August 26, 1987
What Was Life Like?
Storytellers find rich material in mountain’s name
Written by Beverly Lane in the Valley Pioneer as a “Valley Vignette” on August 26, 1987
ONCE the name “Diablo” was attached to the mountain, peoples’ fancies took flight, limited only by their imagination or ideas of the devil. Sulphurous odors, poisoned gold, satanic bears and cavernous, flame-spuming openings appear in different versions.
One story of the name which is often cited as fact comes from Gen. Mariano Vallejo, a prominent transition leader in the change from Mexican to American California. In his famous report to the California Legislature on April 16, 1850, he established and explained the names of the counties of California and included information on Mount Diablo’s name.
His version shows that the original incident in the thicket was probably a well-known piece of oral history by the 1850s.
“In 1806 a military expedition from San Francisco marched against the tribe Bolbones, who were encamped at the foot of the mount. The Indians were prepared to receive the expedition and a hot battle began in the large hollow fronting the western side of the mountain.
“As victory was about to be decided in favor of the Indians, an unknown personage, decorated with the most extraordinary plumage, and waiving his arms as if to cast a spell on the intruders, suddenly appeared on the battlefield. The soldiers were routed and the incognito (Puy) departed towards the mountain.
“The defeated Spaniards, finding out that the spirit went through the same ceremony daily and at all hours, named it ‘Monte del Diablo,’ in allusion to its mysterious inhabitant…in the native tongue, ‘Puy’ signifies ‘evil spirit’; in Spanish it means ‘diablo,’ and doubtless it signifies ‘devil’ in the Anglo-American language.”
This story has some elements of the actual 1805 battle with embellishments worthy of a fine storyteller, which Vallejo most assuredly was.
Another story, said to have come from a mission archive, told of an early friar’s efforts to suppress evidence of gold on the “high mountain” next to the Bay. In the story, the friar mixed the gold with poison and let the natives see what happened when their dogs drank the potion. When they died, the friar preached on the evil of gold and convinced the natives to avoid gold from the mountain.
Gold was held to be diabolical in this tale, and because of this, the friar christened the mountain after the devil. Considering the havoc the real gold discovery created for Hispanic California, this story might have shown some prescience. However, according to Beverly Ortiz, East Bay Regional Park District naturalist and historian, it was written early in the 1860s and was therefore not at all prophetic.
Accounts of soldiers pursuing native horse thieves tell about the thieves disappearing when “Lo, from a cavernous opening ahead there issued forth such fierce flames accompanied by such terrible roaring that they thought themselves within a riata’s throw of…His Infernal Majesty’s summer palace.” Munro-Fraser’s 1882 History of Contra Costa County includes this legend along with several others.
One of the most famous stories about the mountain was written by Bret Harte and appeared in the Atlantic Monthly of October 1863. Called The Legend of Mount Diablo, it tells about a Father Jose whose search for converts leads him to the summit of the mountain where he meets the devil in the guise of an old hidalgo. The hidalgo lays temptations before the padre before becoming a bear and attacking him. The padre then names the mountain for the devil.
Harte’s is a whimsical and entertaining story which he never claimed to be true. In fact he began by saying, “The cautious reader will detect a lack of authenticity in the following pages.”
Written less than a decade after Harte tutored the four sons of a Tassajara rancher, the story showed Harte’s familiarity with the mountain and with typical tales of the devil which were part of the oral tradition of the “hijos del pais,” the Hispanic “sons of the land.” In Harte’s tale the devil was not clever enough to tempt the holy father, unlike the devil’s reputed success with some of the hijos.
In the 20th century campers have found some physical phenomenon which they think may have contributed to the perpetuation of these tales. The author of the Oakland Tribune’s Knave column, cited a camper near the head of Mitchell Canyon in 1910 who said he was awakened by an eerie roar which rose to a high pitch, died out and returned. Evidently a rush of hot air from the valley below was the cause. On another occasion, the camper saw a wraithlike figure at sunrise, formed by a combination of sun rays, mountain edges and a fog bank.
Writers have let their imaginations range free as they created stories about the mountain and the devil. To some the name remains an unhappy choice and attempts to “remove the devil from the mountain” are pursued at least once a decade.
Resources: John Dengel, A Portrait of a Mountain, Oakland Tribune, Jan. and Feb. 1961; Erwin G. Gudde, California Place Names, 1969; Bret Harte, The Legend of Mt. Diablo, Atlantic Monthly, Oct. 1863; F. J. Hulaniski, The History of Contra Costa County, California, 1917; J. P. Munro-Fraser, History of Contra Costa County, 1882; Mariano Vallejo, California Special Commission on the derivation and definition of County names, 1850.