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What’s in a name? In California, the saints come marching in

What’s in a name?

When it comes to many places in California, it’s the Spanish name of a Catholic saint.

From the north to the south, cites large and small, 10 counties and any number of peaks, creeks and rivers begin with “San” or “Santa.”

The reason, of course, is that Spanish explorers, settlers and missionaries were – excepting for Sir Francis Drake’s brief sojourn in 1579 – the first Europeans to populate the Golden State.

And they brought their saints with them.

San Anselmo, San Andreas, San Bernardino, San Carlos, San Gabriel, San Leandro, San Mateo, Santa Monica, San Pedro, San Quentin, Santa Rosa –merely scratch the surface.

A common naming strategy for the Spanish was matching the date of a discovery to the appropriate saint’s feast day.

It was a method used by Spanish General Sebastian Vizcaino during his 1602 to 1603 voyage along the California coast to find safe moorings for Spanish galleons returning from the Philippines before the vessels headed toward final port in Acapulco.

In early November, Vizcaino entered what had been named San Miguel Bay by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542. The San Miguel was Cabrillo’s flagship. Vizcaino thought the name of his flagship, San Didacus, would be better – particularly since his arrival was close to the healer saint’s feast day of November 12.

Saint Didacus is, in Spanish, San Diego.

A few days later, Vizcaino anchored off the coast of an island Cabrillo had named San Salvador.

Because it was Saint Catherine’s November 25 feast day, the island became Santa Catalina.

Eight days later, on the eve of Santa Barbara’s feast day, Vizcaino named the sliver of coast after her.

Vizcaino also named the Carmel River – Rio de Carmelo. While not a saint, Carmelo is Spanish for Mount Carmel near Jerusalem, which, in turn, comes from the Hebrew karmel, meaning “orchard.”

But Vizcaino ditched saints and religious themes altogether when it came to naming what he thought was the best mooring along the coast. He called  the spot “Monterey” after his patron, the Conde de Monterey, Spanish viceroy of Mexico.

Vizcaino was a strong advocate of colonizing Monterey but his superiors in Manila instead recommended relations be established with Japan.

Spain’s first ambassador to the island nation was Vizcaino. He retired in 1619 and died in Mexico City in 1627 at the age of 80.

The Franciscan friars, led by Junipero Serra and his chief lieutenant Father Fermin Lasuen, founded 19 missions from 1769 to 1798. Another three were erected by their successors.

Some of the missions used the place names established by Vizcaino. San Diego de Alcala was the first mission. Mission Santa Barbara was established in 1786.

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa was founded in 1772. It’s named after Saint Louis of Toulouse who became bishop at 22 and died at 23 in 1297.

There’s also a San Luis Rey de Francia mission in San Diego. Its namesake is Louis IX, the Crusader king who remains the only monarch of France to achieve sainthood.

Louis IX built Sainte-Chapelle in Paris to house what he believed was the original Crown of Thorns.

Mission San Buenaventura – the last created by Father Serra – was founded on Easter Sunday 1782. It’s named after Bonaventure, a 13th Century Franciscan theologian and philosopher.  While officially the city is Buenaventura, most Californians know it as Ventura.

Another mission named for a king is San Fernando Rey de Espana.  The Spanish King Ferdinand III – Louis IX’s cousin – was also a lay Franciscan. He united Castile and Leon and drove the Moors from Cordoba and Seville.

The Franciscans couldn’t ignore the father of their order – St. Francis of Assisi. San Francisco’s Mission District mission is now known as “Dolores.”

Nor could the fathers fail to recognize Saint Clare of Assisi, the founder of the second Franciscan order – the Poor Clares.  Santa Clara, who was inspired by St. Francis’ preaching, finds herself the name of a city, a county and a Catholic university.

Assisting in the establishment of Mission Santa Clara and the city to the south – San Jose de Guadalupe – was Jose Joaquin Moraga. Moraga was second-in-command to Captain Juan Bautista de Anza on his 1775 expedition to the California missions.

When de Anza returned to report, Moraga stayed. He founded San Francisco’s presidio and is buried at the foot of the altar of Mission Dolores.

The adobe of his grandson, Joaquin de la Santisima Trinidad Moraga, is the oldest building in Contra Costa County and is the city’s namesake although it’s now in present-day Orinda.

Jose Joaquin’s son, Gabriel, is well known to the Central Valley. If not, he should be. 

Many of the valley’s major place names stem from Moraga’s 1805 and 1806 expeditions to the area centered in what’s now Fresno County.  The journeys were undertaken partly out of curiosity and partly to search for possible mission sites.

Like Vizcaino before him, proximity to saint feast days informed Moraga’s naming.

Camping next to a river on January 6, the feat day of the Three Wise Men, Moraga named it El Rio del Los Santos Reyes, “River of the Holy Kings.”

Today, the Kings River.

Three months later, on Saint Joachim’s feast day, Moraga discovered another river.

Saint Joachim, who, along with his wife Saint Anne, do not appear in the Bible are claimed in subsequent works to be the parents of Mary, mother of Jesus. 

For Moraga, the date made the river naming a happy two-fer. He honored both the saint and his father by calling it the San Joaquin.

San Joaquin is one of California’s original counties, founded in 1850.

Moraga also gave the Merced River its name: El Rio de Nuestra Senora de la Merced.  “Our Lady of Mercy.”

Also known as “Our Lady of Ransom” the name refers to Mary, a vision of whom was experienced by two clerics in 1218. Mary told them to create a religious order whose purpose was to free Christians held captive by the Saracens. The Mercedarian order is born.

The Sacramento River, another Moraga chosen name, is Spanish for “sacrament.”

Santa Cruz, while not a saint, is the Holy Cross.

Related is Saint Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who gives her name to both a mountain and city in Napa County. She is the patron saint of archeologists because she supposedly unearthed the Santa Cruz in Jerusalem.

Sometimes a “saintly” place name isn’t quite so “saintly.”

San Ramon in Contra Costa County — the headquarters of Chevron and 24-Hour Fitness – isn’t named after Saint Raymond of Pennafort.

Saint Raymond of Pennafort, a Dominican friar, is the patron saint of lawyers. In the 13th Century, he wrote the “code” instituted by Pope Gregory IX, which stayed church law until 1917.

Nor is San Ramon named after Raymond Nonnatus, a fellow Spaniard and contemporary of the other St. Raymond. His name – nonnatus, Latin for “not born”  – comes from his being delivered by Caesarean section from his dead mother. He is the patron saint of childbirth, midwives, children and pregnant women.

He was a member of the Mercedarian order. After traveling to Algeria to seek the release of captives, Nonnatus ran out of money and offered himself as a hostage.

The Saracens found his proselytizing annoying and subjected him to various tortures. He was c
ondemned to impalement but the sentence was commuted in the hope that might yield a bigger ransom.

However, to stop his preaching, his lips were pierced with a red-hot iron and closed with a padlock.

The modern San Ramon came into existence in 1850, which is when the “San” was added.

Previously, the location was simply called ‘Ramon,” after a local sheepherder.


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