California Historical Articles
( Originally Published Early 1911 )The following data concerning the names and the origin of the counties of California were prepared by Prentiss Maslin and published officially by direction of the State Legislature in accordance with an Act approved February 12, 1903:
Alameda County—Created March 25, 1853. The Spanish word "Alameda" means "a public walk or promenade in the shade of trees. Literally, it comes from Alamo, the poplar or cottonwood tree, and it is from the derived meaning of the word, "a public walk," that this county obtained its name.
Alpine County-Created March 16, 1864. This county derived its name from the English word "Alpine," meaning, "of, pertaining to, or connected with, the Alps." Its geographical position, lying as it does on the crest of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, made it particularly an Alpine county, and hence its name.
Amador County—Created May 11, 1854. The meaning of this word in Spanish is "lover of inanimate objects." This county most probably derived its name from either Sergeant Pedro Amador or from Jose Maria Amador, his son. Sergeant Pedro Amador was one of the prominent settlers of California. He was an adventurer and a soldier in the Spanish army, coming to California in 1771 and after serving in San Diego and Santa Barbara was transferred to San Francisco, and died in San Jose April 10, 1824, at the age of 82 years. His son, Jose Maria, was born in San Francisco, on December 18, 1794, and was also a soldier and a renowned Indian fighter. He obtained a large grant from the Mexican government, and after the discovery of gold forsook pastoral pursuits and went to the Southern mines, where he greatly increased his fortune. He was living as late as 1883.
Butte County—Created February 18, 1850. This is one of the original twenty-seven counties of the State of California, and derived its name from that wonderful topographical formation, now known as the Marysville or Sutter Buttes, which lie in Sutter County and which were named by Michel La Frambeau of the Hudson Bay Company, who visited the northern
part of California as a voyageur and trapper in the year 1829. The word "butte" is purely a French word, and signifies "a small hill or mound of earth detached from any mountain range."
Calaveras County—Created February 18, 1850. One of the original twenty-seven counties of California. The meaning of "Calaveras" is "skulls," and the county derived its name from Calaveras Creek, which was so named by Captain Moraga of the Mexican army, who headed the first exploring expedition of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers and into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, from the fact that he found a large number of skulls lying along the banks of the creek. Ac-cording to the diary of Captain Moraga, the history of this abundance of skulls is that the tribes who lived on the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers made a desperate war against the tribes of the Sierra, who annually came down to fish for salmon in these rivers. This was considered in the light of a trespass, inasmuch as the Sierra tribes refused to allow the valley tribes to go into the mountains to hunt deer and gather acorns. In a most sanguinary battle fought near this creek, the tribes of the valley were victorious, and more than three thousand Indians were killed. Hence the name of the creek, from which' the county subsequently derived its name.
Colusa County Created February 18, 1850. This is one of the original twenty-seven counties of the State of California. The name of this county in the original act of 1850 was spelled "Colusi," and ofttimes in newspapers was spelled "Coluse," and was the name of an Indian tribe living on the west side of the Sacramento River. The meaning of the word "Colusa" has never been determined.
Ed. Note.—Hon. John P. Irish, former Naval Officer at San Francisco, writes as follows regarding the name of this county :
"Reading the derivation of the names of California counties, written by Mr. Prentiss Maslin, I note that he finds no meaning or translation of the Indian word `Colusa,' the title of the tribe from which the county was named. The late General Will Green, who went there while the tribe was still a strong body and associated with them so much as to acquire a knowledge and quite free use of their language, told me that the word `Colusa' means `scratcher.' When a member of the tribe married, it was the privilege of the bride to begin the honeymoon by scratching her husband's face. The young women so uniformly availed themselves of this privilege that a newly married man was always known by the deep scratches upon his face inflicted by his wife. From this tribal custom the tribe was known as Colusa or the scratchers. General Green was always so correct in the knowledge he acquired and imparted as to such matters that I am very certain this is the exact and correct meaning of the word `Colusa.' "
Contra Costa County—Created February 18, 1850. One of the original twenty-seven counties of the State of California. This county originally included what is now known as Alameda County, and because of its relationship to San Francisco County, on the west side of San Francisco Bay, it was called Contra Costa, or "opposite Coast," lying as it does on the opposite coast or eastern shore of San Francisco Bay.
