Southern California Place Names
By Ora A. Lovejoy
aborigines, California inherits many Indian names, and from her
Spanish settlers, many Spanish names, and often a combination of
the two. And then just plain United States is used in some
instances, and again where the Spanish appellation is too long,
the American settler took matters into his own hands,
considering brevity to be the soul of wit. Where no other
language is mentioned the name of the place is Spanish.
As exploring parties traversed the
new land, they first applied names to rivers, creeks or
mountains as being features most important to their welfare, and
in some cases, even to their existence, as for example the
Merced (Mercy) River was thus named, because it was the first
drinking water encountered by a party, after having traversed
forty miles of the hot, dry valley. As one views the stream at
the foot of Vernal Falls, all joyous and gay, and as it goes on
in a frivolous way around Happy Isles, and then on out into the
valley, one can know that it was indeed considered an Angel of
Mercy at one time, and how many more times is a question to be
Most naturally, in considering
California names, the first would be the name of the State
itself. Much guessing and confusion there was for many years,
till in 1862 Edward Everett Hale happened on the solution which
is generally accepted now. Mr. Hale, while engaged in a study of
Spanish literature, was fortunate enough to run across a copy of
an old novel published in Toledo between 1510 and 1521, in which
the name California occurred', as the name of a fabulous island,
rich in treasure, and inhabited by a tribe of Amazons. The novel
was very popular in its day, although of small literary value.
Calafia, the Amazon queen, assists
the Turks in their attack on Constantinople and the Christians.
She and her sister encounter Christian Knights, and the fury of
Liota, the lion-hearted sister, because they are overmatched, is
savage, to say the least. They are finally overcome, and the
marriage of the two sisters to Christian Knights closes the
Mr. Hale translated for the Atlantic Monthly parts of the story
relating to the queen of California, and in 1874 he published a
small volume on the naming of California, and stated that Cortez
named the peninsula Baja California. It is suggested by Mr. Hale
that the root Calif, the Spanish spelling for the sovereign of
the Musselman power, was in the mind of the author, as he
invented the Amazon allies of the Infidel power.
(St. James), the first settlement in California proper, had more
than one christening. Cabrillo named the harbor San Miguel
(Saint Michael) in 1542. Then in a little over fifty years
Vizcaino came along and named the harbor San Diego. Thus it was
first the port, years after the mission, and then the town of
gets its name from the Coronado Islands, nearby, which islands
were named in honor of Coronado, the great explorer, who
searched so diligently for the fabulous city of such great
San Luis Rey de Francia
(St. Louis, King of France) is the name of a mission some forty
miles north of San Diego and three miles inland, which was
founded in 1798. As Blanche of Castile was the mother of St.
Louis, we can account for the naming of a Spanish mission after
a French king.
Some fifteen miles northeast of San
Luis Rey is the site of the sub-mission San Antonio de Pala
(often misspelled Palo). Pala is an Indian word, meaning, in the
Cupanian Mission Indian language "water", no doubt due to the
fact that the San Luis Rey River passes through this particular
About half way between San Diego and
Los Angeles is the mission} San Juan Capistrano (St. John
Capistrano), which was founded in 1776 (a date not to be
forgotten), and destroyed in 1812 by an earthquake. Its patron
saint was a Franciscan friar, who took part in the crusades.
In San Diego County is found Tibia,
which is nothing more or less than warm water, or warm springs.
Some translations have been given as "shinbone water", and
"flute water", but they are entirely wrong.
Ballena (whale) valley
being a good many miles from the ocean does seem strange, but it
was named from a nearby mountain whose outline along the top is
the exact shape of a humpback whale. El Cajon, some twelve miles
northeast of San Diego, is the Spanish for "the box", being a
deep canyon with high box-like walls. Caliente Creek, in the
northern part of San Diego County, is the Spanish for "hot
a level field.
Canada del Bautismo
(glen of the baptism), so named from the padres baptizing two
dying native children.
the name of a village and creek in San Diego County. It means
means pretty view. "Chula" is of Mexican origin. La Costa, a
place on the shore north of San Diego, means the "coast".
just below the southern border of San Jacinto Forest
Reservation. The word "Coyote" is an Aztec word, originally
derived from two Indian words "kwe" (rain) and "amak" (yonder),
with reference to the clouds and rain gathering around the
summit of the mountain.
which means "rest", was so named because a government surveying
party stopped each day at this particular place to rest.
the name of a mining camp (now desolate), just north of the
Mexican border. It means "sweetness". Rather an unusual name for
a mining camp.
means "little oaks", twenty miles northwest of San Diego.
means "hidden", so named from its location in the valley.
