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Historic Place Names in Orange County

Every place name is a story. In them, we see reminders of the eras, activities, and personalities that make up our local history. Understanding their origin and meaning helps us to better understand our past.

But what exactly is a place name? Some scholars insist on purely geographical names – names of cities, towns, rivers, mountains, and streams. But in a modern, suburban area such as Orange County, place names take on many other forms. We speak of places “over by Disneyland,” or “below the El Toro Y.” Some names may have never appeared on any map, but are used as place names none the less. Our towns and cities are broken down into scores of communities and neighborhoods. The City of Santa Ana counts more than 50 separate neighborhoods within its boundaries. Newport Beach is a patchwork of communities stretching from West Newport to the Newport Coast, with stops along the way in Corona del Mar, Balboa, East Bluff, and half a dozen islands. Their names are part of what give these neighborhoods their identity.

Place names come in many forms. They can be descriptive (Emerald Bay, Carbon Canyon, Bolsa Chica), they can commemorate a person or event (Trabuco Canyon, Silverado, Huntington Beach), they can be transplanted from other areas (Delhi, Las Flores), or they can simply be the product of the human imagination (Coast Royal, Corona del Mar). Other place names are borrowed from earlier names – thus the various “lagunas” that have spread out across the South County, far from the original lakes named during the mission days.

But while some names spread, others diminish. In mission times, “Santa Ana” was used to describe the coastal plain from Newport Bay up over the hills into the Pomona Valley and out to Chino. In the years before the county was formed, what would become Orange County was generally known as the Santa Ana Valley. Today that name is almost extinct. Many other early place names only survive as the names of streets, parks, or schools.

Even so, Orange County’s place names still represent every era of our past.

Only one Indian place name remains in common use here (though in a somewhat garbled form). Niguel was originally spring along Aliso Creek. It was adopted by the Spanish missionaries and later used as the name of a Mexican rancho. Today we know it as part of the name of the City of Laguna Niguel.

Several major names survive from the Spanish era (1769-1821), including Santa Ana, Santiago, and Trabuco, all given during the first Spanish overland trek through the area in 1769. The missionaries at San Juan Capistrano also gave us a number of other names, including Laguna, El Toro, San Mateo, and Mission Viejo (properly, Misíon Vieja). From the Mexican ranchos of the 1830s and ‘40s, we get such names as Bolsa Chica, Los Coyotes, Los Alamitos, San Joaquin, and La Habra.

Beginning in the 1850s, the names of our earliest American communities represent most every type of place name. Some are borrowed from earlier names, such as Santa Ana and Laguna Beach. Anaheim is a hybrid, combining the Spanish Ana (from the Santa Ana River) with the German heim (for home). Buena Park also combines words from two languages. Tustin was named by and for its founder, Fullerton for a railroad official. Westminster is borrowed from the history of the Presbyterian Church. Fountain Valley is a descriptive name, coined to commemorate the many artesian wells in the area. Newport originally was just that – a “new port” along the Southern California Coast. And Orange and Garden Grove were named simply to sound attractive (the same goes for Orange County as well).

In the early 20th century, we find a great many personal names, such as Yorba Linda, Stanton, Huntington Beach, and Dana Point (though these last two men never lived in the cities named for them). We have descriptive names like Seal Beach and Cypress, and attractive names like Sunset Beach and Corona del Mar.

With the rise of planned communities in the 1960s, we see master planned names as well, such as Monarch Bay, Lake Forest, Aliso Viejo, and Ladera Ranch. South Orange County also added a few imported names, such as Rancho Santa Margarita and Las Flores (both old names in San Diego County). We also see derivative names, such as Anaheim Hills, Newport Coast, and Laguna Hills.

Many other historians have explored Orange County’s place names over the years. In the early 1930s, Terry Stephenson wrote two interesting articles about Orange County place names. Erwin Gudde’s California Place Names (first published in 1949 and now in its fourth edition) has been a standard work for more than half a century. Other local historians have discussed place names while writing about their own communities. But it was the late Don Meadows who compiled the first full-length study of the subject, Historic Place Names of Orange County (1966). In 2006 I added my contribution to the list – Orange County Place Names A to Z, which discusses more than 250 local place names, their origins and stories.

You can order a copy direct from the publisher, Sunbelt Publications, and it is also available on Amazon.com.