Jeri L. Norgren is a fifth-generation Colorado native. Having spent most of her life exploring the mountains and all the wonders they hold, she became fascinated with the nomenclature of the highest peaks and began her journey. As a member of the Denver Fortnightly Club, she has authored numerous papers on various topics, including one that grew into this book. She lives on an historic farm in Englewood.
Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?
A chance comment I heard four years ago set me on the path that would result in this book. I am a member of a women’s literary club founded in 1881 and at one of our meetings the president was reading from past minutes and press clippings. She read from a Denver Post article which stated that the Denver Fortnightly Club was instrumental in having the name of Mount Rosalie changed to Mount Evans.
Curious about this name change, I began researching the story and soon became intrigued with the origins of other high peak names and set out on what turned into a three-year journey of research and discovery. I didn’t initially set out to write a book and was only researching to satisfy my own curiosity. However, after a few years it became apparent that all of the information I had gathered on the naming of Colorado’s 58 14,000-foot peaks had never before been published in a single source and was a piece of Colorado history that needed telling.
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?
I chose the excerpt because it illustrates how dedicated the men of the surveys were to their jobs as well as being incredibly adventurous souls. The information gathered by the men of the Hayden Survey in the summers of 1873 and ’74 while in the San Juan Mountains offered the first informative accounts of this rugged and unknown region.
The Hayden Survey reports each year were incredible masterpieces of information and data. Assistant topographer, Franklin Rhoda’s “Report on the Topography of the San Juan Country” in the 1874 report is beautifully and masterfully written, reading more like an adventurous travel novel than a government report.
While reading this excerpt, just picture yourself doing what those men were doing without the aid of current technology, cameras, the wonders of Gore-Tex and other high-tech clothing fabrics, advanced food sources, lightweight tents, warm sleeping bags, sunscreen and the list goes on. Truly a remarkable breed were the men of the surveys.
Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write the book?
My research on the origins of Colorado’s 14er names and first ascents of those peaks took me in many directions, and while at the National Archives in Denver I discovered original sketches of the high mountains from the Hayden Survey in the 1870s.
It turned out that these had all been digitized and were in the public domain but had rarely been seen. I was excited about the possibility of including them in the book to illustrate the history I was writing about. In early 2020 I reached out to photographer John Fielder to see what he thought about this little known piece of our state’s history.
One thing led to another and we decided to work on the book together – my writing and his incredible photographs of 14ers as well as artist Bob Wogrin’s beautiful paintings and sketches and of course those historic Hayden Survey sketches I had discovered. We knew we wanted the book out in the fall of 2020 which meant a tight schedule of writing, editing, and book design.
We began just as lockdown happened so in a way it was a perfect scenario to produce a book. I had completed all of the research a few months prior and set about writing 70,000 words telling the tales of the survey men and explorers, their adventures in Colorado and their naming of the 14ers.
Once you began writing, did the story take you in any unexpected directions? If so, how would you describe dealing with a narrative that seems to have a mind of its own?
The research was what took me in different and unexpected directions as well as down many a rabbit hole. A footnote in a resource I was consulting would lead me somewhere new or a newspaper article from the 1800s would open my eyes to other resources I hadn’t considered before.
The information I was collecting on each peak was helping me to write the stories of their discovery and naming. On a number of occasions a chance discovery would take me away from the story I thought I was going to tell and lead me in another direction. My narrative didn’t really have a mind of its own because it is history and I was very mindful to not introduce things that I didn’t have multiple sources for.
What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?
As I mentioned above, what could be construed as a challenge – COVID 2020 lockdown – turned out to be a surprise and the perfect scenario in which to write and produce a book. Thankfully my research had been completed and I had extensive information on all of Colorado’s 58 14,000-foot peaks organized in binders. It was from each peak’s collected information that I crafted the stories for the book.
Has the book raised questions or provoked strong opinions among your readers? How did you address them?
Since the book is non-fiction it hasn’t provoked any strong opinions among the readers. However, what it has done is to spark conversations about some of the names of our 14ers and other geographical features in our state. In many of our virtual author talks John and I are often asked our opinions on the name change proposals currently in the news – primarily the Mount Evans name change proposal. These are good conversations to have and will no doubt continue.
Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?
I am a morning person and like to begin writing early in the day and I know this sounds odd, but I like to follow the sun in my house. I will take my laptop to wherever the sun happens to be at a certain time and work there for several hours.
While writing “Colorado’s Highest” I wrote every single day, many hours a day, seven days a week for nine straight weeks because I had nowhere to be, nowhere to go and we wanted to get the book completed in order to get it to the printer in time for a fall launch.
Besides learning the origins of the 14er names, were there any other discoveries you made that you found interesting?
As I began to delve into the research, I quickly learned that the discovery and naming of not only the state’s highest peaks, but many of the other geographical features all began with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
As the explorers, surveyors, trappers, Spanish explorers, Native Americans and visitors came west throughout the 19th century they attached names to features which subsequently found their way onto maps.
If you look at the names given in any period of time in the 1800s you will discover how the names were tied to what was happening in not only the territory at the time, but in the country as well. The government surveyors in the mid 1800s, of which the Ferdinand Hayden Survey was the most important for Colorado, gave us the knowledge we have today with regard to our topography, geology, geography, zoology, botany, agriculture, mineralogy, mining, and paleontology.
One such example of names being reflective of events at the time was the suggestion by Hayden and some of his men to name what is now the Elk Range the National Range. The highest peaks in that range were to be named after buildings in Washington, D.C. – Capitol, White House, Post Office, Treasury, etc. Hayden’s survey was funded by the U.S. government and the National Range proposal was an effort to honor the U.S. government and its politicians of the time.
As I discovered, the names and stories associated with the 58 highest peaks in Colorado read as a little-known and unusual slice of history. It’s a different and fun way of looking at Colorado’s history.