La Jolla is
a word of doubtful origin. Some say it means "pool", others say
it comes from "hoya", a hollow surrounded by hills, and still
others say it is a corruption of "joya", a jewel. It is rather
thought to be a corruption of some Indian word.
Laguna del Corral
means the "lagoon of the yard".
means "charming or pretty view".
(famous for the Theosophists under Madam Tingley) means "hill
point". "Loma" means hill.
means "of or on the sea". It is about eighteen miles north of
literally "the table", is generally used in connection with a
"high, flat table-land". Lamesa is an incorrect form. Mesa
Grande means a large table-land.
means the nest. It is near the Mexican border. Potrero, a
pasture land. Many Potreros are scattered over the State.
La Presa is
a dam or dike. It is on the Sweetwater River (note the American
means the "rose bushes", in memory of the "roses of Castile"
found blooming in profusion by Miguel Costanso.
"The rising sun hit the house early", is an Indian name of an
important Indian village (of some years ago). The white man saw
their good land and they forced the Indians to leave and remove
to Pichango Canyon, a desert region.
To finish up the locality around San
Diego, nothing is more fitting than Tia Juana, which means "Aunt
Jane", and travelers wonder! It is a corruption of an Indian
word, Tiwana, into Tia Juana, which is the Spanish for "Aunt
Jane". Tiwana is said to mean "by the sea".
Miguel Costanso and his companies
halted on August 2nd to observe a feast day, and named the place
where they stopped in honor of the feast day, "Nuestra Senora de
los Angeles", "Our Lady of the Angels".
On September 4th, 1781, the pueblo
was actually founded at the order of Governor Neve, on the site
of the Indian village Yangna, which was to be known as "Nuestra
Senora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciuncula". "Porciuncula"
means the "small portion" and was given to the river, which at
that season of the year was dry. The name was, of course,
shortened in time. Bimini, name of springs in western part of
the city of Los Angeles, said to be "wonder land or land of
(the asphalt) is the name of a ranch, near Los Angeles, which
contains asphaltum beds which furnish one of the richest fields
for paleontological research to be found anywhere in the world.
It is here in these beds that the remains of the saber-tooth
tiger were found.
means "little eyes", but is here used in the sense of "little
name of a stream, named after St. Anna, the mother of the
Virgin, and her name signifies "gracious". The day that the
Portola expedition arrived at this stream there were four
In Southern California, the Saints'
Calendar is represented to quite a degree. But as the names were
often too long, they were dropped and others substituted, as for
example the naming of a river by Father Crespi "El Rio del
Dulcisimo Nombre de Jesus de Los Temblores," The River of the
Sweetest Name of Jesus of the Earthquakes". But as Father Crespi
very naively put it, the soldiers called it Santa Ana.
named from the mother of St. Augustine. She was a Christian and
her husband, the father of St. Augustine, was a heathen.
named by Vizcaino in honor of St. Catherine, because its
discovery occurred on the eve of her feast day.
Las Animas Benditas
(The Blessed Souls), so named from the four Christians who were
killed and burned by Anajabas (Mojave) Indians. The bones were
gathered and buried and the sepulchre blessed.
the name of a mission some nine miles east of Los Angeles, was
named for St. Gabriel Archangel. Also known as the Mission of
Los Temblores. It seems there were many quakes in the locality
during the forty years preceding 1812, the date of a very
destructive quake in California.
(St. Ferdinand), a king of Spain who expelled the Moors from
Toledo, Cordova and Seville. The Camulos Rancho, the home of
Ramona the heroine of Mrs. Helen Hunt Jackson's romance, was
once included in the lands of this mission.
in Riverside County, means "sweathouse". It is an Indian word of
Aztec origin, and was brought to California by the Franciscans.
It recalls one of the curious customs of the Indians who built
little structures of bark, reeds or grass, covered with mud. A
small fire would be built in these places, which were very low;
possibly a dozen Indians would crawl in, bringing in hot stones,
then the only opening would be closed and they would proceed to
"sweat". After a good "sweating", they would rush out and jump
into a nearby stream of water. The sweathouse was used as a
curative for disease and a convenience for cleansing the skin,
when necessity demanded it. A number of places throughout the
State bore the name of "Temescal", so Riverside County is not to
be blamed. There was one lying between the sites now occupied by
the cities of Oakland and Berkeley. Its citizens became
discontented with the Indian Turkish bath name and changed' it
bold as a bear, from St. Bernardinus, who established the Monte
de Piedad (hill of pity) municipal pawn shops, where money was
loaned to the poor on pledges. The name is given to the
mountain, county and city, which is sometimes called "Berdoo",
sad to state.
named from the abundance of great sea snails that once were to
be found some miles southeast of San Pedro bay. Agua Caliente
means "hot water", used in reference to hot springs. Of these
there are many in the State. One is found on the Indian
Reservation, southeast of Riverside.
means "little cottonwoods". There are several towns of this name
in the state, one quite near Santa Ana. Aliso means "alder
tree". It is the name of a place on the Santa Fe railroad. No
doubt named for the rancho Canada de los Alisos. Thought to be
means Anna's home. It is a little town near Los Angeles.
little Anna. Santa Anita, the name of a canyon.
