Cities and Landmarks, the Etymology of the California Desert

Detail of California in the map Atlas of True Names. | Image: Atlas of True Names/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The recently viral map Atlas Of True Names of the United States turned out to be disappointingly superficial, with sloppy research and little familiariity with actual history. That's a shame, because the actual names of places in the California desert can tell interesting stories about those places' history, their landscape, and their importance to people who lived here for centuries.

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The Atlas was an interesting project, on the face of it: it purported to use etymology to reveal the "true meanings" of common place names across the U.S. You need only look at the West Coast on the map to see that that promise is largely unfulfilled: the map's renderings of place names actually erase meaning rather than conveying it.

The name "California" is explained as "land of the successors," for instance. That's a reference to the majority view that the name, first applied to a fictional island in the 16th century novel "Las Sergas de Esplandián," was concocted in a bit of early Orientalist exoticism. Author Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo imagined the island as ruled by dark-skinned women warriors, whose ruler he termed a "califa." The term evoked eastern mystery: Caliphs were those who succeeded Mohammed as leaders of Islam.

Calling California "Land of the Successors" erases the far more interesting and useful history of the name being applied by explorer Hernando de Alarcón to the Cabo San Lucas area in 1533, in what may have been a sarcastic reference to the fictional island. If the Atlas had labeled California "Land of Amazons," or "Island of Women Warriors," its creators would have gotten a lot closer to the likely meaning of the name, with all the context and the subtext of Spaniish colonialism.

Or take the Atlas' interpretation of Los Angeles, "The Messengers," which any moderately attentive fourth grader could tell you should actually be something like "The City of Our Lady the Queen of Angels on the River in a Small Piece of Land."

The problem extends beyond California: the Atlas makers accepted as gospel one of two competing interpretations of the name "Arizona," and swallowed whole a completely made up origin for the name "Idaho." It's too bad: it might have been a far more interesting project.

Fortunately or unfortunately as the case may be, the Atlas' creators largely left the California desert alone. They did label a few things. The Salton Sea is unimaginatively labeled "Salt On Sea," which is one of those "close but no cigar" deals. The name "Salton" comes from a railroad station built before the sea was formed, and named for the local underground salt deposits. "Salt Under Sea" would have been better.

"Palm Springs" they got right: they render it as "Palm Springs." Across the state line, Las Vegas is labeled "the Floodplains," an accurate translation of the Spanish only if you have no familiarity with the place whatsoever. The city was actually named for the local "vegas," or wet meadows, fed by artesian wells back before groundwater pumping had lowered the water table. Rather than being "floodplains," these wells were actually at the headwaters of the Las Vegas Wash, their overflow eventually ending up in the Colorado River.

Most of the rest of the California desert stays unlabeled, left for more careful cartographers to chart. If someone mapped them the right way, the desert's place names would offer a series of layers of history and meaning to this landscape.

There's the railroad, for instance, a force for Western settlement too-often forgotten by our historically amnesiac 21st century society. Barstow was named for William Barstow Strong, once president of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. Lancaster, which grew up around a railroad station of the same name, was probably named for a railroad worker. A string of towns and former towns in the east Mojave took their names from railroad stations and sidings, which were often named for workers who built them, conveniently in alphabetical order: Amboy, Bolo, Cadiz, Danby, Essex, Fenner, Goffs, Homer, Ibis, Java, and Klinefelter. Kelso was named for a worker who won the privilege in a lottery. Baker was named for Richard Baker, co-owner with Francis Marion "Borax" Smith of the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad. Victorville was named for Jacob Victor, General Manager of the California Southern Railroad. Rosamond was named for a railroad executive's child.

And then there's the physiographical layer of the Desert Names Atlas, named for notable nearby geographic features. Needles took its name from a low range of sharply pointed mountains across the Colorado River. Ridgecrest doesn't sit on the crest of a ridge, but there are a few in view, especially in the El Paso Mountains to the south. The residents must have been looking for a reason to rename their town: it started out being called "Crumville." The tiny hamlet of Cima, in the heart of the Mojave Preserve, is the summit -- "cima" in Spanish -- of the long grade that climbs northeast from the Kelso Depot. The tourist ghost town of Calico, after the Calico Mountains, gets its name from multicolored rock strata that make up the range.