Del Norte County—Created March 2, 1857. The name of this county signifies "the north," and the county being situated in the extreme north (west) corner of the State of California, derived its name from its geographical position.
El Dorado County—Created February 18, 1850. This is one of the original twenty-seven counties of the State of California. Francis Orellana, a companion of the adventurer Pizarro, wrote a fictitious account of a wonderful province in South America, of a fabulous region of genial clime and never-fading verdure, abounding in gold and precious stones, where wine gushed forth from never-ceasing springs, and wheat fields grew ready-baked loaves of bread, and birds already roasted flew among the trees, and nature was filled with harmony and sweetness. From this description, a gold-bearing belt was called El Dorado, as in later days it has been called Klondike. So when the discovery of gold by James W. Marshall at Coloma in January, 1848, became known to the world, California, and particularly that part where gold was discovered, was called "El Dorado," and it was from this fact that the county was given its name upon its creation.
Fresno County—Created April 19, 1856. The word "Fresno" in Spanish signifies "ash tree," and it was because of the abundance of mountain ash in the mountains of this county that it received its name.
Glenn County—Created March 11, 1891. This county was created out of the northern portion of Colusa County, and derived its name from Dr. Hugh J. Glenn, who, during his lifetime, was the largest wheat farmer in the State, and a man of great prominence in political and commercial life in California.
Humboldt County—Created May 12, 1853. This county de-rived its name from Humboldt Bay, which was named for Baron Alexander von Humboldt, the eminent scientist, by Captain Ottinger of the ship "Laura Virginia."
Imperial County—Created August 15, 1907. It derived its name from the Imperial Valley, situated therein.
Inyo County—Created March 22, 1866. This county de-rived its name from a tribe of Indians who inhabited that part of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The meaning of this word has never been determined.
Kern County—Created April 2, 1866. This county derived its name from the Kern River, which was named for the lieu. tenant of that name of General John C. Fremont's third expedition in 1845-47.
Kings County—Created March 22, 1893. This County was created out of the western part of Tulare County, and derived its name from Kings River, which, according to history and tradition, was discovered in 1805 by an exploring expedition and named Rio de los Santos Reyes (the "river of the holy kings"), from which it obtained its present name.
Lake County—Created May 20, 1861. This county derived its name because of the many charming lakes that are within its boundaries.
Lassen County—Created April 1, 1864. The name of this county was derived from Mount Lassen, which was named for Peter Lassen, a native of Switzerland, one of General Fremont's guides and a famous trapper, frontiersman, and Indian fighter, who was killed by the Piutes at the base of this mountain in 1859.
Los Angeles County—Created February 18, 1850. This county was one of the original twenty-seven of the State of California. The words "Los Angeles" literally mean "the an-gels," and are a contraction of the original name "Pueblo del Rio de Nuestra Senora La Reina de Los Angeles de Porciuneula" (the town of the river of Our Lady, Queen of the An-gels). It will therefore be observed that Los Angeles was really named for the Virgin Mary, commonly called "Our Lady of the Angels" by the Spanish. On September 7, 1781, Governor Felipe de Neve issued orders from the San Gabriel Mission for the establishment of a pueblo on El Rio Nuestra Senora de Los Angeles and under the protection of Nuestra Senora La Reina de Los Angeles (Our Lady, Queen of the Angels), the mission by this name having been dedicated three days before, having practically the same title. This pueblo in time became known as the Ciudad de Los Angeles, "the City of the Angels," and it is from this that the county de-rived its patronymic.