(from Artois, in France), which has artesian wells.
Azusa is an
Indian place name of a lodge, or rancheria, the original form
being Asuksa-gua, the "gua" an ending which indicates place.
a surname. It is the name of a place a short distance from Los
Angeles, on the Santa Fe.
(pocket), a shut-in place. There is a town in Orange County by
the name of Bolsa.
means big head, and was named for an Indian who had a large
head. Sometimes improperly spelled (Cabazon).
of uncertain derivation, but probably "Spanishized" from the
Indian spelling Ka-we-a. It is the name of a tribe of Indians
that once lived on the northern slopes of the San Jacinto
means pumpkins and is no doubt a corruption of an Indian word "Calahuasa",
the name of a former Chumash village. The name may have been
given by the Spanish because of the wild gourds which grew in
abundance and which were yellow and looked something like
pumpkins. There is a little town of this name northwest of Los
Canada is a
mountain valley, the name of a place back of Glendale.
means a "white house", so called from a large white ranch house
near the railroad.
the "skull", shell or outside of anything. Also said to mean the
place of the wine cask. El Casco is twelve miles east of
Riverside. There seems to be no connection between the name and
Chinaman or a simpleton.
means rabbit. It is a name given to a number of places in the
is an Indian name, a nun of evil repute, applied to a land grant
in San Bernardino County.
Duarte is a
means the flowers.
should be Garbanzo, a section of Los Angeles, means chick-pea.
means beautiful. A beach near Los Angeles.
Spanish word for "Indian".
(correct form La Hebra), a place near Whittier, on the Pacific
Electric line, means "the thread". Possibly may have some
reference to a vein of gold.
the "mills" or "mill-stones", a place near San Gabriel, so named
because of stones suitable for millstones.
(literally, "the grandchildren"), but in this case a surname.
three mountains. Name of an Indian tribe, also a small desert
town in the desert of the same name.
surname, but not named for Joaquin Murietta, the bandit.
said to be derived from the Chippewa Indian language. The entire
name is Weoquan Pasadena, meaning the "Crown of the Valley". It
has nothing to do with the "Pass of Eden".
"Goddess of Fruit". Spanish word of Greek origin. Name of a town
near Los Angeles.
(pass of oaks).
means "bridge", name of a land grant.
means "fleas creek".
gets its name from a land grant which was called "Sausal
Redondo" (round willow grove).
means "river or stream".
Rodeo de las Aguas,
"a gathering of the waters", once given to the site of "La
from the Silesian nobleman who became a monk, St. Hyacinth.
San Juan Point
(St. John Point).
San Mateo Point
(St. Matthew Point).
Chumash Indian name.
(Mountains of the Mother of Christ).
(source of water), a little town on the Southern Pacific, north
of Los Angeles.
Trabuca Canyon means
means "green valley". Incorrectly spelled as Val Verde.
surname. The owners of the Rancho San Rafael, northeast of Los
Angeles and near the base of the Verdugo mountains.
In treating of these California
names, I included only the southern part of Southern California.
As one goes north one still
encounters the Spanish names, but beyond San Francisco there are
fewer Spanish names and more of Indian origin.
The sources of information are
somewhat scattered and often unreliable, and thus in many cases
it is impossible to trace names to their origin.
It seems that names of places in
California were being discussed away back in the 50's, for
Mariano G. Vallejo made a report to the first Legislative
Session of California (at its request), on April 16, 1850, in
respect to the derivation and definition of the names of the
several counties of the State.
Even at that early date a great
future was assured Los Angeles. We have it in Vallejo's own
words: "Doubtless many men of business, both public and
mercantile, tired of their avocations, will retire there to
enjoy a life of angels".
1. Davidson, George. Origin and
Meaning of the Name California. Proceeding of Geographical
Society of the Pacific, 1910.
2. Sanchez, Nellie Van de drift.
Spanish and Indian Place Names of California. The subject is
well handled by the author.
Source: Historical Society of Southern California, Volumes IX,
1918, Los Angeles, California, McBride Publishing Company, 1918.