French America

The French Roots of Mount Herard

In a testament to North America’s French heritage, many regions, towns, mountains, and rivers in the United States have French names. Every month, French-American author Anthony Lacoudre untangles their fascinating history. This issue takes us to a mountain in the Rockies, and the French family who gave it its name.
© Mathieu Persan

This is the story of a mountain that has changed names several times. Before the moniker by which it is known today, this granite giant overlooking the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Southern Colorado was called Medano Peak (from the Spanish word médano, “sand dune”), then Mount Seven, in reference to the seven points at its summit.

In 1984, a decision from the U.S. Board on Geographic Names condemned these two names to the dustbin of history. This is how the 84th highest peak in the United States, standing at 13,347 feet tall, was given its current title, Mount Herard, in tribute to the family “which first homesteaded property on the slopes of the mountain in 1876 and maintained a ranch there until 1948.”

Jean-François Herard was born in France in January 1833. After working as a gold prospector in California from the age of 16, he remained in the United States with his Swiss wife, Julia. Their first child, Ulysses, was born on July 20, 1859, in the town of Independence, Missouri. After a stint in Kansas, the family traveled by wagon across the Great Plains – their daughter Euphrasie, 10, died during the journey – and built a log cabin on the banks of Medano Creek.

There, they started a farm to raise cattle, horses, and trout, but life was hard in the canyon. Ulysses, nicknamed “the Frenchman,” was tasked with protecting the family’s livestock. Throughout his lifetime, he killed more than 100 mountain lions and a bear, which he finished with an ax blow after his pistol misfired. He became almost deaf after being struck by a horse, and could always be seen with a hollowed-out cow horn worn against his ear!

Between 1905 and 1912, the Herard ranch welcomed a post office, and Ulysses’ wife, Mary Frances, worked as the postmistress. Today, the only visitors to the ruins of the house are hikers and the occasional bighorn sheep. But the mountain towering over the region continues to pay tribute, according to historian Mike Butler, to “one of the legendary pioneer families around the Great Sand Dunes.”

Article published in the October 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.