Diabolical name fuels arguments
Written by Beverly Lane in the Valley Pioneer as a “Valley Vignette” on Sept. 9 , 1987
CONTRA Costa County and Mount Diablo were officially named in 1850, but controversy dogged the mountain’s name well into the 1860s and beyond.
In his famous report to the first California legislature, April 1850, Mariano Vallejo said:
“Mt. Diablo, which occupies a conspicuous place in modern maps, is the center of this county. It was intended so to call the county, but both branches of the state legislature, after heated debates on the subject (the representatives of the county opposing the idea of a Mount Diablo County) resolved upon the less profane one of Contra Costa.”
At that point Contra Costa really was the “opposite coast” from San Francisco, a huge county spreading from the Bay to the Delta. In 1853, Alameda County was formed from Contra Costa and Santa Clara counties to facilitate county business, the county seat Martinez being a long day’s trip from the original county’s farthest reaches.
Arguments over the diabolical nomenclature continued. In the 1860s, Congregational Church members began a campaign to remove the devil’s name from the mountain. One churchman said that an old Indian told him the original Indian name for the mountain was “Kahwookum,” meaning “Everywhere Seen.” He contended that this name was far preferable to that of the devil. The “old Indian” was never identified.
The Congregational petitions were presented to the Senate by San Francisco state Sen. Henry L. Dodge on Jan. 17, 1866, prior to official committee hearings.
Newspapers had a field day with the debate. The San Francisco Bulletin said “it may possibly be a trick of the devil himself to get another ‘alias,’ or perchance the prayer comes from a bevy of ‘out-cropping poets,’ living at the base of the mountain, who want the name changed to Parnassus… (or) some mining company who want to get that name changed to ‘Coal Hill.’”
The state Senate Committee on Public Morals held hearings on the issue and, in the report of the 16th Senate Session, came to this conclusion:
“This Legislature has no authority to ‘strike out and insert’ in case of a name which runs through the records of the United States Land Department, through the certificates and patents of the government, through the charts of navigators, and the records of the transactions of scientific societies throughout the world.”
And further, the committee found there was “nothing in the name which need be construed offensively” and recommended that the petition be “indefinitely postponed.”
That laid to rest the most serious attempt to change Diablo’s name, although occasional comments and sermons still appear decrying the label of “devil” on such a significant landmark.
The name “Kawookum” did appear, several more times. A 19th century author, Titus Feyw Cronise evidently took the Congregationalists’ word for it and said the “aborigines called this great landmark ‘Kah Woo Kum,’” in his 1868 book. According to Beverly Ortiz, who is writing a book on the mountain, there is no independent evidence to indicate that the name was ever used by Indians.
One San Francisco newspaperman announced that he, in 1916, “named the mountain ‘Koo Wah Koom’ to help a slow-moving Walnut Creek real estate development,” according to an Oakland Tribune column in 1961. He translated it to mean “The Laughing Mountain” to try to encourage sales “where the devilish name perhaps hindered them.”
The Danville Grange played a major role in making part of the mountain into a state park and game refuge in 1921. It was dedicated as Mount Diablo State Park in 1931 with two parcels of 348.5 acres. Since then, the park has grown to 15,124 acres with over 3,000 more acres currently in the final stages of park acquisition.
Mount Diablo’s name has had a checkered history. Sacred to the Indians, for years it was called Sierra de los Bolbones after the Volvon tribe. Spanish soldiers under Luis Arguello first used the name after an 1805 battle which ended in an eerie thicket in north Concord. Americans attached the name first to the north peak and then to the whole mountain.
Since then “Diablo” has been used for any number of items including roads, housing development, foot races and even school districts. In World War I, the first big steel steamer constructed in Contra Costa was called Diablo, a name chosen by Mrs. Woodrow Wilson instead of her first choice, Apistama.
The mountain is a constant, stunning presence for all of us who live nearby. J.P. Munro-Fraser described it in the flowery terms of a 19th century historian:
“The view from the summit is magnificent – beyond all description. Standing there on a clear day, and overlooking the craggy precipice and deep ravines, which impart an air of wild grandeur to the immediate vicinity, you behold, in all the elegance of their graceful outline and the beauty of their light and shadow, the admirably rounded foothills, gradually diminishing in prominence until they merge with the delightful valleys though whose groves of wide-spreading oaks and sycamores the eye involuntarily traces out the meandering course of the sparkling waters.”
Resources: California Senate Journal, 1865-66, p. 1710; Contra Costa Gazette, Jan. 27, 1866; Cronise, Titus F., The Natural Wealth of California, 1868; J. P. Munro-Fraser, History of Contra Costa County, 1882; Beverly Ortiz, EBRPD Naturalist; Mariano Vallejo, California Special Commissi0on on the derivation and definition of County names, 1850.