Part of the American History & Genealogy Project

Southern California Place Names

By Ora A. Lovejoy

From her 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 unanswered.

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 story. 1

In 1864, 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.

San Diego (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 San Diego.

Coronado Beach 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 treasures.

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 mission site.

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 creek".

Campo means a level field.

Canada del Bautismo (glen of the baptism), so named from the padres baptizing two dying native children.

Carriso, the name of a village and creek in San Diego County. It means "reed grass".

Chula Vista means pretty view. "Chula" is of Mexican origin. La Costa, a place on the shore north of San Diego, means the "coast".

Coyote Valley, just below the southern border of San Jacinto Forest Reservation. The word "Coyote" is an Aztec word, originally "coyotl".2

Cuyamaca is derived from two Indian words "kwe" (rain) and "amak" (yonder), with reference to the clouds and rain gathering around the summit of the mountain.

Descanso, which means "rest", was so named because a government surveying party stopped each day at this particular place to rest.

Dulzura is 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.

Encinitas means "little oaks", twenty miles northwest of San Diego.

Escondido 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".

Linda Vista means "charming or pretty view".

Point Loma (famous for the Theosophists under Madam Tingley) means "hill point". "Loma" means hill.

Del Mar means "of or on the sea". It is about eighteen miles north of San Diego.

La Mesa, 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.

El Nido 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 name).

Los Rosales means the "rose bushes", in memory of the "roses of Castile" found blooming in profusion by Miguel Costanso.

Temecula, "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 youth'.

La Brea (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.

Los Ojitos means "little eyes", but is here used in the sense of "little springs".

Santa Ana, 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 frightful earthquakes.

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.

Santa Monica, named from the mother of St. Augustine. She was a Christian and her husband, the father of St. Augustine, was a heathen.

Santa Catalina, 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.

San Gabriel, 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.

San Fernando (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.

Temescal, 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 to Alden.

San Bernardino, 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.

Abalone Point, 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.

Alamitos 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 modern.

Anaheim means Anna's home. It is a little town near Los Angeles.

Anita, little Anna. Santa Anita, the name of a canyon.

Artesia (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.

Bandini is a surname. It is the name of a place a short distance from Los Angeles, on the Santa Fe.

Bolsa (pocket), a shut-in place. There is a town in Orange County by the name of Bolsa.

Cabezon means big head, and was named for an Indian who had a large head. Sometimes improperly spelled (Cabazon).

Cahuilla, 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 Mountains.

Calabazas 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 Angeles.

Canada is a mountain valley, the name of a place back of Glendale.

Casa Blanca means a "white house", so called from a large white ranch house near the railroad.

Casco means 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 the place.

Chino, Chinaman or a simpleton.

Conejo means rabbit. It is a name given to a number of places in the State.

Cucamonga is an Indian name, a nun of evil repute, applied to a land grant in San Bernardino County.

Duarte is a surname.

Las Flores means the flowers.

Garvanza should be Garbanzo, a section of Los Angeles, means chick-pea.

Hermosa means beautiful. A beach near Los Angeles.

Indio, the Spanish word for "Indian".

La Habra (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.

La Mirada, the "view".

León means "lion".

Loma Linda, pretty hill.

Los Molinos, the "mills" or "mill-stones", a place near San Gabriel, so named because of stones suitable for millstones.

Los Nietos (literally, "the grandchildren"), but in this case a surname.

Mohave, three mountains. Name of an Indian tribe, also a small desert town in the desert of the same name.

Murietta, a surname, but not named for Joaquin Murietta, the bandit.

Pasadena, 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".

Pomona, "Goddess of Fruit". Spanish word of Greek origin. Name of a town near Los Angeles.

Paso Robles (pass of oaks).

Petaluma (low hills).

Prado means "meadow".

Puente means "bridge", name of a land grant.

Pulgas Creek means "fleas creek".

Redondo Beach gets its name from a land grant which was called "Sausal Redondo" (round willow grove).

Rincon (inside corner).

Rio Seco (dry river).

Rivera means "river or stream".

Rodeo de las Aguas, "a gathering of the waters", once given to the site of "La Brea".

San Jacinto, from the Silesian nobleman who became a monk, St. Hyacinth.

San Juan Point (St. John Point).

San Mateo Point (St. Matthew Point).

San Pedro (St. Peter).

Saticoy, a Chumash Indian name.

Sierra Madre (Mountains of the Mother of Christ).

Simi (source of water), a little town on the Southern Pacific, north of Los Angeles.

El Toro (the bull).

Trabuca Canyon means "blunterbuss canyon".

Valle Verde means "green valley". Incorrectly spelled as Val Verde.

Verdugo, a 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.


AHGP California

Source: Historical Society of Southern California, Volumes IX, 1918, Los Angeles, California, McBride Publishing Company, 1918.

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