally began to shake and whispered that upon entering the yard she had heard the pigs squealing her name.
Jacob laughed and tried to ease her fears, saying that those weren’t real demons but just their neighbors out to play a joke; that animals could not foretell death; that Sally’s name had not been spoken by the pigs. But Sally would not be persuaded. She insisted that she had heard her name called; that her death had been foretold. And she asked Jacob to take her away from there; anywhere would be better as long as it was far away from the demons who had come calling; away from the pigs which had spoken her name. Jacob, of course, refused. He told her not to be silly. He said this was their home, this was where they made their living. Sally said they could make a living hunting and trapping anywhere; that they could live happily anywhere. Jacob refused. Sally begged him, pleading that she wanted their baby to be born away from this place; that she was afraid the baby wouldn’t be born at all if they stayed because she would die first. Jacob refused.
The holiday season passed and winter settled hard into the mountains. Most of the game had either migrated to lower elevations or was in hibernation, so Jacob was spending most of his time in the cabin with Sally, who never gave up in her pleading with Jacob to take her away. By the time Spring arrived Sally’s baby bump was large, and her pleas to leave became desperate. She could no longer sleep, as each night she awoke hearing the pigs squeal her name. “Sally. Sally.” And each night her sharp intake of breath as she sat bolt upright would also wake Jacob.
Finally, Jacob agreed to leave the town behind, and asked Sally where she wished to go. She immediately replied that farther up into the mountains would be best; away from people and domestic animals. So in May Jacob acquiesced and they departed, heading first in a southerly direction until the remaining snow no longer lay in their path, then higher up into the mountains. By June they were in what is now the Sierra National Forest, and the highest mountain they could see is now called Shuteye Peak. In the shadow of a smaller peak standing directly over them they set up a permanent camp, as Sally’s pains were growing sharp and frequent, and they knew the birth was quickly approaching. On the second day after making camp Sally went into labor. Jacob did his best to help her, laying her on a soft bed of animal skins and bathing her face in cold water. He later told friends that the only time he broke out in an uneasy sweat was when Sally would utter a sharp scream that would then echo off the rocks and through the ravines, as if other women were lurking out there repeating her call. At such times his own perspiration would become a cold blanket and send chills down his spine. On the third day in camp Sally finally gave birth. She had been in labor for more than twenty-four hours and was exhausted from the delivery as well as from the loss of blood; blood which continued to drain out of her after the birth was over. Jacob gave the baby a quick rub with a towel, then wrapped it in fur and laid the little girl in her mother’s arms. Sally moved the baby to her breast, and smiled happily up at Jacob as her tiny daughter attached her mouth and tried to suck.
Then Sally died.
Jacob buried Sally and her little baby girl there at the base of the peak under which she had given birth; Sally on her back with the baby still at her breast, both of them wrapped in soft, warm fur. He marked the grave with a cairn of stones and broke camp, his heart aching at leaving his family, but not able to make himself stay any longer there next to the grave. He said his goodbye, then looked up at the peak standing above and asked the spirit of the mountain to watch over them. And as he gazed up at the peak its shape brought to mind the image of Sally’s breast as he’d laid the baby on it, so he named the mountain Squaw Nipple Peak.
A romantic man? – Most definitely. An eloquent man? – Perhaps not so much.
Jacob left the high country and returned for a while to his cabin near Coloma, then moved onward from town and from history after leaving one name on a map.
The peak continued to carry that name on maps through the end of the 1800’s. But by the turn of the century the name was getting abbreviated to Squaw Peak, and as the 1900’s took hold it underwent another change to Squaw Dome, the name it still carries to this day. Sally and her unnamed baby still lie somewhere beneath, the cairn of stone having long vanished.
The naming of a place can be a strange thing, sometimes reflecting the spirit of that place, or sometimes instead instilling a spirit within it. Sally’s spirit of feeding her newborn daughter, the last act of a new mother as she lay dying, was gifted upon that mountain by her husband and then changed years later, perhaps out of deference to political correctness, or more likely due to anatomical prudishness.
For map makers, ‘Squaw’ is apparently perfectly acceptable, while ‘nipple’ remains offensive.
Smokey Jack, or Squaw Nipple Peak. It’s all in the name.
With a degree in Anthropology and an avid interest in history, Tim Christensen has lived in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for many years. He has no cell phone or television, but manages, when not chopping firewood or shoveling snow, to keep himself entertained with a library of several thousand books.
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