For 4,000 years before Spanish explorers entered San Francisco Bay, Native Americans populated the San Francisco Peninsula and called it home. These natives lived in small villages, spoke a mixture of dialects, and used the natural materials around them for food, shelter, and clothing. They tended their land, shared or allocated property, and traded with nearby tribes. They spoke a language we call Ramaytush. Scholars named them the Yelamu Ohlone Indians.
In 1776 the Spanish claimed the San Francisco Bay for Spain, mapped it, built a mission and a fort, and named it Yerba Buena. They called the natives “Costanoan”, or people of the coast. Franciscan missionaries invited these natives to join the mission, convert to Christianity, study, learn, and work in the agricultural community. The natives who joined the mission received new “Christian” names.
In 1821 Spain granted Mexico control of these territories of Northern (“Alta”) California. Then in 1848 the United States took over, defeating Mexico in the Mexican-American War and winning Mexican lands west of the Mississippi. In 1849 the gold rush began and the San Francisco Bay developed as a major port on the Pacific Coast. By then the small settlement of Yerba Buena had been renamed “San Francisco” after the Bay and the saint.
Along the way, neighborhoods, hills, streets and waterways acquired Spanish, Mexican and English names. Conspicuously absent from these names was any reference to Native Americans, particularly the tribes of San Francisco.
- Among the prominent street names we find:
- Names honoring the De Anza party (Pacheco, Anza, Moraga)
- Names honoring the Spanish explorers (Balboa, Cabrillo, Portola)
- Descriptive names in Spanish (Yerba Buena, Divisadero, Rincon, Embarcadero)
- Names for Mexican landowners (Vallejo, Bernal, Guerrero)
- Names for Mexican military leaders (Castro, Kirkham, Noriega)
- Names for US military leaders (Winfield, Funston, Pershing, Lyon, Halleck)
- Name for San Francisco Politicians (Haight, Clayton, Stanyon, Kearny)
- Names of San Francisco Business leaders (Leidesdorff, Hearst)
- Names for early immigrants (Lick, Sutter, Flood, Fell, Brannan, Sutro)
- Names for US Presidents (Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, Polk, Fillmore)
- Names for Filipino heroes (Lapu Lapu, Rizal, Bonifacio)
- Names for literary figures (Twain, Bierce, Hammett, Kerouac, Ferlinghetti)
- Names for prominent figures (JFK, MLK, Cesar Chavez, Muir)
- Descriptive names (Telegraph Hill, Nob Hill, Fisherman’s Wharf)
I looked for names in that relate directly to the early Native Americans in California. There are many native place names in counties and cities outside of San Francisco. Within San Francisco, there are very few:
Islais (the Creek, the Park, and the Neighborhood) in San Francisco is a Salinan Indian word for cherry trees (the Salinan tribe lived in Central California).
Taraval (Street) is named for a Native American guide, Sebastian Taraval (from Baja California), on the De Anza expedition of 1774-5. Sadly his story reflects some of the abuses and hardships that stemmed from Spanish mistreatment of the natives. Before joining De Anza, Taraval tried to escape the mission system by fleeing into the desert. He nearly died, and was saved by some friendly Yuma Indians who brought him to De Anza. De Anza nursed him to health and used him as a guide on the expedition to San Francisco Bay.
Wawona (Street) is a Miwok word meaning “big tree” or “hoot of the owl”. The Miwok Indians lived in the North Bay including what is now Marin County.
For a reminder of the nearly extinct language Ramaytush, visit a short stretch of sidewalk on South King Street near the ATT ballpark. There, embedded in the cement, are 104 plaques of Ramaytush words and their translations, reminding bystanders that this location was once a Native American settlement.