Another Spanish Explorer’s Contributions to California Place Names

The 1769 expedition led by Gaspar de Portola from San Diego to Monterey, of which Father Junipero Serra was a member, is responsible for a number of California place names.

Spain was eager to establish missions and outposts in what was then Alta California to avoid the territory being claimed by the English, who had recently taken Canada. Or the Russians whose trappers were moving down from Alaska and the Northwest.

Two ships of men were sent from Baja and two expeditions left on foot. One was led by Portola after who Portola Valley in San Mateo County is named.

While he didn’t name them, Portola founded both the city of San Diego and Monterey, which was named 166 years earlier by explorer Sebastian Vizcaino after his benefactor, the Count of Monterey.

Also among the 67-person party was Father Juan Crespi, one of the chaplains. To him fell the responsibility of christening the various places and geographical features encountered from San Diego – where the expedition departed from on July 14 – to Monterey.

Crespi tended toward the windy side, ensuring that many of the names he conferred are no longer in use.

He named one river, El Rio del Dulcisimo Nombre de Jesus de Los Temblores – “The River of the Sweetest Name of Jesus of the Earthquakes” — because there had been four temblors during the day.

Portola’s soldiers called it the Santa Ana River. That stuck.

Camping in the same area, a soldier lost his musket or trabuco. Today’s Trabuco Canyon.

Moving through what is present day Los Angeles, the expedition encountered beds of tar from which the remains of numerous extinct animals have subsequently been removed.

The Spanish word for tar is brea, making “La Brea Tar Pit” redundant.

Passing north of Los Angeles the expedition came through a pass in the Santa Monica mountains and found a large valley: El Valle de Santa Catalina de Bononia de los Encinos.

It was Saint Catherine of Bononia’s feast day. Encinos are live oaks. Encino is all that remains of the name.

Farther north, they encountered a river, which they dubbed the Santa Clara. It later became the Santa Clarita to avoid confusion with the northern California county and mission of the same name.

Near San Luis Obispo they encountered grizzly bears. That area became Canada de Los Osos, the Canyon of the Bears. A large rock near the shore was dubbed El Morro.

Portola mistook the Salinas River for the Carmel – named by Vizcaino – and did not find the sheltered cove described by the earlier explorer at the river’s mouth

He named the area Santa Cruz, Holy Cross.

Thinking he was still south of Monterey, Portola pushed north.

Portola’s chief scout returned to camp reporting a large body of water to their east, making him the first European to see San Francisco Bay.

Returning south, Portola camped at Monterey Bay for two weeks – without knowing it was Monterey Bay.

With many members of the expedition sick and food scarce, Portola limped back to San Diego where he returned January 24, 1770.

The captain of one of the exploration ships anchored in San Diego Bay convinced Protola he had actually found Monterey. Portola led a smaller group back and began construction of the mission and presidio.



Filed under: California History

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