Peter Browning has backpacked extensively in the Sierra Nevada for more than 40 years, and has done many years of research into the history of the Sierra and of the origin of geographic names. He is also the author of Yosemite Place Names and Splendid Mountains: Early Exploration in the Sierra Nevada. In addition, he is the publisher of Tahoe Place Names, and the author/compiler/editor of more than a dozen other books, most of them on various aspects of California history.
Sierra Nevada Place Namesby Peter Browning
The territory covered by this volume differs somewhat from that of the first edition, initially published in 1986 by Wilderness Press, Berkeley. Inasmuch as my book Yosemite Place Names covers the names in Yosemite National Park, I have included in this book only the names of that park that are on its boundary with one of several national forests. The place names of… See more details below
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The territory covered by this volume differs somewhat from that of the first edition, initially published in 1986 by Wilderness Press, Berkeley. Inasmuch as my book Yosemite Place Names covers the names in Yosemite National Park, I have included in this book only the names of that park that are on its boundary with one of several national forests. The place names of the Lake Tahoe Basin are covered by the book Tahoe Place Names by Barbara Lekisch, which is also published by Great West Books. Thus I have not duplicated the names of that region, and do not include any names from the range north of Lake Tahoe.
The US Board on Geographic Names has officially defined the Sierra Nevada as extending from the gap south of Lassen Peak, on the north, to Tehachapi Pass, on the south. The region covered by this volume, however, is limited on the north by roughly the northern boundary of Alpine County, on the south by Walker Pass and Lake Isabella, on the east by US 395 and the Nevada state line, and on the west by several things: elevation, major roads, permanent settlements, map boundaries, and the author’s arbitrary decisions.
None of the place names in the Sierra Nevada has been handed down from antiquity. The names that we have come to regard as fixed and permanent are of relatively recent origin. They are not eternal, nor is there anything necessarily correct or appropriate about them. Were we to begin anew to apply names to this mountain range and to the multitude of features in it, we would achieve a radically different result.
Pedro Font, viewing the range from a hilltop near the present city of Antioch on an April day in 1776, described it as una gran sierra nevada—a grand snowy mountain range—and that became the name. The Spanish priests and soldiers named remarkably few features in the Sierra Nevada. Their interest in converting Indians to Christianity led them to explore the Central Valley and the foothills of the Sierra. In the course of these explorations they named the major westward-flowing rivers, such as the Merced and the Tuolumne. Other rivers originally named by the Spanish for saints or religious feast days were later renamed by American explorers (e.g., the Kern) or for a rebellious Indian (the Stanislaus), or were given Indian names of questionable authenticity and meaning (the Tule and the Kaweah). The Spanish had no interest in exploring the mountains. There were no converts to be had at high altitude, nor did the mountains offer anything that could be transformed into wealth or articles of use.
No one has suggested that the Indians of any tribe had a name for the entire mountain range, or that they named the high peaks and major lakes. In only one limited area—Yosemite Valley and vicinity—has a considerable number of Indian names survived. Most of those names are mispronounced due to the difficulties of phonetic spelling, are applied to the wrong features because of the ignorance and arrogance of the white namers, and have been subjected to multiple interpretations. Many of the major features of Yosemite Valley were given their present names during the space of a few days in March and April of 1851 by Lafayette H. Bunnell and other members of the Mariposa Battalion.
From 1861 to 1865 the members of the first California Geological Survey (the Whitney Survey) engaged in the first spate of naming based on need—the need for the names of identifiable features to place on maps. Most of the objects of their attention were mountains, which they named for one another and for prominent geologists and other scientists of the time.
From the middle 1860s until about 1900, sheepmen and cattlemen named meadows and streams as they took their flocks and herds ever deeper into the mountains. Many a meadow became known by the name of the sheepman who made it his summer camp.
Simultaneous with the sheepmen came the early homesteaders. Seldom were meadows and creeks formally named for them: the names simply came to be in common use by local people. When the first official maps were made, the government surveyors inquired locally about names, and accepted what was in use.
Theodore S. Solomons and Joseph N. LeConte were the most prominent individual namers during the 1890s and early 1900s. Various other Sierra Club members— especially Chester Versteeg—have named numerous features since the club’s founding in 1892.
From 1889 to 1914 the US Geological Survey conducted the first comprehensive survey and mapping of the entire area covered by this book, and published a series of 30-minute topographic maps on a scale of 1:125,000. Several hundred names appeared for the first time. Some were names of common use, others were created by the surveyors and cartographers who prepared the maps. Foremost among the namers was Robert B. Marshall, who named peaks and lakes for family members, friends, and their wives and daughters.
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