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Place Names on the Mendocino Coast

To historians maps are a time trap—just ask the folks at the Kelley House Museum in Mendocino. A map inspection can turn from a quick glance to an hour or more, often with the assistance of a magnifying lens, of in-depth inspection. And what captures this author is the names on the land. For whom, and what, was a placed named, and what work took place there.

Want a fun suggestion? Plan a Sunday drive with this column clipped out and in hand and go explore the Mendocino Coast. With just over 90 miles to cover there are more than 50 place names recorded, and those names don’t include creeks or mountains. Indigenous peoples, settlers, and physical features have all left names on the land. Also, with a car trip you don’t have to wear a mask or social distance.

Modern day explorers who are REAL adventurous doing this drive have to take Highway 101 up to Garberville and head west towards Briceland and the Sinkyone Wilderness State Park. When you reach the ocean you are at the very northwest corner of Mendocino Coast at a place called Needle Rock. It was named for pointy rocks in the vicinity and there, and at Bear Harbor just to the south, tan oak bark was loaded on ships to go to leather tanneries in the Bay Area. Bears were probably seen at Bear Harbor in the dim distant past.

An area called the Lost Coast and Cape Vizcaino are the next problem because there are NO roads along the coast. Travelers head south on Usal Road in and out of view of the ocean. Usal was a native Pomo word meaning “south”. There was one place name on the land at Jackass Creek and a small lumber mill and town called Wheeler in the midst of the last century.

Landings and shipping points abounded on the coast usually named for the land owner. There was one called Miller, now inaccessible on private land, before Usal Road joins Highway One along Cotteneva Creek. Cotteneva was a Cahto native word meaning “trail-goes-over-hill” and it was used along with the name Rockport. Rockport had a wharf, a mill, and was indeed a rocky port. Hardy, or Hardyville, was a property owners name and south of that was Union Landing, now part of a state park. De Haven was named for John DeHaven, an early settler, who became district attorney, state assemblyman, and senator in the 1870’s.

Before it was Westport it used to be called Beall’s Landing and was named Westport because a lumberman came from Eastport Maine and figured there should be a Westport too.. Chadburne Gulch was named for the owner and has a free access road to the beach. South down the road was the town of Kibesillah (a Pomo native word) and beyond that was Newport—the “new” port. A curve in the road had Abalobidah, another Pomo place name.

Another site with a Pomo native name is Cleone, though the point shipping took place from was Laguna Point, a Spanish word. Pudding Creek was either murky like mushy pudding, or a slang version of “Put In” creek where boats were launched. Fort Bragg’s name honors Braxton Bragg, a military officer, but Noyo is again Pomo. Caspar was named for Siegfrid Caspar who settled there before 1860.

A pine tree forest probably existed at the place called Pine Grove and Russian Gulch was supposed to have been settled by a Russian man escaped from Fort Ross in Sonoma County. There were two viceroy of New Spain who sent exploring vessels up the coast in the mid 1500’s and navigators named places in honor of those who financed the expedition. In this case their names were Mendoza. Little River has a little river and Dark Gulch can be a dark spot on the road. Albion honored old England and Salmon Creek had salmon swimming in it.

It’s a LONG drive if done in one day—Tired yet? Crossing the Navarro River in a few miles of southerly travel is Cuffy’s Cove. Two stories here—either sailors saw a cuffey, a baby bear, or settler Nathaniel Smith, a black skinned man referred to as a cuffey. All that’s left now are bluff top cemeteries. South is Greenwood/Elk, the town with two names. The folks there wanted to be named after the settler Greenwood but the name was already assigned by the post office to a Sierra town, also they had to use Elk. Loggers ate a lot of elk meat. A sign for Bridgeport is still attached to a ranch that had a bridge, and a port, or landing.

It is spelled Mal Paso, Mall Pass or Mallo Passo, take your pick. Shows up with different spellings based on the age of the map. It’s an especially steep loop in the highway and the term means “bad passage” in Spanish. Drivers come to Manchester, one of 35 towns in the USA named by expat Brits. Today’s Point Arena used to be the Spanish Punta Arenas—a sandy place. A ship was probably wrecked (or built) at Schooner Gulch. South of here were a dozen places with landing as part of their title —Saunders, Iversen, Stevens, Steen’s, Collins, Bournes and Robinson—all invisible to tourists as they are on private property. Some names like Rough & Ready, Hardscratch, and Nip & Tuck, refer to small dangerous shipping locations. Arriving at the end of the journey is Gualala—a Pomo native word taken from ghawalaali “water-going-down place.”

To learn more about our place names on the land use these references... David Durham wrote “Durham’s Place-Names of California’s North Coast” and Erwin Gudde’s “California Place Names’ available for review at local museums. Or go find your local map fanatic who will have these volumes in their personal libraries.

One Comment

  1. Jonah Raskin October 10, 2020

    What about the names Indians used to describe mountains, valley, rivers, streams??
    Why are they not here?

    And aren’t there dirt roads in the Lost Coast?? I have driven in a car from 101 to Petrolia and back. Even if they’re dirt, they’re still roads. What about Fish Rock Road – how did it get its name and why isn’t in paved all the way?

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