Ok, confession time. I am an etymology enthusiast. I would say etymology geek, but before using that term I had to look up its connotation and usage history because I really need to know which caveman first grunted the guttural syllable which gives meaning to my jabbering today. That takes time, and ultimately I had to choose between writing this story and looking up words all day (an easy decision, until my boss said I had to write the story). You see the point : I have a problem.
But without further sidetracks or ado, armed with my internet browser and thesaurus opened to ‘name,’ I will embark on a journey through the near and distant past to learn the tales behind the titles in Santa Clarita.
Some place names are relatively direct. The Old Road is just really old. It was even old back in Spanish colonial days; they called it ‘Camino Viejo.’ Soledad is Spanish for ‘loneliness,’ not an unsurprising appellation considering what the canyon must have looked like before the mining industry caught on out there.
Others are a little more interesting. After seeking his fortune in gold mining and the railroad business, Henry Mayo Newhall purchased over 46,460 acres of land in northern Los Angeles County and renamed the property Newhall Ranch. He named the train station on the land after his birthplace, Saugus, Massachusetts, using the time-honored tactic of naming your new home after your old one.
Some stories are just bizarre. A long time ago, a French sailor named Francisco Chari bought some local land and named the area ‘Barque,’ a French word for ship which was also used in English during the age of sail.
Local Spanish speakers likely pronounced the last vowel syllable, which would be silent in English. When English speakers arrived and heard the two-syllable Spanish pronunciation along with the vague stories regarding its French origin, they somehow reasoned that the original term had been Bouquet, the name it bears to this day.
And then we come to the story of the most important name, ‘Santa Clarita.’ Gaspar de Portolá led the first Spanish expedition to explore the inland areas of California in 1769. The party traveled with a train of mules loaded down with supplies, food, and place names which they would dump out at regular intervals and record where they fell. Climbing out of what is now the San Fernando Valley, the group discovered a stream, which they followed through the hills to the valley beyond and ultimately named the Santa Clara River.
Eight years afterward, the Santa Clara Mission was established near the San Francisco Bay, lending its name to the nearby river and surrounding territory, leading to the modern city and county bearing that label. The original Santa Clara River in the south kept its name, but, with its small population and conspicuous lack of interesting landmarks like missions or theme parks, was mostly ignored.
Eventually, someone must have noticed this unfortunate dual-denomination, but rather than correct the discrepancy and give the SoCal stream its due, people just started calling it the ‘little Santa Clara River.’ Problem solved.
So, for a long time the area surrounding the little Santa Clara River was referred to by the simple, rolls-off-the-tongue title of ‘the Newhall-Saugus Area.’ That is until a man by the wonderfully old-timey name of A.B. Perkins came to town and began the local tradition of translating names into Spanish to make them sound better. He proposed that the valley’s first high school be named Santa Clarita, but the idea was scrapped in favor of William S. Hart. The cowboy actor’s posthumous donation of his estate to the public, including a bison herd and hilltop mansion, inspired the decision.
But still, the Santa Clarita name stuck in the back of people’s minds, and soon enough the Bonelli family decided to test it out on their new housing tract over by Dry Canyon Road, which also underwent the Spanish translation procedure to emerge as the modern Seco Canyon Road. So Santa Clarita was catching on, but it would take a little more work to cover the whole valley.
In the 1950’s, it became clear that ‘the Newhall-Saugus Area’ just wouldn’t cut it anymore. The Newhall Land and Farming Company was beginning a new commercial and residential development project which was to be labeled Valencia. Scott and Ruth Newhall chose to use the name of a favorite city in Spain, though the connection through both areas’ production of oranges was likely not lost on them either. Scott Newhall planned to use the new name for the whole valley, but Canyon Country businessmen would have none of it. They saw the name as a clever way to cement Newhall Land’s control over the area. Naming can be serious business.
The Canyon Country Chamber of Commerce took a vote and decided on ‘Santa Clarita Valley’ as a more pluralistic moniker. Some negotiations between Newhall and the Chamber’s president, Dan Hon, sealed the deal. Newhall’s newspaper, The Signal, began using the name, and it finally caught on.
Here’s a few more gems :
- Placerita – another Spanish-ization. The original term refers to the kind of mining that was done in the local streams during the first California gold rush. Placer miners scooped sediment from the streambed to try to sift out the shiny stuff. Once again, we probably have a case of a northern county mooching a name when we clearly got to it first (gold was discovered in the Santa Clarita Valley in 1842, 6 years before the strike up north). Placerville and Placer County were more famous and populous, hence the ‘-ita’ suffix.
- McBean – Atholl McBean was CEO of the Newhall Land and Farming Company. He steered the firm through the Great Depression, enforcing policies of thrift to avoid bankruptcy.
- Castaic – The man-made lake takes its name from the natural lake to the north, Castac Lake near Lebec. The Native American village of Kashtiq, thought to be populated by a group related to the Chumash Indians, was also located nearby.
- San Fernando Rd. – The Santa Clarita section of this road is now renamed Newhall and Railroad Avenue. San Fernando Road still runs through the valley of the same name to connect with the Old Road and Sierra Highway in the Newhall Pass. Saint Ferdinand III was king of Castille, Galicia, and Leon in the 1200’s and was a leading figure in the ‘Reconquista’ of the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors.
So that’s where the names come from, aren’t you glad you know? These stories are hard to find at sometimes, but there is a modicum of value in knowing how names get stuck to places and people and ideas. Our identities are bound up in names in a fundamental way. The power to name is the power to create, inspire, honor, or deride. Names can remind us where we came from and force us to ponder our purpose. So next time you drive around the valley, take pride in your new knowledge of your hometown.
If you have a question about a name not included in this story, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or dive right into the history yourself.