Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Gilty Pleasures:Yuba Place Names

Phoenix Lake and Old Man Mountain / South Yuba

"Hell we named everything, otherwise we'd be lost" - Gus Poggi, packer to North Yuba Mines

Toponyms, or place names, are that particular layer in landscape which reflects the link between physical space and human perception, understanding and interpretation of this space.  In other words named places have a past and a present, although some are changed beyond recognition.  Fosters Bar and Garden Valley may be at the bottom of the New Bullards Bar Reservoir but stories about these places live on.

Part of our gold mining legacy is the richness, imagination and humor found in place names.  They can tell us a lot about a place and/or its namers.  Compare these robust, descriptive and often sensitive names to what real estate developers offer.  “Alta Sierra” is not in the high mountains and “Lake Wildwood” is neither wild or especially wooded and the “lake” is a dammed reservoir.  “Cascade Shores” sounds like a beach town.  Unlike the early namers who arrived at the place then named it, the investor-namers view the landscape abstractly from a conference table while seeking safe and soulless names.

Young America Mine / North Yuba
(photographer unknown)

I’ve walked thousands of miles in the Yuba River watershed and know it pretty well so I sat down for an hour and came up with a quick list of 130 place names and that’s only a small portion of what’s out there.  This is not science, they’ll be no statistical analysis, we all have prejudices and preferences – let’s call it a sampling.  At first glance I see playfulness, and an ease with language that exudes optimism and sometimes despair as in Humbug Creek, Poverty Hill or Starvation Bar.  Let’s face it, how often do you have the opportunity to name and create a new settlement, a place that may be here today and gone tomorrow, or it may prosper like Nevada City or Grass Valley.  Many of the early placer claims lasted for only a season then they were abandoned, or to thicken the plot, renamed.

Some places are named for land or water features that reflect the typical topography of the region.  Notice the number of places with the descriptor “Bar”, which is a streamside gravel bar, of particular interest to placer gold miners, while a “Flat” is noteworthy because it is just that in this otherwise hilly terrain.  The English introduced “Run”, or “Race.”  It’s a drainage or channel, either natural or a man-made, that uses water as a tool or for its energy.  There’s a Bloody Run on the Middle Yuba and another one feeding Fordyce Creek.  Gold Run enters Deer Creek in Nevada City.  In Coloma Marshall discovered gold in his sawmill’s race.  CaƱon is a Spanish word for a dominant and awe-inspiring Yuba River feature that was a new landform to many flatlanders.  Canyon Creek is a major tributary of the South Yuba that’s dammed at Bowman Reservoir and there’s another, undammed Canyon Creek, flowing to the North Yuba.  There’s not a County in the northern mines that doesn’t have a Deer Creek, a Squirrel Creek or a Dry Creek.  In fact, there are over 700 places named Dry Creek in California.  Rather than discuss the variety of place names piecemeal I’ve created a few arbitrary categories for ease of discussion.

Rice's Crossing, formerly known as Liars Flat and Lousy Level / North Yuba

Of all the historical place names it’s telling that I found only one of indigenous origin.  Purportedly Wahoo, near Canyon Creek a tributary of the North Yuba, is a native word for a certain shrub or class of shrubs used for arrow shafts.  On the other hand there are places named for the native people who once lived there – names like Indian Hill, Indian Valley and Indian Springs and still others named for prominent local Indians like Weimar Hill and the small settlement of Walloupa.  There are some doubts about who Digger Bar on the South Yuba was named for?  Even though the Nisenan were typically and derisively called “Diggers” who can deny that digging is what gold miners do?  Hoodoo Bar on the North Yuba was named for the natives pronunciation of “How do you do?” or “Howdy-do?”, a common greeting amongst miners.  It’s unlikely that Native American Ravine, on Deer Creek, was named for people who weren’t even recognized as Americans.