Madera County—Created March 11, 1893. "Madera" in Spanish signifies "timber," and the county derived its name from the town of Madera, situated within its limits, which town was originally surrounded by groves of trees.
Malin County—Created February 18, 1850. This county is one of the original twenty-seven counties of the State of California, and derived its name from Chief Marini of the Licatiut Tribe of Indians who inhabited that section of California. In 1815, a military expedition of the Spanish proceeded to explore the country north of the bay of San Francisco. This action aroused the ire of the Licatiut tribe, and a desperate engagement was fought in the valley now known as the Petaluma Valley. Chief Marin led the forces of the Indians with wonderful strategy and bravery that called forth the admiration of his enemies. At the same time, his sub-chief, Quentin, gave battle to a second division of the Spanish army at the point which still bears his name, Punta de la Quentin. Chief Marin afterwards was Christianized and baptized under the name of "Marinero," the "Mainer," by the padres, because of the fact of his intimate knowledge of the bay of San Francisco, on which he often acted as ferryman for the whites.
Mariposa County—Created February 18, 1850. One of the original twenty-seven counties of the State of California. This county took its name from the Mariposa River. The meaning of "Mariposa" in the language of the Spanish is "butterfly." There is some doubt as to how this stream derived its name. According to one story, in June, 1807, a party of Californians from the San Joaquin Valley made one of their annual excursions into the Sierra Nevada Mountains for the purpose of hunting elk. Camping upon the banks of a river they were charmed and delighted with the butterflies of most gorgeous and variegated colors that hovered around them in countless numbers, and because of this they gave to the stream the name "Mariposa." Another beautiful story, and probably more authentic, is that the first explorers in the mountains of that region be-held for the first time a beautiful lily growing everywhere, gay-colored, spotted, and in some respects resembling the wings of a butterfly. In their admiration, they gave to this dainty flower, the Calochortus, the name Mariposa (butterfly) lily.
Mendocino County—Created February 18, 1850. One of the original twenty-seven counties of the State of California. This county derived its name from Cape Mendocino, which was discovered and named by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542, and named for Don Antonio de Mendoza, the first viceroy of New Spain, or Mexico, appointed by the King of Spain in 1535.
Merced County—Created April 19, 1855. This county de-rived its name from the Merced River, which was originally named by the Spanish "Rio de Nuestra Senora de la Merced," meaning "the river of Our Lady of Mercy."
Modoc County—Created February 17, 1874. This county derived its name from a fierce tribe of Indians by that name, which means "the head of the river," and who lived at the headwaters of the Pitt River.
Note Gen. O. 0. Howard, in an article in the St. Nicholas Magazine for May, 1908, page 624, states that the Indian name of the tribe of which the name Modoc is a corruption is "Maklaks," and means "The People."
Mono County—Created April 24, 1861. The name of this county is a Spanish word meaning "monkey," and was applied to an Indian tribe living in that section of the State.
Monterey County—Created February 18, 1850. This county is one of the original twenty-seven counties of the State of California. It derived its name from the bay of Monterey. The word itself is composed of the Spanish words "monte" and "rey," and literally means "king of the forest." The bay was discovered by Sebastian Vizcaino in 1603, and named in honor of his friend and patron, Gaspar de Zuniga, Count of Monterey and viceroy of Mexico.
Napa County—Created February 18, 1850. One of the original twenty-seven counties of the State of California. The word "Napa" means, in the language of a large and powerful tribe of Indians that lived in that section of California, "fish," and was given because of the myriads of fish that inhabited the Napa River and other creeks of this section. This tribe of Indians was nearly exterminated by smallpox in 1838, and now the only evidence of their ever having existed is the name given to this county.
Nevada County—Created April 25, 1851. The word "Nevada" in Spanish means "snowy." The county derived its name from the fact of the perpetual snow-capped mountains within its boundaries.
Orange County—Created March 11, 1889. This county was given its name by the Legislature because of the orange groves for which it is justly famous.
