If someone handed you a map of California with the 58 counties outlined and a list of their names could you put the right name within the right boundary? I couldn’t and I’m a historian. I’d be scratching my head going “Just where is San Joaquin County?”
Recently I got curious about the evolution of California’s counties since I knew in the 1850’s we, as a state, started with 23 and that grew to 58. Back then many counties covered a huge extent of land due to sparse population. As the state grew in population politicians subdivided counties. Those 1850’s counties included Benicia Sacramento, Mount Diablo, Reading, Sutter Butte, Fremont and Oro.
In 1850 the Report on Committee of Counties was chaired by Mariano Vallejo. The committee heard from locals that Santa Cruz wanted its own county and they got it. County names were changed and Oro became Tuolumne, Solano for Benicia (Sacramento became its own county), Yolo for Fremont and Shasta for Reading. New counties were proposed including Yuba, Colusa, Trinity, Marin and Mendocino. Contra Costa was the new name for Mount Diablo County and Coloma became El Dorado County.
The California Legislature on February 18, 1850, in their fifteenth enactment of law, saw the establishment of 27 counties. Boundaries of Sonoma, Solano and Napa counties were indefinite due to a lack of surveys and population. All early counties had Spanish or Native American names with two exceptions. Butte is of French origin and the area was named by French Canadian fur trappers from the Hudson Bay Company who camped along the Sacramento River. Sutter County was named for John Sutter, an early settler.
Saints in the Catholic Church provided the names for seven counties. The prefix San or Santa indicates that. Trinity and Sacramento are names with religious significance. Mendocino’s name honors Antonio de Mendoza, viceroy of New Spain, who financed Juan Cabrillo’s exploration of the coast in the 1530’s. Research says Mendocino is supposedly the adjectival form of the family name.
Gold was signified in the name El Dorado and Contra Costa the “other side” from San Francisco across the bay. Mariposa recognizes butterflies in the area, Tulares were reeds growing locally, and Calaveras was for skulls in the area found by explorer Moraga. Fresno was named for ash trees, Alameda for cottonwoods, Madera meant timber and Del Norte was “of the north.” Native American place names that became counties included Marin, Napa, Inyo “Dwelling Place of the Great Spirit,” Solano, Shasta, Colusa and Stanislaus, a mission educated native who later became a renegade.
In 1855 Humboldt County was named after explorer Alexander Von Humboldt, who never saw the place, when it was split off from Trinity County. Other counties named after people include Glenn, named from wheat farmer Dr. Hugh Glenn and Lassen, named for trapper and frontiersman Peter Lassen. The last county, Imperial, was created in 1907 and named for the Imperial Land Company intent on reclaiming desert lands for agriculture.
There were puzzlers in county names. Siskiyou had several name derivations, none particularly interesting, and Tuolomne may mean “grove of poplars” but there is debate. There was no debate when Lake County was created in 1861. It had a big lake.
I am happy to say after 60+ years of wandering back roads and rockhounding adventures I have visited every county in California. My favorite place to visit is Inyo County because a person can travel from desert to alpine meadows and mountains all within its boundaries. Go up into the White Mountains on the east side of the Owens Valley and look west and the crest of the Sierra will fill your view. While we all love Mendocino County we can explore and appreciate its 57 neighbors from San Bernardino County, the biggest county in the USA with 20,000 square miles, to the smallest in California, Alpine County, with 1,100 folks.