Those familiar with Sullivan County, NY history likely know the story well: the brothers Samuel Frisbee Jones and John Patterson Jones, born in Connecticut, came here from Columbia County around 1804 and founded the community they called Monticello, which upon the erection of the County a few years later becomes the County Seat and still later the first incorporated village in the county.
In his History of Sullivan County, published in 1873, James Eldridge Quinlan writes that “Monticello is from two Latin words, signifying Heavenly Mountain. It was given to the place because Samuel F. and John P. Jones were ardent admirers of Thomas Jefferson, who invented the name and gave it to the place of his residence.”
Of course, most sources today translate Monticello — which Jefferson pronounced with a “ch” sound and had begun using at least as early as 1767 — as “little mountain,” but there is no reason to doubt the rest of Quinlan’s contention.
While the future president’s Virginia estate may have been the first place to bear the name, there are currently more than 20 different places in the United States which use it or have used it, including one other community right here in New York.
As discussed in a column I wrote back in 1993, the village of Monticello, New Mexico — a small, picturesque community located about 25 miles north of the better known Truth or Consequences in the southwestern part of the state — was named in honor of Sullivan County’s Monticello.
The saga of Monticello, New Mexico was pieced together back then through the joint efforts of this columnist, at that time serving his first year as County Historian, then-Town of Thompson Historian Alan Barrish, and then-village of Monticello Historian Tom Rue after an initial inquiry by then-Town of Bethel Historian Bert Feldman had brought the connection to light.
Oddly, and apparently completely coincidentally, the story of Monticello, New Mexico involves a former soldier named John Sullivan, although not the Revolutionary War general for whom this county is named.
According to the research conducted in the 1990s, the New Mexico John Sullivan was a native of Monticello, NY stationed with the U.S. Army at Fort McRae, a short distance from the community of Canada Alamosa, New Mexico.
Following his discharge from the military, he became a “freighter, rancher, farmer, and eventually a merchant,” first in the small town of Alamocita, and then at Canada Alamosa.
Some sources indicated that Sullivan had been named the postmaster of the latter community upon it receiving a post office from the U.S. Government, and he chose the name Monticello for that post office in honor of his hometown in Sullivan County, NY.
Clarification comes by way of an article in the January, 2002 edition of the Southern New Mexico Historical Review published by the Doña Ana County Historical Society.
The article, written by James B. Sullivan, a professor in the department of Social Sciences at the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College, is entitled “The Origins of Sierra County: Political and Economic Roots” and provides this information about John Sullivan:
“The populations of these earlier settlements along the Rio Grande or its tributaries, unlike the mining camps, were predominantly Hispanic. There were a number of exceptions. One example was a newly discharged soldier in Company B of the Fifteenth Infantry stationed at Ft. McRae named John Sullivan.
“John grew up a young farm boy in Monticello, New York, located only about seventy-five miles northwest of the metropolis, as the crow flies, and not far from the Delaware River separating the state of New York from Pennsylvania. He enlisted in New York City with Company B of the Thirty-fifth Infantry in November 1867 for a three-year stint in the U.S. Army.
“John Sullivan became a prominent farmer and rancher at Canada Alamosa. He also began to refer to his adopted community as Monticello in honor of his New York hometown in Sullivan County.
“His friend and future brother-in-law, a French-American, Aristide Bourguet, operated the local mercantile store with his brother Alphonse. They began to use the designation of Monticello on advertisements. When Aristide served as the first postmaster in 1881, the U.S. Postal Service adopted the official name of Monticello.”
New Mexico travel writer Betty Woods once described Monticello as “intriguing and delightful” and “a place right out of early-day archives… with its old houses, its lush setting, its dream-like atmosphere,” and that’s a recommendation any Monticello would be happy to have.
More recently, Monticello has become regionally known as one of New Mexico’s most famous haunted places. It is likely that whenever a place named Monticello is encountered here in the United States the name is derived from our learned third president’s Virgnia estate, but keep in mind that it is not always the case.
Now, about that other Monticello, NY…
Illustrations, from above: Ruins of the old WPA-built school in Monticello, New Mexico (courtesy Flikr user J Wood); and a charcoal portrait of New Mexico’s John Sullivan, circa 1871, from the Southern New Mexico Historical Review, January, 2002.