What’s in a Name?

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).

Islais Creek1950's

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.



Varian Associates and Non-Silicon Technologies of the Bay Area


Photo of Varian brothers by friend Ansel Adams

Sigurd and Russell Varian were born in Ireland near the turn of the century, and grew up in Northern California. Their father was a poet and a masseur, who lectured in a theosophist community and encouraged his boys’ creativity. Both boys were interested in electricity and its properties. Russell attended Stanford but struggled to find work after graduation. Sigurd briefly attended Cal Poly but dropped out to become a pilot and aviator. While Russell kept notebooks of theoretical problems and their solutions, Sigurd understood materials and built Russell’s inventions. They made a good team, but struggled to find financing. In 1937 they contracted with Stanford for $100 to work with the Physics Department and Dr. Bill Hansen to develop a microwave-based tube which might be useful for blind landing of planes and early radar detection. Their contract called for a sharing of the patent and proceeds of any design that was successful.

imageThis partnership resulted in the klystron tube. Russell’s breakthrough insight was the idea that electrons might be modulated and “bunched” while traveling in the same direction. This technology led to early radar in WW2 and was said to have been instrumental in winning the Battle of Britain for the Allies.

In 1948 Varian Associates was founded in San Carlos, California for commercial applications of the klystron tube. The company did not accept outside financing and offered its employees ownership through stock purchase plans.

Later the company developed devices for radiation therapy, nuclear magnetic resonance (including MRI), spectrometers, and electromagnets. In 1952 Varian Associates became the first tenant in the newly available Stanford Industrial Park in Palo Alto.

The Klystron Tube became the first of other variations leading to Stanford Linear Accelerator (SLAC), a 2-mile long linear accelerator built on Stanford property in 1962.

imageToday you can see a model of the original Klystron Tube in  Stanford’s Nanotechnology Building in the Science and Engineering Quad. Varian Medical (one of the descendants of the original Varian Associates) is still located in the Stanford Industrial Park.


San Francisco in the Fog

The city by the Bay


The worst shipwreck in San Francisco history occurred off Land’s End in February, 1901. The Rio de Janeiro, a steam-powered passenger ship, sailed photo-1 5through the Golden Gate Straits in heavy fog. With very little warning or time to react, the iron-hulled ship hit a shallow reef near Fort Point and began to sink. The fog dulled cries for help and hampered rescue boats. Within 8 minutes the ship was gone and only 82 persons had boarded lifeboats. 123 passengers and crew, including Capt. Ward, drowned in that wreck.

San Francisco fog is poetic, evocative and hazardous when coupled with our shallow Bay and rocky coast.   In a heavy fog in November, 2007 the Cosco Buson container ship struck the Bay Bridge, spilling 53,569 gallons of fuel into the Bay. In a fog of January, 2013 the Overseas Reymar, a large tanker, scraped its hull against the Bay Bridge, raising questions about its navigation equipment. Records of airplane crashes, car wrecks and ferry collisions expand the litany of fog-related disasters.

The persistence of Bay area fog arises from our unique geography, climate, and wind. Northwest ocean currents and “upwelling” along the coast result in cold coastal waters (52-58 degrees F). Over the ocean moisture evaporates, creating a “marine layer”, which, cooling, condenses into fog. The extreme variance of temperature between the hot inland valley and the cool coast suggests a high pressure zone and a low pressure zone. Wind blows towards the low pressure zone, along the coastline and through the narrow gap of the Golden Gate Straits. As the wind blows, the fog accompanies it, blanketing the coastal mountains, the Bay, and San Francisco.

Regular recurrent fog determines Bay area ecology. Redwood trees, sword ferns, huckleberries, and tan oaks depend on the fog for moisture. Napa and Sonoma Valley grapes reach perfection with the help of the fog. Local salamanders and frogs would die of heat stroke were it not for the cooling fog. In the midst of summer, San Francisco is cool.

To take credit for all the benefits of a foggy day, @KarlTheFog steps forward. As his Twitter feed announces, “All that is sunny does not glitter, not all those in the fog are lost.”  Join Karl’s 55,000 followers on your Twitter Feed.