There is a mountain in the distant West
That, sun-defying, in its deep ravine.
Displays a cross of snow upon its side.
In November 1839, newspaper editor and columnist John O’Sullivan published an article titled “The Great Nation of Futurity” in the Democratic Review, espousing what he then termed “divine destiny” in his vision for the United States. Though fiery in message, his phraseology lacked the hook needed to catch on with the public. Cultivating his rhetoric and finding inspiration six years later, O’Sullivan reworked his terminology to coin the phrase “manifest destiny” while writing in support of the annexation of Texas and the settlement of Oregon. This time, the phrase stuck, and for decades after its first use, was harnessed to describe, defend, and explain the territorial expansion and continental imperialism of the growing United States. While divine destiny implied a success endorsed by God, manifest destiny denoted physical proof of this godly blessing. This phrase and concept, adopted by many Americans of the nineteenth century, caught on because it suggested that this divine endorsement was made evident not just in rhetoric, but by the beckoning landscape of the continent itself.
While this phrase and expansionist philosophy was widely embraced by many thinkers in the east and plowers in the west, signs of such physical endorsement were still sought. Even before such terminology was coined a century earlier, places like the Cumberland Gap, Niagara Falls, and the Potomac River valley had been interpreted as landmarks of confirmation, condoning westward expansion. By the mid-nineteenth century, Americans were looking for similar signs in the far West. Rumors of just such an endorsing manifestation lingered in the deep mountain fastness of the Colorado Rockies. Since the 1840s, prospectors and mountain men had reported seeing a great white cross on the side of a mountain, far back along the Sawatch Range of central Colorado. The mountain of the cross, however, remained elusive, and was even dismissed as myth by some. Still, it was a myth that resonated because it linked with the broader concept of American destiny manifested in the physical landscape; a Christ-like stamp of approval for expansionists in the heart of the mountainous west.
By the 1870s, the U.S. government became involved with the mountain as part of its initiative to survey and map the trackless wilderness of the Rockies. In 1873, Ferdinand Hayden assembled a team of geological surveyors to explore the Sawatch Range, garnering $75,000 to fund the expedition with the joint goals of mapping the region and locating the fabled mountain. As part of their goal to find and document the cross, William Henry Jackson, a prominent photographer of the day, was to accompany the expedition.
After weeks of travel through the vast Sawatch Range, Jackson finally got his shot of the mountain. On Sunday, August 3rd 1873, the dawn broke clear and the Mount of the Holy Cross revealed itself to Jackson’s camp on Notch Mountain in the morning light. Working diligently, Jackson managed to capture eight images of the cruciform face of the mountain before it faded into the mist. A great chasm, filled with the crusted snow of many winters, ran directly up the side of the 14,000 foot peak, and at approximately two thirds up the crevice broke two deep arms perpendicular, likewise filled with snow, forming the image of the white cross. The surveying party was awestruck by “the marvelous mountain on which nature had drawn with mighty lines of snow the symbol of the Christian world,” as Jackson described it. Here finally, on the side of the mountain and in Jackson’s unprocessed images, was tangible proof of the cross that denoted divine blessing on the American nation.
Following the development and publication of Jackson’s images, the public became enthralled with the Mount of the Holy Cross. It was touted as the ultimate natural representation of American greatness and the physical manifestation of God’s blessing. Upon seeing one of the photographs of the mountain, famous landscape painter Thomas Moran travelled to the Sawatch Range himself to catch a glimpse of the mountain and paint its imagery the following year. In 1876 both the original Jackson photographs and Moran’s painting won the adoration of the masses and top awards at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. By 1879, the mountainous cross had become so well known that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow referenced its imagery in his poem “Cross of Snow” about his late wife’s death.
The Mount of the Holy Cross had become a national sensation, a phenomenon that can be explained only through its direct relationship to American notions of exceptionalism and manifest destiny. Samuel Bowles, a newspaper reporter from Massachusetts who travelled west to view the confirmational crucifix, voiced the sentiments of many Americans when he wrote “it is as if God has set His sign, His seal, His promise there—a beacon upon the very center and height of the Continent to all its people and all its generations.” Now that the Mount of the Holy Cross had been found, mapped, and photographed, there was no doubt in the American mind that God blessed their continental expansion—that the nation was destined to succeed.
While the mountain itself remained largely inaccessible deep in the Rockies, its fame continued to blossom in the outside world. Harpers Weekly declared the Mount of the Holy Cross as “the proudest landmark in the state” of Colorado in an 1892 issue. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt passed an act to set the area around the mountain aside as federally protected wilderness, and by 1912, the Denver Post was promoting tourism to the site as a national shrine. In the early twentieth century, a copy of the Jackson photograph hung in the papal quarters of the Vatican.
Though poor mountain roads had initially prevented the large scale tourism that the Denver Post had projected for the mountain, by the early 1920s, Boy Scout troops and evangelical church groups were leading camping retreats to the summit of Notch Mountain, where the best view of the sacred mountain could be had. In 1928, Frederick Gilmer Bonfils, the editor of the Denver Post, began to co-sponsor organized pilgrimages to view the holy site for the devout in both Christianity and Americana. The initial pilgrimage of 1928 saw a multi-denominational group of some 200 Catholics and Protestants ascend Notch Mountain to hold services in view of the snowy cross. The growing numbers of pilgrims convinced President Herbert Hoover that the site needed even more federal protection and acknowledgement, and in May of 1929 the Mount of the Holy Cross became a National Monument. Subsequent years saw pilgrim numbers rise from several hundred each year to over three thousand by 1934 despite the continued Great Depression and primitive state of the dirt roads leading to the area.
As quickly as it started, however, the cruciform craze of the holy mountain faded. As the frontier closed and America’s focus shifted onto the global stage of the Second World War, validation of conquest on the side of a mountain became less important to the American public. Manifest destiny, by the 1940s, was largely a thing of the past and nineteenth-century rhetoric was exchanged for an American identity based in a wider, global context, as a bastion of democracy and the answer to totalitarianism and communism abroad. By the late 1940s, the national monument registry for the Mount of the Holy Cross was recording less than fifty visitors a year, and in 1950, in the face of tightening resources, President Harry Truman signed off on the abolishment of the mountain as a national monument, incorporating it back into a broader national forest.
To a society hyper-focused on finding its destiny in the land and in a Christian context, the mountain was a natural shrine. Its cross of snow proved what Americans had been told and wanted to believe about a benevolent God and His chosen people in this land. By the mid-twentieth century, however, this imagery of a Christian nation, blessed by God to conquer and settle the American continent, was largely outdated as the United States’ role shifted in a global sphere. In less than a hundred years the mountain went from a fable of divine blessing to a national sensation, and back to obscurity. Today, the mountain is not largely known and little visited. In a final act of irony, the rising global temperatures of a changing, expansionist world have noticeably compromised the snow bank forming one of the arms of the cross in recent decades, diminishing the striking imagery of the mountainside for contemporary viewers. If one were to look at the mountain today without knowing the history, it would be very difficult to distinguish a cross among the other snow-filled crevices lining the Sawatch Range—harder still to read the destiny of the nation upon its rocky face.
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Blake, Kevin. “Imagining Heaven and Earth at Mount of the Holy Cross, Colorado.” Journal Of Cultural Geography 25, no. 1 (February 2008): 1-30.
Hults, L.C. “Pilgrim’s Progress in the West.” American Art 5, no. 1/2 (Spring91 1991): 68.