Placer County—Created April 25, 1851. "Placer" is probably a contraction of the words `Plaza de oro," the place of gold, and means in Spanish "a place near a river where gold is found." The county derived its name from the numerous places therein where that method of extracting the gold from the earth, called placer mining, was practiced.
Plumas County—Created March 18, 1854. The Spanish originally called one of the tributaries of the Sacramento River, Rio de las Plumas, or the "River of the Feathers." The Americans subsequently robbed this river of its beautiful name, by changing its euphonious Spanish title to the English equivalent, the Feather River, but the Legislature, in creating this county, gave thereto the name of "Plumas," because of the fact that all of the numerous branches of the Feather River have their origin in the mountains of this county.
Riverside County—Created March 11, 1893. This county was created from San Diego and San Bernardino counties, and derived its name from the town of Riverside.
Sacramento County—Created February 18, 1850. This county is one of the original twenty-seven counties of the State of California. "Sacramento" signifies "Sacrament, or Lord's Supper." Captain Moraga first gave the name "Jesus Maria" (Jesus Mary) to the main river, and the name "Sacramento" to a branch thereof. Later, the main river became known as the Sacramento, while the branch became known as El Rio de las Plumas, or Feather River.
San Benito County—Created February 12, 1874. Crespi in his expedition in 1772 named a small river in honor of San Benedicto (Saint Benedict, "the Blessed"), the patron saint of the married, and it is from the contraction of the name of this beloved saint that this county took its name.
San Bernardino-Created April 26, 1853. Saint Bernard is the patron saint of mountain passes. The name "Bernardino" means "bold as a bear." The Spanish gave to the snow-capped peak in Southern California the name of San Bernardino in honor of the saint, and from this the county derived its name.
San Diego County—Created February 18, 1850. One of the original twenty-seven counties of the State of California. On November 12, 1603, the day of San Diego de Alcala (Saint James of Alcala), Sebastian Vizcaino anchored his fleet in the bay of San Diego, and named the same in honor of the day, as well as in honor of his flagship, which name has since been retained, although Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo named this bay San Miguel on September 28, 1542, sixty-one years previous; and it is from this bay that the county derived its name.
San Francisco County—Created February 18, 1850. This county is one of the original twenty-seven counties of the State of California. The sixth mission in California was established by Padre Junipero Serra, October 9, 1776, and was named "Mission San Francisco de Asis a la Laguna de los Dolores" (Saint Francis of Assisi at the Lagoon of Sorrows), and to this mission San Francisco owes its name.
San Joaquin County—Created February 18, 1850. This is one of the original twenty-seven counties of the State of California. The meaning of the name of this county has a very ancient origin and refers to the parentage of Mary, the mother of Christ. According to tradition, Joachim signifies "whom Jehovah hath appointed," and hence the belief that Joaquin, the Spanish spelling for Joachim, was the father of Mary. In 1813. Lieutenant Moraga, commanding an expedition in the Iower great central vaIIey of California, gave to a small rivulet, which springs from the Sierra Nevada Mountains and empties into Buena Vista Lake, the name of San Joaquin, and it is from this that the present river derived its name, which in turn baptized the county with the same.
San Luis Obispo County—Created February 18, 1850. One of the original twenty-seven counties of the State of California. On September 1, 1772, the Mission San Luis Obispo (Saint Louis the Bishop) was established and was named for Saint Louis, the Bishop of Toulouse. He was the son of Charles of Anjou, King of Naples, and the county derived its name from this mission, founded by the padres, Junipero Serra and Jose Cavalier.
San Mateo County Created April 19, 1856. This county bears the Spanish name of Saint Matthew, "the gift of Jehovah."
