MAP: How 75 Bay Area Places Got Their Names

LISTEN: The Origins of Bay Area Place Names

LISTEN: The Origins of Bay Area Place Names

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Every name has a story.

Take "California" for example. The name comes from a best-selling romance novel written in 1510 called “Las Sergas de Esplandián” or "The Deeds of Esplandián."

In the book, the author describes California as a remote island full of gold and precious stones. The island was protected by beautiful black warrior women who lived like the Amazons and served their ruler, Queen Calafia. The novel was so popular that when Spanish explorers arrived, they named their discovery after the mythical island of California.

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Bay Curious listener Shridhar Ramachandran was wondering about how other California places got their names -- specifically those in the Bay Area. He turned to the Bay Curious team for help, and so we got to work researching more than 70 Bay Area place names. Below is an interactive map and list to explore.


Alameda

It is Spanish for "grove of poplar (or cottonwood) trees" or "tree-lined avenue." By 1795, the southern part of the region was already referred to as la Alameda.

Albany

When the town was incorporated in 1908, it took the name Ocean View, though it was jokingly known as O’Shean's View. The name was changed the following year because a nearby section of Berkeley was also called Ocean View. The town became Albany because the first mayor, Frank J. Roberts, was born in Albany, New York.

Alcatraz

It is Spanish for "pelican." The name Isla de Los Alcatraces was first given to what is now Yerba Buena Island because there were so many pelicans there. Later the name was transferred to the Alcatraz Island of today.

Angel Island

Juan Manuel de Ayala named it Isla de los Ángeles in 1775.

Antioch

In 1849 the place was called Smith's Landing because it had been settled by twin brothers with the surname Smith. One of the brothers was a minister and invited a group of New Englanders to settle on his property. On July 4, 1851, the new citizens had a picnic and decided to rename the land Antioch, after a Biblical city in Syria.

Atherton

The town was named after the businessman Faxon D. Atherton, who first visited California in 1836. Years later he acquired 500 acres where the town now sits.

Benicia

The land was to be named Francisca, after the wife of Gen. Mariano Vallejo. But when the chief magistrate of Yerba Buena registered the name for the town, he decided to call his growing settlement San Francisco. Francisca became too similar to San Francisco, and thus the name was changed to another one of Señora Vallejo’s names, Benicia.

Berkeley

On May 24, 1866, the trustees of the College of California chose the name Berkeley. Frederick Billings proposed the name, inspired by a poem from George Berkeley, bishop of Cloyne. Berkeley had written the poem in 1728 while sailing to Rhode Island with the ultimate goal of founding a school in Bermuda: “Westward the course of Empire takes its way / The four first acts already past, / A fifth shall close the drama with the day / Time's noblest offspring is the last.” Less known is that Berkeley bought slaves to work on his plantation during his stay in Rhode Island.

Bolinas

In 1834, Ignacio Martinez mentioned a valley that people call “Baulenes.” The name probably comes from a Coast Miwok word. The name was misspelled as Ballenas from 1852 to 1910 on Coast Survey charts, an accidental analogy to the Spanish word for whale. Then in 1896, George Davidson falsely assumed the bay had been named for Francisco de Bolaños from Sebastián Vizcaíno's expedition. This caused the spelling to change to Bolanos and Boliñas. By 1873, the USGS adopted the spelling Bolinas.

Burlingame

Named in 1868 by William Ralston. He named it after his friend, Anson Burlingame, a lawyer and politician. Notably, Burlingame had been President Abraham Lincoln's U.S. minister to the Qing Empire in China.

Castro Valley

Named after Guillermo Castro, a rancher.

Concord

Salvio Pacheco, owner of the Monte del Diablo rancho, selected the site for a town in 1862. He named the settlement Todos Santos, but many of the new residents were from New England with Anglo sensibilities. By 1869, the town was known as Concord, probably referring to the Concord in Massachusetts.

Cupertino

The town took the name from Cupertino Creek, which had been named for St. Joseph of Cupertino.

Daly City

John Daly arrived in California when he was 13 in the 1850s. His mother had died on the Panama Canal crossing. The boy found work on a dairy farm and rose quickly. By 1868 he owned 250 acres. After the 1906 earthquake, many San Franciscans took refuge on Daly's dairy farm. When the land was incorporated in 1911, the town was named in his honor.

Danville

It was named in the 1860s, possibly after Danville, Kentucky.

Dublin

James Witt Dougherty bought a large parcel of land in the area. By the 1870s many Irish immigrants had moved nearby. It is rumored that Dougherty said “There are so many Irish here, you might as well call it Dublin.”

