What's the Source of the name 'Gualala'?...*
by R. H. Tooker
Gualala, the name both
river and the town at the river's mouth, has long
been a puzzler to newcomers to the Mendocino Coast.
The truck driver who once asked at Stewarts Point how far it
was to Guatemala may be an extreme case, but he's not the
only one who has been confused. The most confused of
all was the nameless official in the San Francisco office of
the U.S. Post Office department, and his confusion has left
a trail of misunderstanding after him that survives to this
The first known
settlers at Gualala were Pomo Indians, and their language
has been carefully studied in recent years by Professor
Oswald of the University of California, Berkeley. Mr.
Oswald has made clear where the name comes from. He
has pointed out that the Pomo name for the town is Wahlalee,
a short form of a phrase meaning: "place where the
water comes down," and in this case simply means
"river-mouth," an appropriate name for the location.
Both the Russians and
the Spaniards were aware of this Pomo name. The
references are very few, of course, but we know that the
Russians referred to the Indians of the Gualala area as the
Walala tribe, and we have an occasional reference in Spanish
and Mexican records to Valale. We also know very well
that the first Yankees knew this name, since the Coast
Survey wrote the name of the town and the river as Walalla
in the 1850s and did not change this spelling on their
charts for almost a half century.
Likewise, we know that
the settlers who erected the first lumber mill in 1862
called the town and the river Walhalla, and wrote it that
way, a pronunciation still in daily use by some of the
old-timers on the Coast. We will probably never know
positively where this "h" came from, but it is most likely
that this form of the name goes back to William Rufus, one
of Sutter's employees, who received the grant of the German
Rufus named the ranch
after Herman, the German hero who defeated the Roman legions
in the days of the Emperor Augustus. Herman, in
Spanish, would be written "German." (If the ranch had
been named after the nationality of the first owner, it
would have been called the Rancho Aleman.) If Rufus
knew about Herman, he would certainly have known about
Walhalla, the heaven of the Norse legends, and so, when he
was told that the river and the settlement at its mouth were
called Walahlee by the Indians, he would have thought at
once of Walhalla, and used that name.
The situation, then, in
1862 was this: the name was officially Walalla, and
was pronounced either Walalla or Walhalla.
Then the local
residents and the mill owners asked for a Post Office for
Walalla. Much to their amazement, when the official
confirmation came from the Post Office department in San
Francisco, they learned that the new office was to be named
Gualala Post Office. It appears that someone in the
San Francisco office had decided that he knew more about the
matter than the "ignorant" local settlers, and had proceeded
to change the spelling to what he believed was the proper
Spanish form. (Naturally, he had no idea that the
first Spanish settlers had written the name as "Valale.")
Actually, by the rules
of Spanish spelling, his choice was a "correct" one.
The Spanish language, in the form in which it had developed
from Latin had no sounds that began with the "w" sound.
However, a number of Arabic words began with the syllable "wa",
and when the Spaniards took over Moorish names for rivers
and towns in southern Spain, they had to find a way to write
this sound. Their scribes hit upon the solution of
writing "wa" as "gua", and thus we have, to this day,
Guadalquivir, Guadalcanal and Guadalajara. These names
are always pronounced by native speakers of Spanish, to
begin with the "wa" sound.
The Spanish settlers in
the New World used this same method in writing down Indian
words beginning with "wa", and thus we also have Guaymas,
Guantanamo, Guyaquil (and Guatemala, too), all of which are
pronounced in Latin American to begin with the "wa" sound.
To this day, Mexican dogs are "gua-guau", which we
would write Wah-wow.
And so, our bureaucrat
in the post office decided to correct the spelling of
Walalla to what he thought it ought to be, rather than leave
it the way the "ignorant" Americans had written it.
Gualala it became. Serious attempts were made to have
the name changed back to Walalla, but the Post Office
department refused to do this, saying that the name could
not be confused with that of another post office, the only
reason which would warrant a change.
To sum up: The
Pomos' called it Walahlee, and the first European settlers,
of whatever origin, called it either Walalla or Walhalla.
Either on could be the correct American form of the name,
but to maintain a consistent pronunciation in the face of
the present-day newcomers, it is probably best to stick with
Walalla, as being closest to the Pomo form of the name.
One thing is certain:
if any newcomer is misled by the looks of the name Gualala
and tries to put a "hard g" sound at the head of the word,
just because he sees that letter in print, he should always
be politely but firmly and stubbornly corrected.
*Independent Coast Observer
(ICO)*, Friday, December 27, 2002. The late R. H. Tooker wrote
this article for the ICO of
January 12, 1973.