Santa Barbara County—Created February 18, 1850. This county is one of the original twenty-seven counties of the State of California. Saint Barbara is the patron of the sailors, and gives them special protection from deadly lightning and fires at sea. For this reason her name is frequently seen over the powder magazines on board of war vessels. Santa Barbara received this name from Sebastian Vizcaino, when he sailed over these waters on the Saint's day, December 4, 1603; and when Padre Junipero Serra established a mission near this channel on December 4, 1786, he named it Santa Barbara, Virgen Martir (Saint Barbara, Virgin and Martyr). It is from these two sources that the county derived its name.
Santa Clara County—Created February 18, 1850. One of the original twenty-seven counties of the State of California. On January 12, 1777, Mission Santa Clara was established, and named for Saint Clara of Assisi, Italy, the first Franciscan nun and founder of the Order of Saint Clara. Her name "Clara" means "clear" or "bright," and according to the Roman Book of Martyrs, as Hortalana, the pious mother of this nun, was once kneeling before a crucifix, praying earnestly that she might be happily delivered of her unborn babe, she heard a voice whispering, "Fear not, woman, thou wilt safely bring forth" ; whereupon a brilliant light suddenly illuminated the place, and the mother, inspired by the mysterious prediction, baptized her child Clara, which is the feminine of the word meaning clear or bright. Clara was afterwards sanctified on account of her many eminent virtues, and accordingly venerated by the Catholics in all Roman Catholic churches, and canonized under the name Saint Clara.
Santa Cruz County—Created February 18, 1850. This is one of the original twenty-seven counties of the State of California. "Santa" is the Spanish feminine of "Saint" or "holy"; "Cruz" is the Spanish for "cross," and "Santa Cruz" signifies "holy cross," which emblem was to the devout explorers of California what it was to the Crusaders. Those who fell by the wayside had a rude cross erected over them to mark their last resting-place; if anything notable occurred in any of the expeditions, a cross was set up, and all that marked the site of the mission which was founded by Padres Lopez and Salazar on September 25, 1791, was the memorial cross erected to mark this site. From this the county derived its name.
Shasta County—Created February 18, 1850. This. county is one of the original twenty-seven counties of the State of California. The derivation of the name of the county, which was taken from the butte of that name, is in doubt. Some authorities claim the name "Shasta" to be derived from Shas-ti-ka, the name of a tribe of Indians that lived at the base of this mountain. The word "Shas-ti-ka" means "stone house or cave dwellers." Other authorities claim that the word "Shasta" is a corruption of the French word "chaste," and was first applied by explorers because of the wonderful whiteness or chastity of the eternal snow that caps the summit of this wonderful peak.
Sierra County—Created April 16, 1852. "Sierra" is the Spanish word for "saw," and was applied to the chain of mountains, Sierra Nevada, meaning "snow saw," because of the jagged, serrated or saw-tooth peaks which form the skyline of this range of mountains, and the country that bears the name "Sierra" was so called because of the jagged peaks within its borders.
Siskiyou County—Created March 22, 1852. The word Siskiyou has never been authentically determined. It has generally been assumed that this is the name of a tribe of Indians inhabiting this region, but there are several stories regarding its derivation and meaning. Senator Jacob R. Snyder of San Francisco, who advocated the formation of this county, in an argument delivered April 14, 1852, in the Senate of the State of California, stated that the French name "Six Cailieux" was given to a ford on the Umpqua River at which place Michel La Frambeau, who led a party of Hudson Bay Company trappers, crossed in the year 1832. Six large stones or rocks lay in the river where they crossed, and they gave it the name of "Six Callieux" or "Six-stone Ford," and from this the mountain or butte derived its name, which was subsequently given to the county when created.
Solano County—Created February 18, 1850. This county is one of the original twenty-seven counties of the State of California. "Solano" in Spanish means "east wind," and was the second name of the celebrated missionary Francisco Solano. When the chief of the powerful tribe of Suisunes Indians, which inhabited the west side of the River Jesus Maria, was christianized, he was by this missionary baptized Solano, and as his residence was in the valley of Suisun, the name Solano was given to this county.