El Cerrito

It means "little hill" in Spanish. The hill it refers to is actually in Albany and is now called Albany Hill. The first record of the name was when the area was referred to as Cerrito de San Antonio in 1820, possibly to honor Anthony of Padua, a patron saint of the Franciscans.

Emeryville

Named for Joseph Emery, who came to California in 1850 and bought 185 acres in 1859. He is known for overseeing the dredging of the Oakland estuary. He was also the president of the Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland.

Fairfield

In the 1850s, a famous clipper ship captain, Robert H. Waterman, moved to the area, where he lived in a house modeled after the prow of a ship. When he gave the land up in order to found a new city, he named it after his hometown of Fairfield, Connecticut.

Foster City

Named after T. Jack Foster, who gave land to the county.

Fremont

John C. Fremont was a soldier, explorer and politician. He was also the first Republican candidate to run for president in 1856.

Gilroy

It was named after the Scottish sailor, John Gilroy who was not actually named John Gilroy. His name was John Cameron. He went by Gilroy, his mothers maiden name, because he'd been a minor when he left home and was in danger of being sent back. In 1814 he was left ashore in Monterey. He became one of the first non-Spanish non-native permanent settlers in California.

Half Moon Bay

It was named for the shape of the bay.

Hayward

The city is named after William Hayward, who opened a hotel there in 1852.

Hercules

It's actually named after explosives. In 1881, the California Powder Works company began producing dynamite out of the area. It made a product called Hercules Powder. When the town became incorporated, community leaders decided to name it Hercules.

Hillsborough

The former owner of the area was W. D. M. Howard, who was from Hillsborough, New Hampshire.

Lafayette

It was named in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette, a French general who fought in the U.S. War of Independence.

Larkspur

The area was subdivided by Charles W. Wright in 1887, and his wife, Georgina, named the town. She allegedly saw flowers blooming on a hill and thought the lupine was larkspur.

Livermore

Named after the English sailor, Robert Livermore, who came to California in the 1820s, became a Mexican citizen and got a huge land grant.

Los Altos

It is Spanish for "the heights."

Los Gatos

It is Spanish for "cats." The Santa Cruz Mountains were once called Cuesta de los Gatos. When the railroad created a station nearby in 1878, it was named Los Gatos Creek.

Martinez

Named after the landowner Ignacio Martínez, who had been comandante at the Presidio of San Francisco from 1822-1827.

Menlo Park

There were two brothers-in-law, Dennis J. Oliver and D. C. McGlynn. They came from the village of Menlough in County Galway, Ireland. Between their two ranches they built an arched gate with the inscription “Menlo Park.” When the San Francisco and San Jose Railroad reached the place in 1863, they adopted the name for the station.

Mill Valley

In 1834 a sawmill was built in the area.

Milpitas

In Mexican Spanish milpas means "cornfields." The family of Máximo Martínez, as well as local Native Americans, had once worked in nearby cornfields.

Moraga

Named after Joaquín Moraga, a soldier in the San Francisco Company. His father was the explorer Gabriel Moraga.

Morgan Hill

It was named after Morgan Hill, a ranch owner.

Mountain View

Named for a stage station that had views of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Mount Diablo and Mount Hamilton.

Napa

There are many theories for what Napa could mean. According to some, Napa is Southern Patwin for "grizzly bear." Others think it comes from the Eastern and Central Pomo, who have the word naphó, which means "people family." A third theory is that it comes from the Suisun Patwin and could mean "near mother," "near home" or "motherland."

Newark

In 1876, the South Pacific Coast Railroad Co. named the railroad station after the New Jersey home of A.E. Davis and his brother.

Nicasio

It’s believed that Nicasio was a Native American who was baptized with the name of one of several saints named Nicasius.

Novato

The name is probably from a chief of the Hookooeko or Miwok. Historians believe the chief had probably been baptized with the name of St. Novatus.

Oakland

In Spanish times, part of the area had been called Encinal del Temescal or "Oak Grove by the Sweathouse" because of a beautiful oak grove. When the area was incorporated as a town, the name was spontaneously chosen.

Orinda

The sheriff and landowner William Camron was married to Alice M. Camron. Mrs. Camron chose to name their home in honor of her favorite poet, Katherine Fowler Philips, who was known as “The Matchless Orinda.”*

Pacifica

Because the city is next to the Pacific Ocean.

Palo Alto

Palo means stick in Spanish, but in Spanish California it meant tree. It may refer to a specific redwood tree seen by the Anza expedition, that “appears from a distance like a tower.”

Pescadero

In Spanish it means "fishing place" because people caught salmon there.

Petaluma

In Coast Miwok, péta lúuma means "hillside back" or "hillside ridge."

