Place Names

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Michael Ellis says the names of the places where we live, work and recreate are windows into the region’s early days.

The place names in an area often tell much about the early history....who was there first, who conquered, who lost, who won, who left.

But sometimes names are total accidents. Like the town of Sebastopol, named after the Ukrainian city. But not, as you might suppose, by the Russian fur trappers who built Ft. Ross, which incidentally is a corruption of Ft. Russia. No. Great excitement gripped the world in 1854 as French and English troops surrounded and blockaded this Crimean port city. The siege of Sebastopol captured the world’s attention. And meanwhile in Sonoma County a couple guys named Hibbs and Stevens got in a big fight. Hibbs was getting whupped and ran into Dougherty's general store and refused to come out. Stevens wouldn't leave, trapping Hibbs in the store. The locals began calling this standoff - Hibb's Sebastopol. The name stuck for the area.

Mt. Tamalpais is said to be from the Miwok tongue for tamal which means ‘bay’ and pais equals ‘mountain’. Mountain of the Bay. Tomales Bay therefore is ‘bay bay’. Potrero Meadow is ‘meadow meadow’. La Brea tar pits is ‘tar the tar pits’. The El Camino Road is the ‘the road road’. I am surprised we don't have a Rio River or a Mt. Montana.

Another developer misidentified the beautiful spring flowers gracing the slopes of Marin and thought they were larkspurs, so that's what he named his town, but most likely they were lupines.


But they at least got it right in the East Bay. Oakland is appropriately named after the thousands of live oaks that once grew there.

Corte Madera, that is where wood is cut down. Palo Alto is literally ‘tall tree’, the redwoods. So, Mill Valley is where the mills were, that cut the palo altos taken from the Corte Madera on the slopes of the Bay Mountain.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective

Michael Ellis is a naturalist who leads trips throughout the world. He lives in Santa Rosa.