Michael Ellis: Alcatraz

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How did San Francisco’s most popular tourist attraction get its name? Michael Ellis says the story may surprise you.

When the Moors invaded and conquered Spain and Portugal in the 8th century A.D., they brought with them more than just superb architecture. Many of the Spanish words that begin with A-L almirante, Almaden, algodon, alcohol for example are Arabic in origin. A-L is the article “the."

To the Moors, the bucket on an irrigation wheel that scoops up water was called an “al qtraz." They incorrectly thought pelicans scooped up water in their large bill to carry to their young in the desert. So, they named the pelican “alcatraz." To Spanish seafarers the word eventually came to mean not just pelicans but any seabird.

When the first European, Juan Manuel de Ayala sailed into San Francisco Bay in 1775, the local Ohlone met him. Of course, these native peoples already had names for all the geographic features of the area but that didn't stop ole Juan.

His first morning in the bay he was anchored near a tiny dense patch of trees, so he named that place Saucelito, which means a little thicket of willows. The first island that he visited became Isla de Los Angeles or Angel Island, after the Spanish tradition of naming places after the Catholic Feast days closest to the discovery date. A nearby island he christened Alcatraz for the thousands of pelicans and other seabirds wheeling around it. However, the island Ayala named Alcatraz was actually the one we now call Yerba Buena Island.


What? How’d that happen? An Englishman mapping the San Francisco Bay in 1826 made a mistake. Captain Beechey accidentally transcribed the name Alcatraz onto a much smaller nearby island, thereby cementing that error into the Royal Navy's nautical charts. Yerba Buena (the Good Herb Island) was probably named for a very abundant native mint, found twining all over the island.

So, a faulty observation, a European invasion and a typo resulted in the name of the number one tourist destination in the Bay Area.

This is Michael Ellis, with a Perspective.

Michael Ellis is a naturalist. He lives in Santa Rosa.