Piedmont

It was inspired either by the French word piedmont or the Italian word piemonte, both meaning "foot (of the) mountain."

Pleasanton

The name has nothing to do with "pleasant town." It’s named after Gen. Alfred Pleasonton. The name was misspelled by a U.S. Postal Service worker.

Pittsburg

Named after the Pittsburg Coal Co., which was named after the city in Pennsylvania.

Point Reyes

An expedition led by Sebastian Vizcaíno passed the point on Jan 6, 1603, the Day of the Three Holy Kings. The expedition members found shelter in present-day Drakes Bay and named it Puerto de los Reyes. That name did not stick, but on maps Punta de los Reyes continued to be used.

Redwood City

There had been a forest and lumber industry nearby. The site has also been called Red Woods City, Red Woods Embarcadero and the Redwoods.

Richmond

It was named Richmond in 1852. It’s a popular place name in the United States.

San Bruno

It was named for St. Bruno of Cologne, founder of the Carthusian Order.

San Francisco

The area was originally called Yerba Buena in the 1700s by Spanish-speaking explorers. It was officially changed to San Francisco in 1847. The namesake was Mission San Francisco de Asís a la Laguna de los Dolores or "The mission of our seraphic father Saint Francis of Assisi at the Lake of the Sorrows."

San Jose

On November 29, 1777, Pueblo de San Jose was founded as California's first civilian settlement. This Pueblo, and eventually the city, were both named after Saint Joseph, husband of the Virgin Mary.*

San Leandro

The city got its name from Arroyo de San Leandro. The name probably honors Saint Leander, archbishop of Seville.

San Mateo

It honors St. Matthew, the evangelist and apostle.

San Pablo

It honors Paul the Apostle.

San Rafael

The name honors the archangel Raphael, the guardian angel of humanity.

San Ramon

The name doesn’t honor a saint. It actually honors a sheep herder named Ramón. A creek was named after Ramón and then the city took that name. The "San" was added to make it conform to surrounding name conventions.

Saratoga

Named because the waters of nearby Pacific Congress Spring look similar to Congress Spring in Saratoga, New York.

Santa Clara

In 1769 the area was named in honor of Saint Clare of Assisi, co-founder of the Franciscan Order of Poor Clares.

Santa Rosa

Named for either the Dominican St. Rose of Lima or for the Italian Franciscan St. Rose of Viterbo.

Sausalito

In Spanish sauzalito means "little willow grove." Earlier the area had been called Horseshoe Bay. It was first called Sausalito on land grants in 1826.

Sonoma

In baptismal records from 1815, the name of the local Native American tribe was the “Chucuines o Sonomas.” In 1816, a botanist called them the “Sonomi.” According to the book, "California Place Names" by Erwin Gudde, it comes from a Patwin word for "nose." Gudde writes there was either an Native American chief with a prominent nose, or a nose-shaped mountain. While the “valley of the moon” is poetic, Gudde finds it less credible.

Sunnyvale

It was named by W. E. Crossman around 1900.

Tiburon

It means “shark” in Spanish. Punta de Tiburón, or "shark’s point," was first mentioned in the diary of José Sánchez on July 6, 1823.

Treasure Island

The name was chosen in 1936 because it “perfectly expressed a glamorous, beautiful, almost fabulous island that would present the treasures of the world during the 1939 World’s Fair.”

Union City

Union City got its name from a steamboat called "The Union" owned by settlers John and William Horner. They established the settlement following the Gold Rush.

Vacaville

The area was named after Juan Manuel Vaca, who sold the land in the 1840s.

Vallejo

It was named after a Monterey-born general, Mariano Vallejo. He laid out the city in 1850 and established the state capital there from 1851 to 1852.

Walnut Creek

In 1810 it was called Arroyo de los Nogales or "creek of the walnut trees" by Padre Viader. In 1834 land grants called the stream Arroyo de las Nueces.

Yerba Buena

It means "good herb" in Spanish and refers to the sweet-scented creeper Micromeria chamissonis. The plant was found near Mountain Lake in San Francisco in 1776. By 1792 it became a place name. Before the island was called Yerba Buena Island, it was known as Isla de Alcatraces.

This post heavily references the book “California Place Names” by Erwin G. Gudde.

Thanks to Werner Weiss, the creator of Yesterland.com, for his 2007 photo of Queen Calafia as portrayed by Disney outside the discontinued cinematic ride, Golden Dreams.

*An earlier version of this post incorrectly gave credit to the U.S. surveyor general of California for choosing the name "Orinda" and attributed the naming of San Jose to the establishment of Mission San Jose.

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