Bowman Dam 1889 / Canyon Creek / South Yuba
Formerly Bowman's Ranch on the Pacific Turnpike to the Henness Pass. Road
(photographer unknown)

Another way of place naming was based on the miners place of origin,  Some, like the Buckeye Rovers formed in Ohio and traveled to the mines, while others sought men from similar backgrounds after arriving in California.  There are three Missouri Bars in the Yuba watershed as well as Texas Creek, Cincinnati Bar, Kentucky Flat, Illinois Bar, Oregon Creek, the prosperous town of St. Louis.  Then there’s Sucker Flat named for Indiana, the “Sucker State.”

There is also an international flavor to many place names.  Here are a few: China Flat, Portuguese Point, Mexican Bar, French Corral, Scotchman Creek, Cornish House, Malay Bar, American Hill and Chili Camp.  Others names are slightly disguised.  Celestial Valley, on Oregon Creek, was named for the Chinese, of the “Celestial Kingdom”, while the settlements of Sebastopol and Malakoff were named for French victories over the Russians during the Crimean War.  Hawaiians and other Polynesian sailors, known collectively as Kanakas, became gold miners and many intermarried with indigenous women.  Kanaka Flat was located six miles upstream from Downieville while nearby Jim Crow Canyon was named after a Kanaka miner.  Kanaka Creek is a major tributary of the Middle Yuba and there was once a place known as Kanaka City at its headwaters.

Not only Kanakas but sailors of all backgrounds jumped ship to try gold mining.  As a result we’ve inherited many places named for sailors.  Here are a few from the Yuba watershed: Sailor Bar on the North Yuba, two Sailor Flats located east and upslope of Nevada City, Sailors Ravine north of Downieville, and Sailor Boy Diggings near Brandy City.

Lake City, sometimes called Painesville 1954 / South Yuba
(photographer unknown)

Of course, places were named for people as well.  Some were “famous”, as in Downieville, named for Major William Downie and Rough & Ready named after Zachary Taylor.  Mount Lola, Jenny Lind Diggings and Kate Hayes Flat were named after popular entertainers and Marysville was named for Mary Murphy, a survivor of the Donner Party tragedy.  Others were named for people who were popular locally, like blacksmith Robert Campton of Camptonville. Miles and Andrew Goodyear named Goodyears Bar and Lake Faucherie was named for Benoit Faucherie, a pioneer in water management systems.  Some places appear to be named for someone who arrived early or simply had a distinctive personality.  John Poorman mined on what would become Poorman Creek, below the town of Washington, and the town of Sweetland, on San Juan Ridge, was named for three bachelor brothers whose only notoriety was that they began mining there in 1850.  Then there’s Jimmy Brown Bar on the North Yuba, just above Indian Valley, about whom nothing is known.

Sucker Flat / Lower Yuba
Gold miners introduced the Osage Orange in this photo

Places were often named for their physical characteristics, for instance Grass Valley, Willow Bar, Shady Creek, Forest City, Slate Range and Windyville.  Some had more ephemeral qualities such as Pleasant Valley or the peak near Poker Flat named Cloud Splitter.

Animals were well represented, for example, there is Rabbit Creek, Coyote Diggings, Bear Valley, Red Dog, Snake Lake, Lizard Flat, Wolf Creek, Grouse Ridge, Woodpecker Ravine, Jackass Flat, Dog Bar and Chicken Point.  The earliest miners were predominantly male and that’s evident in names like Whiskey Flat, Gouge Eye, Poker Flat, Port Wine Ridge, Cut-Throat Bar, Delirium Tremins, Cut-Eye Fosters Bar and Shenanigan Flat.  Political affiliations were on display in the naming of Washington on July 4,1850 and in the names of places like Jefferson, Union Flat and Rebel Ridge.  The. neighboring settlements of  San Juan and Montezuma Hill and were named to commemorate victories in the war against Mexico.

Place naming is a big topic and I could go on, but won’t.  However, I can’t end without mentioning the wonderfully enigmatic and poetic quality of place names like Rantedottler Bar, Gates of the Antipodes, Timbuctoo, Buttermilk Bend, Virgin Flat, Spiritville, Big Lick Spring, Banjo Bar and mines like Queen Ragimunde, Sweet Vengeance, Mugwump, Black Swan, Sacred Mount and Swamp Angel.

Devil's Post Pile / Canyon Creek / North Yuba