Sonoma County—Created February 18, 1850. This county is one of the original twenty-seven counties of the State of California. "Sonoma" is an Indian word meaning "Valley of the moon," because of the resemblance of this valley to the shape of the orb. In 1824, when Padre Jose Actimira baptized the chief of the Cho-cuy-en Indians, he gave him the baptismal name of Sonoma, and from this source the county derived its name.
Stanislaus County—Created April 1, 1854. Chief Estanislao, of a powerful tribe of Indians who lived on what is known now as the Stanislaus River, but by the Indians called the La-kiskum-na, was educated at the Mission San Jose. He became a renegade and incited his tribe against the Spaniards, but was defeated in 1826 in a fierce battle on this river, which was afterwards called Stanislaus for the defeated Indian chief. It is from this river that the County derived its name.
Sutter County—Created February 18, 1850. This is one of the original twenty-seven counties of the State of California. Sutter County was named after General John Augustus Sutter, a native of Switzerland, and a soldier of fortune. He first arrived in San Francisco July 2, 1839, obtained a large grant from the Mexican government, and called his first settlement New Helvetia, which is now the city of Sacramento.
Tehama County—Created April 9, 1856. "Tehama" is the name of a tribe of Indians which originally inhabited that part of the State which now bears its name. The meaning of the word has never been determined.
Trinity County—Created February 18, 1850. This is one of the original twenty-seven counties of the State of California This county derived its name from Trinidad Bay, which was discovered and named by Captain Bruno Ezeta on June 11, 1775, a date that happened to be Trinity Sunday. The Spanish charts of the bay were misleading, and Major Reading and others thought that the river he named Trinity emptied into this bay.
Tulare County—Created April 20, 1852. Comandante Pages, while hunting for deserters in 1773, discovered a great lake surrounded by marshes and filled with rushes, which he named Los Tules (the tules, Scirpus lacrustus). In 1813, Captain Moraga on his exploring expedition, passed through the valley of this lake, and named it "Valle de los Tules" (valley of the tules), from which this county takes its name.
Tuolumne County—Created February 18, 1850. This county is one of the original twenty-seven counties of the State of California. "Tuolumne" is a corruption of the Indian word "Talmalamne," which signifies "stone houses or caves," the same as the word "Shasta," but in another language. This was the name of a large tribe of Indians who lived on both sides of the river new bearing that name, from which the county derived its patronymic.
Ventura County—Created March 22, 1872. On March 30, 1782, Padres Junipero Serra and Cambon dedicated a Mission at San Buenaventura to San Buenaventura, Doctor Serafico (St. Bonaventura, Serafic Doctor), which is the name under which Giovani de Fidanza of Tuscany was canonized. Buenaventura is composed of two Spanish words, "Buena," meaning "good," and "Ventura," meaning "fortune"; hence the name signifies "good fortune." The county took its name from the latter Spanish word "Ventura." San Buenaventura has at all times been the name of the town, but this beautiful and euphonious name has been abbreviated by the United States Post Office Department to "Ventura."
Yolo County—Created February 18, 1850. This is one of the original twenty-seven counties of the State of California. "Yolo" is a corruption of an Indian tribal name "Yo-loy," meaning "a place thick with rushes." This tribe was a branch of the Suisunes, and inhabited the marshes immediately west of Rio de Jesus Maria (now known as the Sacramento River).
Yuba County—Created February 18, 1850. This is one of the original twenty-seven counties of the State of California. "Yuba" is a corruption of the Spanish word signifying "wild grape." A Spanish exploring expedition in 1824 found immense quantities of vines shading the banks of a river, which is the chief tributary of the Feather River. These vines were heavily laden with wild grapes (called Uvas silvestres in Spanish), and the river was therefore called the Uva or Uba, and by a corruption of the word "Uba" the river eventually be-came known by its present name, "Yuba," from which the county derived its name.
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