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A Dictionary of Bay Area Locations with Spanish Origins

Written By: Youki on December 1, 2011 1 Comment

Ever wonder how Mount Diablo got its name?  What the “San” in San Pablo means, or what an “alcatraz” is?

California’s diverse toponymy comes from its rich cultural history — places like Ohlone Park, Sonoma, Solano, Petaluma, Marin and Napa all originate from the indigenous peoples of the area (Ohlone, Coast Miwok, Pomo, Suisunes, and Nappan).  In the 18th century, Spanish missionaries began settling in Northern California (Alta California), which resulted in “San” and “Santa” (saint masculine/feminine) locations named after Catholic saints, along with Spanish words that described the land (loma for hill, vista for view, mar for sea) and specific characteristics of a location (alamo for poplar trees, codornices for quails, los gatos for cougars).  In 1821, the Mexican War for Independence resulted in Mexico gaining independence from Spain, which led to several locations being named after early land owners or historical figures such as Vallejo, Benicia, Castro, Alvarado, and Peralta.

I’ve compiled a list of Bay Area names with Spanish origins.  This list is likely not complete, so if you know of a location, feel free to comment!

Alameda County – “a place where poplar trees grow”

Alamo – “poplar” (fun fact: Alamo Ave and Poplar St are a block away from each other in Berkeley)

Alcatraz Island – “La Isla de los Alcatraces,” or “The Island of the Pelicans.”

Alvarado – Named for Juan Alvarado, Mexican Governor of California from 1836 to 1842.

Bonita Ave – “pretty”

Benicia – Named after Francisca Benicia Carrillo, Vallejo’s wife.

Buena Vista – “good view”

California – Likely named after “California,” a Utopian island of the Amazons described in Las Sergas de Esplandián, a 16th century Spanish novel. (reference)

Campanile – Italian for “bell tower.”  In Spanish “campana” means “bell” (the large bell tower on the Berkeley campus)

Castro Valley – Named after Guillermo Castro, a soldier in the Mexican army and a rancher.

Castro District – Named after José Castro, acting governor of Alta California in 1835-1836.

Codornices – “quails”

Contra Costa County – “opposite coast,” because of its location opposite San Francisco, in an easterly direction, on the San Francisco Bay.

Corona Heights – “crown”

Corte Madera – the imperative command “Chop wood,” as in “Do chop the wood.”  The area was famous for producing lumber out of redwood trees which went into the construction of the city of San Francisco. (reference)

El Camino Real – “the royal road”

El Cerrito – “little hill”

El Dorado Ave – “the golden one”

El Sobrante – “leftover”, “remainder”, “extra”, or “surplus”

El Verano – “the Summer”

Embarcadero – Spanish verb embarcar, meaning “to embark.”  Embarcadero itself means “the place to embark.”

Fresno – “ash tree”

Laguna Honda – “deep lagoon”

Los Altos – “the heights”

Los Gatos – “the cats,” referring to the cougars that are indigenous to the foothills in which the town is located. (reference)

Mariposa Ave – “butterfly”

Martinez – named after Ygnacio Martínez in 1824.

Merced – “mercy,” from Merced River, El Río de Nuestra Señora de la Merced (River of Our Lady of Mercy)

Milpitas – “little corn fields”

Miraloma – mira “view” and loma “hill”

Miramar – mira “view” and mar “sea”

Monte Sereno – “serene hill”

Monterey – monte “hill” and rey “king”

Mount Diablo – The conventional view is that the peak derives its name from the 1805 escape of several Chupcan Native Americans from the Spanish in a nearby willow thicket. The natives seemed to disappear, and the Spanish soldiers thus gave the area the name “Monte del Diablo,” meaning “thicket of the devil.” Monte was later misinterpreted by English speakers as mount or mountain. (reference)

Peralta – named after Luis María Peralta, who received one of the largest of the Spanish land grants, Rancho San Antonio, a 44,800-acre (181 km2) plot that encompassed most of the East Bay region of California.

Palo Alto – “tall tree”

Point Reyes – “king’s point”

Potrero Hills – “pasture”

Presidio – “garrison”

Rio Vista – “river view”

Sacramento – “sacrament”

San Andreas – Saint Andrew

San Francisco – Saint Francis of Assisi (1181–1226), a Roman Catholic saint and founder of the Order of Friars Minor (Franciscans).

San Jose – Saint Joseph

San Mateo – Saint Matthew

San Pablo – Saint Paul

San Rafael – Archangel Raphael, the Angel of Healing.

Santa Clara – Saint Clare of Assisi, Italy.

Santa Cruz – “holy cross”

Santa Fe – “holy faith”

Sausalito – from Spanish “sauzalito,” meaning “small willow grove.”

Sierra Nevada – “snowy mountain range”

Tiburon – “shark”

Vallejo – named after General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo in 1851.

Ventura – “luck”

Vista del Mar – “view of the sea”

Yerba Buena – Spanish “hierba buena” literally meaning “good herb.”

Which ones did you already know, and which ones were a surprise?

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One Response to “A Dictionary of Bay Area Locations with Spanish Origins”

  1. Kristen B. on: 5 January 2012 at 8:28 pm

    It seems interesting to know that some of the bay area locations have Spanish origins. Some of the locations in the Philippines too have Spanish origins too since the country has been under Spanish colonization for many years. Anyway, thanks for the insights.

    Kristen B.

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