The Santa Ana Winds

It amazes me that you still meet people who want to argue about what to call the Santa Ana Winds. They want to call them “Santana Winds,” or “Zanta Winds,” or “Devil Winds.” But historically, they are – and always have been – the Santa Ana Winds.

Terry Stephenson wrote the definitive essay on the name for the California Folklore Quarterly in 1943. The old timers, he reports (and he knew many of them) “have always known that the wind got its name because it swept out of the mouth of the Santa Ana Canyon.” Even Jim Sleeper – a loyal native son of Santa Ana – admitted that the name comes from the canyon.

The winds were described as early as the 1840s during the Mexican War. When American forces marching from San Diego to Los Angeles camped at Olive in January 1847, Major William Emory reported: “The wind blew a hurricane, (something very unusual in this part of California,) and the atmosphere was filled with particles of fine dust, so that one could not see and but with difficulty breathe.”

The next day: “The wind continued to blow violently, which the enemy should have taken advantage of to attack us. Our weapons were chiefly fire-arms; his, the lance; and I was quite certain that in such a gale of wind as then blew, the difficulty of loading our arms would have proved a serious matter.”

Other times, the howling winds drove wildfires, and (in the early days) knocked wooden buildings off their foundations.

The earliest use of the actual name I have found comes from the Anaheim Gazette for September 23, 1871, which mentions the “withering Santa Ana’s.” A more detailed description appeared two weeks later, on October 7, 1871:

“A ‘Santa Ana’ – We suffered a visitation from this unwelcome customer on Monday last. The storm arose before daylight and continued throughout the day – sweeping through the Santa Ana cañon. Its breath was hot and parching, it filled the whole visible atmosphere with a blinding, driving storm of sand and dust that penetrated every penetrable substance, covered everything indoors and out with a deep layer of fine dust and choked and blinded every body who faced it. These winds usually occur about twice or three times a year and are regarded as a sign of approaching rain. The man who lives on climate got a meal that will last him for a week.”

Another 1871 account can be found in the “annals” of the Westminster Colony, compiled by some of the earliest settlers in the area:

“During this month [November] the ‘Santa Ana’ winds were very prevalent, the longest and most severe blow occurred on the 20th and 21st, lasting forty-eight hours.  These winds picked up immense quantities of sand and dust, and being very dry and warm, made it almost impossible for man or beast to work. The best plan was to sit indoors and ‘grin and bear it’.” [Thanks to Nick Popadiuk for this reference.]

By the 1880s, the name was being used to describe the winter winds in Los Angeles and Pasadena, and by the early 1900s, the term was adopted by official government publications.

All of this was a great annoyance to the residents of Santa Ana (and especially its chamber of commerce), since some people talked as if the winds only struck their town. Terry Stephenson reports that when he became editor of the Santa Ana Register in 1906 the chamber demanded he never use the name in print.

In those days, the Santa Ana folks preferred “Riverside Winds,” since they came from that direction. Others took to calling them “Santana Winds,” which is really just a colloquial way of pronouncing Santa Ana among Spanish speakers.

By the ‘teens, some had taken it a step further, claiming that “Santana” was an Indian word – “an idea founded on fancy, not on fact” Stephenson notes. It was sometimes translated as “big wind,” or “Devil Wind,” or “The Wind of the Evil Spirits.” This may have led to the claim that Santa Ana (or Santana, take your pick) was a corruption of “Satan Wind.”

More imaginative is the notion first floated in the 1920s that the name should be “Santa Anna Winds,” in honor of the Mexican general, whose famed cavalry charges also raised up vast clouds of dust!

But it was “Santanas” that enjoyed the longest life. In 1938, the Los Angeles Times agreed to use that term instead of Santa Anas. That probably explains why some modern day old timers insist the name has “always” been “Santana.”

But the Santa Ana Winds they are, and the Santa Ana Winds they will remain.

See . . .

W.H. Emory, Notes of a Military Reconnaissance, from Fort Levaenworth, in Missouri, to San Diego, in California (Washington: Wendell and Van Benthuysen, 1848)

Jim Sleeper, “Those Pesky Riverside Winds”  (in) Jim Sleeper’s 1st Orange County Almanac of Historical Oddities (Trabuco Canyon: Ocusa Press, 1971)

Terry E. Stephenson, “The Santa Ana Wind” (California Folklore Quarterly, January 1943)