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Mendo’s Native Place Names

Several months ago I did a column on place names on the Mendocino Coast. An AVA reader, Jonah Raskin, left a comment on the newspaper’s website suggesting I write a column on native place names on the land. So here it is.

First, a slight digression. Though it may not be politically correct to use the word “Indian” today, that’s what indigenous people were called when some of  the books I refer to were written more than a century ago. So I will use the word Indian in this story.

The single best resource that offers the most information in the fewest pages and is simply written is A.L. Krober’s “California Place Names of Indian Origin” a 1916 University of California-Berkeley publication. It’s available free on-line. It includes about a dozen Mendocino County place names.

For a really complete list of county Indian place names there’s “The Ethnology of the Pomo Indians” by S.A. Barrett done in the first decade of the 20th century by UC Berkeley. This academic treatise showed more than 320 named Pomo sites in the county with Yuki, Huchnom, Wintu, Miwok and Wappo sites around the borders of the county.

A map showing these sites was included in “Pomo Indians of California and Their Neighbors” by Vinson Brown in 1969. This modern book is available in libraries and for sale in independent bookstores and museums. Within 10 miles of Boonville the map shows 15 named habitation sites like Cunaubasatnapotd “pretty forks old village” along Anderson Creek. Just where on the creek would take serious research. Often eight named living sites are bunched around one dot on the map. Sometimes only one group lived at one spot, like Cleone on the coast. We know where Cleone is today; it kept its Indian name, but where natives lived in that area I couldn’t  tell you.

Ethnographers studied Pomo, Wappo, Wintu, and Kato (Cahto) in our county. More than a century ago researchers could pick and choose which native culture they wanted to study. Some tribes never got studied. The Round Valley Indian Reservation brought in natives from all over northern California to be “civilized” so today’s descendants often reflect no single tribal identity.

So here are some Mendocino  locations with native names. 

Calpella and Comptche are both attributed to Indian chiefs. Kalpela was chief of the Pomo village on Chomchadila. A local “authority” (a knowledgeable white old timer) said “cal-pa-lua” signified “mussel bearer” and mussel in Pomo is Khal-Hal. Comptche’s name comes from “Compatche” and a local “authority” said it meant :“In the valley among the hills.” Barrett said there was a Pomo village called Komacho in the region.

Gualala came from Pomo “wala’li,” meaning meeting place of waters. Kekawaka, just over the county line to the north, is assumed to be a native word. Kibesillah, on the coast, is Pomo for Kabe “rock” and Sila “flat.” Nome Cult Farm was Round Valley’s first name, a Wintu word, although the farm was on Yuki territory. Nome meant “west” and kulh meant “tribe.”

Noyo was first applied to a Pomo village at the mouth of Pudding Creek, but whites transferred the name to a larger stream to the south, now the Noyo River. The Pomo name for that river was tee-ink-bida, meaning unknown. Pomo, once a post office location in Potter Valley, meant “people” and Poonkiny, up by Round Valley, is a Yuki Indian word for wormwood brush.

Ukiah is a Pomo word with “yo” designating south and “Kaia” designating valley. Usal is to be pronounced “Yusawl” and is Pomo. Abalobadiah sounds like it should be native but its derivation is unknown.

When Vinson Brown wrote his book he used  six pages of fine type to talk about Indian village names he gleaned from S.A. Barrett’s work. Most locations were just words but sometimes there was a description of what the word meant. Watskkowi was frog water village. Backienonan was buckeye tree place. Hiwalhmu was at the “place where two springs meet” and Kabuputcemali meany “madrones stand up straight place” Hukdia was “strange bird place” and Tsikinidano was “owl mountain.”

Find this interesting? Two more modern books available formatted as geographical dictionaries are Erwin Gudde’s “California Place Names” and David Durham’s “Durham’s Place-Names of California’s North Coast.” Durham really liked place names and wrote a 14 volume series covering the whole state.


  1. Jonah Raskin December 26, 2020

    Fascinating history. I will never look or think about Mendocino place names the same again. Thank you very much. In some ways the Indian past is still alive.

  2. Vernon Budinger December 26, 2020

    Anyone know the Native American name for the huge rock outcropping on the south side Upper Eel about 2 or 3 miles west (downriver) of Scott Dam? The current popular name seems to be Monkey Rock for some reason.

  3. Jeff Fox December 26, 2020

    Katy, wonderful article! Having spent a good chunk of my childhood on one of the inland rancherias (my mom was married to a Pomo), I have a strong interest in the place names.

    The knoll above Caspar beach (on the south side of the creek near the graveyard) was called Tcadam by the Pomo. You’ll see it noted on the map that comes with Vinson’s book. I’ve been trying to find out what that name translates to in English and can’t seem to find it anywhere. I’d love to know if you come across it in your research.

    Thanks again!

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