Thursday, November 30, 2023

California’s County Chronicles: Unveiling the Origins, Names, and Transformations of Northwestern Counties

Map of California by J.H. Colton from 1855

California has 58 counties and the stories of their creation, naming, and sometimes dissolution offer interesting information. Focusing on Northwestern California here are some facts that may be new to readers.

In 1850 there were 27 counties created and border lines were often vague. Mendocino County was one of these places with Trinity, Colusa, and Humboldt counties bordering it. There was confusion where borders met along Sonoma, Solano, and Napa county lines because often no one lived there and it had not been surveyed. It took repeated surveys to establish the border between Mendocino and Lake counties since no one lived in the region.

Mendocino was named for Antonio de Mendoza, viceroy of New Spain, who financed explorer Juan Cabrillo’s coastal expedition in 1530. Mendocino is an adjectival form of the Mendoza family name. Trinity County’s name has religious significance and Glenn County, once bordering Mendocino County, was named for Dr. Hugh Glenn, a wheat farmer. The only other county named for an individual person was Lassen County named for frontiersman Peter Lassen. Del Norte County’s name means “of the north” and Marin was a native word.

Humboldt County in 1855 was named for explorer Alexander von Humboldt who never saw the place. Now non-existent Klamath County was north of the Klamath River and is now part of Humboldt, Del Norte, and Siskiyou counties. And Siskiyou is an interesting place name. Reference books have no definitive ideas on its derivation. Lake County was named for Clear Lake.

Beyond northwestern California counties had interesting names. Seven counties were named for saints in the Catholic Church. Those counties start with San or Santa. Contra Costa meant “the other side” being across the bay from San Francisco. Tulare County was named for the reed tules that grew there. Madera County’s name meant “lumber.” Inyo county’s name was a native word for “dwelling place of the Great Spirit.”

When new counties were created old counties vanished. Oro County became Tuolumne, Benicia County became Solano County, Reading County became Shasta County. The last county created was Imperial County in 1907 and named for the Imperial Land Company which was reclaiming the desert for agriculture with irrigation waters from the Colorado River. If readers want to know more about hundreds of the state’s place names try reading Gudde’s “California Place Names.”

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  1. Unfortunately when most of these counties were named the original inhabitants who obviously LIVED there were not taken into consideration. The Europeans who “discovered” them became the name givers. B.S. can be used to describe that process nevertheless it is what it is. And now that the majority of current inhabitants have come lately (the last hundred years) the names have remained. Interesting read regardless of the past improprieties.

  2. There was a photography exhibit at SF MOMA some years back about the building of Monticello Dam and the creation of Lake Berryessa.
    The old map had Putah Creek spelled “Puta”, Whore Creek.
    I wonder where the bordello was. Winters? Hidden Valley?
    Who ran it? Who changed the name? Some puritanical UCD Chancellor?

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