Ratón is the Spanish term for "mouse" (literally "small rat"). The Raton Range and Raton Peak are located immediately north of the town. The Raton Range is a 75-mile-long (121 km) ridge that extends east from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Raton Pass and the Raton Basin are also named for the Raton Range.
Raton Pass had been used by Spanish explorers and Indians for centuries to cut through the rugged Rocky Mountains, but the trail was too rough for wagons on the Santa Fe Trail.
The post office at this location was named Willow Springs from 1877 to 1879, Otero from 1879 to 1880, then renamed Raton in 1880.:286
Raton was founded at the site of Willow Springs, a stop on the Santa Fe Trail. The original 320 acres (129.5 ha) for the Raton townsite were purchased from the Maxwell Land Grant in 1880. In 1879, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway bought a local toll road and established a busy rail line. Raton quickly developed as a railroad, mining and ranching center for the northeast part of the New Mexico territory, as well as the county seat and principal trading center of the area.
The city is mentioned in Jack Kerouac's novel On the Road.