The Name Game

By Larry Clinton, Sausalito Historical Society

California had a gilt-edge reputation for three centuries before 1849. 

In his book “Vizcaino and Spanish Expansion in the Pacific Ocean,” historian W. Michael Mathes pointed out that Spanish conquistadores exploring the new world had heard tales of an island, "east of the Indies," where black-skinned women, Amazons, adorned with pearls and gold, were ruled by a great queen, Calafia. So, when a mutinous member of Fernando Cortes' expedition discovered La Paz in what is now Baja California in 1533, he dubbed it Calafia, mistakenly believing that it was an island.  Later maps show the island as “Cali-Fornia.”

ILLUSTRATION FROM WIKIPEDIA  View of Presidio of San Francisco circa 1817 by Louis Choris


View of Presidio of San Francisco circa 1817 by Louis Choris

San Francisco Bay got its name inadvertently in 1603 when Sebastian Ceremeno sailed the Alta California Coast searching for safe harbors for gold-laden Spanish Manila galleons to use when returning to Acapulco from the Philippines.

According to the website, Ceremeno (or Cermeo, as the website spells it) landed his ship, the San Agustin, in present-day Drake's Bay. Cermeo named the inlet La Bahia de San Francisco, after Saint Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan order. What we now call San Francisco Bay lay undiscovered for over two centuries from the time of first navigation along the California coast. Often surrounded by fog, the strait was surprisingly elusive for the early 16th century European explorers Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo and Sir Francis Drake, who encamped and careened the Golden Hind in West Marin in June 1577.

By the 1750's, the Spanish monarchy had noticed that Russian fur trappers were settling in this area, so in 1768 King Carlos III dispatched land and sea expeditions to colonize the territory.

Don Gaspar de Portolá, Military Governor of the Californias, was given command of the land expedition and Captain Vila led the sea expedition which consisted of two vessels.

The sailing expedition called it quits in San Diego, due to loss of key personnel. But the Portola foot soldiers reached the San Francisco Peninsula by late October. A small group hunting deer reached the top of Montara Mountains' Sweeney Ridge and saw a body of water so great that an accompanying friar, Carlos Crespi, described it as “a harbor such that not only the navy of our most Catholic Majesty but those of all Europe could take shelter in it.”  

Portola and his men did not even realize they were the first Europeans to sight the bay. Everyone was convinced that what they were seeing was a large inner arm of Cermeo's Bahia de San Francisco. A few years later, Mexican authorities, confused over the presence of these two bays, began associating the name San Francisco with both, until the practice spread to Monterey and our larger, clearly superior bay, appropriated the name.

On August 5, 1775, Juan de Ayala and the San Carlos crew became the first Europeans to pass through the strait, anchoring in a cove behind Angel Island. Until the 1840s, the strait was called the “Boca del Puerto de San Francisco,” (mouth of the Port of San Francisco).  It was dubbed the Golden Gate by U.S. Army Captain John C. Fremont on July 1, 1846, two years before the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill.  According to, Fremont gazed at the narrow strait that separates the Bay from the Pacific Ocean and said, “it is a golden gate to trade with the Orient.” The name first appeared in his Geographical Memoir, submitted to the U.S. Senate on June 5, 1848, when he wrote, “to this Gate I gave the name of Chrysopylae or Golden Gate for the same reasons that the harbor of Byzantium was called Chrysoceras, or Golden Horn.”

The settlement that sprung up by the Bay was originally known as Yerba Buena – after a native herb. Following the US victory in the Mexican American War, Lt. Washington A. Bartlett was named alcalde of Yerba Buena. On January 30, 1847, Lt. Bartlett's proclamation changing the name Yerba Buena to San Francisco took effect.

And of course, our town’s name, Sausalito, is a corruption of the Spanish Saucelito, referring to the little willow trees that alerted Ayala’s crew to the location of freshwater springs in our hills.

The rest, as they say, is history.