How Orange Got its Name

I expect to go to my grave still trying to beat down the old story that Orange was named in a poker game. As Mark Twain once said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

The truth is that when Orange was founded in 1871, it was called Richland -- a perfectly reasonable name for a prospective farming community. But when they went to get a post office in 1873, they found that there was already a Richland, California up in Sacramento County. So they renamed the town Orange, got a post office, and went on from there.

The poker game story does not seem to surface until more than 60 years later, when Margaret Gardner wrote that her father, Henri F. Gardner “told me that he had heard that Mr. Chapman, Mr. Glassell, and two other men each advocated a different name. One suggested Orange, one, Lemon, one, Olive, and one, Almond. So they played a poker game, the winner to name it.”

Trouble is, Henri Gardner wasn’t even in town at the time, and the story doesn’t appear in print until more than a decade after his death. I also hear that he could spin a pretty good yarn when he wanted to. Add to that the fact that no one else ever seems to have told this story, and there seems to be no particular reason to believe it.

So how did Orange get its name?

Certainly it was not named for the orange groves that dotted the hillsides -- there was not a single producing orange grove in the area in 1873. Grapes -- primarily raisin grapes -- were the big crop back then. It was only after the blight of the 1880s that the vineyards faded, and Orange went on to more than live up to its name.

Some point out that Andrew Glassell’s family had once lived on the Richland Plantation in Orange County, Virginia. No doubt that influenced the decision, but historian James Guinn, a resident of Anaheim at the time, was probably closer to the mark when he wrote in 1902 that the decision was based on the early efforts to create Orange County. “The agitation for the formation of a new county to be named Orange was quite active about this time,” he noted. “The town of Orange had hopes of becoming the seat of government of the new county.”

The Orange County name had first been proposed in 1872 -- again, before oranges were the big crop here -- and probably also influenced the naming of the Orangethorpe School District (1873) north of Anaheim. It was suggested, frankly, because it sounded nice. “The very name proposed, ‘Orange,’” the Anaheim Gazette noted during a later county division battle, “has a charm about it that will arrest the attention of Eastern people whenever they hear it mentioned, or see it in their newspapers.” (January 12, 1881)