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How Bay Area cities got their names

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What’s in a name? Plenty.

Mission Dolores, a late 18th century Catholic Church in San Francisco, a small white chapel building with a peaked roof with a cross mounted on top next to a much taller temple building with twin spires. Via Shutterstock

During the recent NFC Championship that put the 49ers into the Super Bowl—and then subsequently broke Bay Area hearts—the broadcast seemed allergic to mentioning the Niners’ hometown of Santa Clara, which led to a fascinating explication of Santa Clara’s history and name.

But how exactly did the other Bay Area towns and cities end up with their enduring monikers? This etymological investigation turned out to be trickier than it sounds, as sometimes even the most storied locals cannot agree on the precise history of their communal sobriquet.

Here we have just a few of the most intriguing Bay Area decryptions. Note that these are listed in order of population, with the exception of San Francisco, which gets grandfathered into the top spot out of deference.


San Francisco

The city and county are both named after Mission San Francisco de Asís a la Laguna de los Dolores, which commemorates St. Francis of Assisi, the 13th century friar venerated as a patron of animals. However, the city (then barely a hamlet) was originally dubbed Yerba Buena, but on January 30, 1847, Chief Magistrate Washington Bartlett changed the name to correspond with that of San Francisco Bay to “prevent confusion and mistakes.”

San Jose

Unlike in San Francisco, Mission de San Jose was built after the town was established. This South Bay city cites Saint Joseph—the patron of workers, travelers, and immigrants who was the Biblical husband of the Virgin Mary—as its namesake. However, there are dozens of other saints named some variation of Joseph, which has caused some confusion over the name in the past.

Oakland

Per the 1892 history book The Bay of San Francisco, part of the area presently called Oakland was previously known as “Encinal del Temescal”—roughly “the oak grove near the sweat lodge.” Neither of those landmarks exists today, but the references survive in the name of the city and its hip neighborhood. Present-day Oakland covers the area of a number of other long-vanished historical settlements, including the onetime towns of Brooklyn, Clinton, and San Antonio, whose names still grace parts of the modern U.S. map.

Fremont

As students of California history know, John C. Fremont was a soldier and explorer pivotal to seizing California from Mexico during the Mexican-American War. He later went into politics, briefly serving as a U.S. senator and running for president on an abolitionist ticket. Less savory parts of his biography, like his probable war crimes, tend to get glossed over.

Santa Rosa

Unlike other cities with a saintly disposition, no Mission exists in Santa Rosa. Nevertheless, New World Encyclopedia credits Saint Rose of Lima, a 16th/17th century nun and patron of Latin America, as the namesake for the North Bay city.

Hayward

William Hayward was an original 49er, traveling to San Francisco aboard a steamer from Massachusetts to seek his fortune. As the Hayward city history page says, Hayward, like most of his contemporaries, failed to find much gold in the hills, but he did find a nice spot for a hotel and general store that formed the backbone of the eventual town that bears his name.

Sunnyvale

According to the popular Images of America history book series entry about Sunnyvale, the Silicon Valley town’s name was an act of pure marketing, perpetrated by the ultimate marketer: early 20th century real estate speculator Walter E. Crossman. Originally called either Murphy or Encinal (it varied, apparently), Crossman pushed the Sunnyvale name on the town to “attract winter-weary easterners to a new world of sunshine, fruit, and flowers.”

Concord

Originally called Todos Santos (“all saints”), denizens pushed the Concord name on the town in 1869. Town founder Fernando Pacheco put a missive in the Contra Costa Gazette calling the new name “falsely acquired” and insisting “the town of Concord does not exist.” Alas, his words didn’t take. Possibly migrants from the East Coast found the Concord name more appealing than a Spanish-language one. Or possibly the townsfolk adapted a name from any of the various other U.S. cities called Concord, which, in turn, take their title from the English word “concord.”

Santa Clara

Both Mission Santa Clara and the nearby city bear the name of Saint Clare of Assisi, a 13th century nun who serves as the patron saint of eye disease and centuries later retroactively also became the patron of television.

Vallejo

General Mariano G. Vallejo, a wealthy 19th century Californio born in Monterey, led a wild and varied life across Northern California and often seems quite luckless in hindsight, at various points being excommunicated by the Catholic Church and imprisoned by John Fremont during the war. In the years after the U.S. absorbed California, Vallejo lost much of his land and wealth but at least he still has one lasting namesake, the city he initially established as California’s capital.

Berkeley

As UC Berkeley’s own Daily Californian reports, the university and subsequently the city bear the name of George Berkeley (1685–1753), “an Anglo-Irish philosopher and empiricist whose major contribution in his field was that of subjective idealism.” A wild man, that one. Berkeley died more than a century before the founding of the East Bay city; college trustees picked the name because, per the Berkeley Historical Plaque Project, the beauty of the location recalled a particular George Berkeley poem: On the Prospects of Planting Arts and Learning In America.

Fairfield

As city records note, clipper ship captain Robert Waterman named the city after his hometown of Fairfield, Connecticut, which itself is named after nothing more remarkable than the beautiful (“fair”) landscape. Sometimes it’s that simple.

Richmond

The 2002 history book Historic California holds that local toff Edmund Randolph named Point Richmond long before any city was established nearby, commemorating his hometown of Richmond, Virginia, which is named for the English town of Richmond (now part of London), which was itself named for an 11th century castle: “Riche Mount,” or “the strong hill.” Phew.

Antioch

Founded as Smith’s Landing, after founding siblings. The 1998 history book California Place Names reports that the town minister persuaded residents to change the city’s name to reflect the Biblical city of Antioch, believing that nothing less befitted the solemnity of the occasion.

Daly City

After the 1906 earthquake, wealthy dairy farmer and landowner John Daly allowed scores of displaced refugees to resettle on his vast tracts of property just to the south. By 1911 it was a new town, named in honor of the original landlord.

Vacaville

While the name literally means “cow town,” this is a merely coincidence. ABC 10 reports that “Vaca” was the surname of the original landowner, who sold off the property for the purposes of development on the condition that they name the city after him. And so it was.

Napa

Alexandria Brown of the Napa County Historical Society writes that the origins of the name (spelled “Nappa” in those days) remain elusive, with the most likely explanation being that it derives from some indigenous word, supposedly meaning anything from “village” to “fish” to “grizzly bear.” She also notes that nobody ever formally excised the second “P,” it just up and disappeared sometime around 1848.

Alameda

Alameda residents picked their city’s name the old-fashioned way: with an off-year election in 1853, favoring a name that translates roughly to “grove of poplar trees.”

Palo Alto

“The place of the tall trees,” likely named after one particular redwood tree, “El Palo Alto,” which probably still qualifies as Silicon Valley’s single most celebrated resident—certainly the one with the most consistently good PR.