There's the vegetation layer of the Atlas, named for the local plants. Yucca Valley, Twentynine Palms, Palm Springs, and Palm Desert all provide examples. There's Big Pine and Lone Pine, Juniper Hills, and Willow Springs. There are two towns in the desert named after Joshua trees. Joshua Tree is the obvious one, and the other is Palmdale, formerly known as Palmenthal, named for the area's many "yucca palms" -- an early common name for Joshua trees. Domestic plants raised by agriculturalists lend their names to a few towns as well, including Pearblossom, Apple Valley, and Lucerne. Manzanar, site of the notorious WWII-era relocation camp in which Japanese-Americans were imprisoned, took its name from neaby apple orchards.

Animals weren't left out. There's the Chuckwalla Valley named for its big fat lizards and its mining town Eagle Mountain, the Sheephole Mountains and Borrego Springs (both named for desert bighorn), the Antelope Valley (which despite Mark Davis' claim in City of Quartz, did indeed possess wild pronghorn) and its derivate place names like Antelope Acres, and the tiny hamlet of Harts Place (hart as in stag as in young male deer).

Mining is another big part of the desert's history, and names like Trona and Boron attest to that history. As does Ashford Mill, a mining mill run by the Ashford brothers; Randsburg and Johannesburg in the Rand Mountains, all of them named for the Witwatersrand gold mining region in South Africa; the ghost towns Leadfield, Copperfield, and Gypsite; Oro Grande in the Mojave River valley; and China Lake, named for the Chinese immigrants who settled near Ridgecrest to work in local mines.

Some names are just poetic, though sometimes that's by accident. Adelanto is the Spanish for "progress." Hesperia is Latin for "the West." Calipatria is a cobbled-together portmanteau meaning some combination of "California" and "fatherland." Inyokern and Calexico offer two more stitched-together place names, as do Cal-Nev-Ari and the Rand Mountains ghost town of Atolia, after mining engineers named Atkins and DeGolia. Valyermo is a contraction, most likely, of "valle" and "yermo," which last, also attached to a town along the Mojave River, is a Spanish term for "barren." Coachella was probably named for the little white snail shells -- "conchillas" -- that littered the nearby landscape, remnants of ancient Lake Cahuilla. Whether a typo or a misremembering, the name stuck. And just about my favorite place name in the Mojave, Dunmovin, is as poetic as anything I've seen.

The Indigenous people layer of this Desert Names Atlas runs deep. There are the derivative tributes, Indio and Mojave (named after the desert, which was named after the river, which was named for the Aha Macav people). Some places more directly honor local Natives: Cabazon and Morongo Valley, Tecopa (after the Paiute chief) and Shoshone, the Chemehuevi Valley along the Colorado River, and the geological concept of Ancient Lake Cahuilla.

Olancha and Tehachapi are both names of clear native origin, though their meaning is subject to dispute. Quite a few desert mountain ranges have Native names either inherited or bestowed: Nopah, Piute, Chemehuevi and Chuckwalla, Ivanpah.

That last one, Ivanpah, is also attached to an adjacent valley and a few other things. It's a Chemehuevi word meaning "clean water," and it offers a segue into what's likely the most important layer of the Desert Names Atlas: the water layer. What's more important in the desert than water? Look on a map of the desert, in California and adjacent states, and you may see that last syllable of "Ivanpah" shared by a lot of other place names. Pahrump, Tonopah, Inkopah, and a few other places prominent and obscure all share it. It means "water," in Paiute and related languages, and once you know that you'll see water all over the map.

That's not just in Paiute, though. Settlers, miners, and railroad builders had to pay attention to where the water was as well. It was handy to know where the Indian wells were, enough so that there are at least three places in the California desert called "Indian Wells." Springs were important, too, and quite a few of the place names I've already mentioned involve them. Two of the most prominent places in Death Valley National Park are named after sources of potable water -- Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells -- and a third, Badwater, serves as a warning. Newberry Springs, Halloran Springs, Water Station, and Greenwater all testify to the importance of the drinkable stuff in the desert.

One water-related name that's no longer on the maps: there was once a place on the Mojave River called "Fish Ponds." That name didn't last long, possibly because settlers used the water up. Its next name, after a local mining entrepreneur, was Waterman Junction. eventually, that name was dropped as well, and we now call the place "Barstow."

That's just a taste of the history available to those who take a little time to understand what place names really signify. If you went strictly by etymology you might decide "Barstow" meant "Land where you hide your valuables when you're in a saloon." Which is probably as true in Barstow as anywhere, but it doesn't do much to explain the place.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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