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Approved Change of Controversial Road Name in Contra Costa County Hits a Snag in Concord

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Cars travel on Kirker Pass Road in Concord on Feb. 16, 2022. (Ray Saint Germain/Bay City News)

Contra Costa County supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to rename one section of Kirker Pass Road in the city of Pittsburg and unincorporated areas, but not the stretch that runs through Concord, where residents opposed the name change.

The county's Board of Supervisors has sought since February to rename the winding road that connects Concord and Pittsburg, after officials learned that its namesake, James Kirker, was a bounty hunter who allegedly was involved in the murders of hundreds of Apache men, women and children in the early 1800s while working for the Mexican state of Chihuahua.

But the name-change effort recently hit a snag, Supervisor Karen Mitchoff explained during the board's meeting Tuesday, because Concord residents who live along the road said they didn't want to have to change their home addresses.

"I did not think there were that many residents whose property affronted Kirker Pass Road," said Mitchoff, whose district includes some of area the road runs through. "I understand it, but I really am disappointed that we will continue to perpetuate a name [of someone] who … just had a pretty bad reputation."

Mitchoff added that she did not initially view the change of address as a significant burden and was "a little irritated" by that reasoning, but has since come to better understand residents' concerns.


"It is quite inconvenient," she acknowledged. "It is your driver's license, it is your medical records, it is your voting records, it is your tax records, it is your property taxes, it's your children's school records. And that really would be a burden."

The county will now pursue changing the name of the road only between the point where it exits Concord's city limits and its junction with Railroad Avenue in Pittsburg.

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A new name for Kirker Pass Road has yet to be proposed, Mitchoff said Tuesday, and it likely will be finalized after county officials hold a community meeting with local residents to gather feedback.

County officials first started considering the name change after Daniel Kelly, a retired San Francisco social worker and a master's degree candidate in Arizona State University's history program, outlined Kirker's history as a "homicidal racist."

Kelly made the case for the name change in a San Francisco Chronicle opinion article, and then appealed directly to the board in February, prompting Mitchoff and fellow Supervisor Federal Glover to submit an official renaming request to the county.

Kirker, an Irish immigrant, worked as a trapper in what was then northern Mexico and is now southern New Mexico before becoming a mercenary of the Mexican government, which was seeking to extract copper ore from the area, according to Kelly.

When Apaches in the area attempted to prevent the mining effort in a bid to defend their lands, the Mexican government issued bounties of "100 pesos for the scalp of an Apache man, 50 for a woman's and 25 pesos for a child's scalp," he wrote.

Kirker and others seeking to claim the government's bounties, Kelly said, raided an Apache camp outside the town of Galeana in the state of Chihuahua in June 1846, bludgeoning between 130 and 170 Apache men, women and children and mounting their scalps on poles outside the camp.

An essay penned by local historian William Mero in the archives of the Contra Costa County Historical Society corroborates Kelly's portrayal of Kirker.

"Kirker organized militias in many of the villages in Chihuahua State against growing Apache attacks," Mero wrote. "Later James Kirker led a large band of Mexican, American, Delaware and Shawnee warriors. They fought the Apaches who were raiding deeper and deeper into northern Mexico. Kirker's band was just one of many such mercenary gangs of American and Mexican Apache scalp hunters working for the State of Chihuahua."

Kirker later defected to the U.S. during the Mexican-American War and fled the region after Mexico declared him a traitor, eventually settling in Contra Costa County, where he died several years later. The county officially named the road after him in 1892.

At Tuesday's meeting, Supervisor John Gioia argued that any short-term inconvenience is far outweighed by the moral imperative to change the name of the road.

"I think we're doing the right thing," he said. "And all I can say is I would continue to encourage the cities to make the same change and even over any short-term concern that residents or businesses may have because ultimately, name changes occur on streets all the time."

This story includes reporting from KQED's Anaïs-Ophelia Lino and Bay City News' Eli Walsh.

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