What’s in a Name? – A Spelling History of Santa Cruz

The evolution of name spellings is one of the challenges that confronts any Santa Cruz historical researcher.


Last week’s post mentioning “Mountain Charley” McKiernan elicited a comment from a reader who contended that the proper spelling is “Charlie” rather than “Charley”. That got me thinking about how often spelling questions have come up since this local history blog began about 18 months ago. In fact, the evolution of name spellings is one of the challenges that confront any historical researcher.

The farther back you go in history, the greater the changes. For example, read some history of the ancient Roman Empire, then look at a modern map and try to find those Roman places from 2000 years ago. Except for Roma itself, most of the names have changed beyond recognition (if the Roman places still exist at all). By comparison, our task in researching Santa Cruz history is much easier, since we don’t have much written history more than 200 years old.

The earliest spelling challenges encountered in Santa Cruz history involve the transliteration of native Ohlone (who had no written language) place names into Spanish - by the early explorers and missionaries – then subsequently into English. A prime example is Soquel, for which Donald Clark found 14 different spellings in historical sources. No wonder visitors are still confused when they first see the name.

Another translation-related source of confusion is with early non-Spanish-speaking residents who became Mexican citizens and appear in early documents with Spanish versions of their names. For instance, the Englishman William Buckle can be found in early documents as Guillermo Bocle.

Less explicable spelling changes have happened to other Spanish/Mexican names. For instance, the old Rancho San Andres is now remembered only by San Andreas Road. Did that happen because the San Andreas Fault is nearby? Another mystery is how Vizcaíno’s Monterrey Bay lost one of its “r”s somewhere along the way.

Some native speakers of other non-English languages intentionally changed the spelling of their names, in an attempt to help Americans pronounce them. The German-born Frederick Hϋhn, recognizing that Americans could not properly pronounce his name, changed the spelling to Hihn. That was partially successful - today’s residents of Hihn Road in Ben Lomond tend to pronounce it as “Heen”, which is not quite German but closer than “Hoon” or “Hun”.   

Another example of the German-pronunciation is Ohio native David Gharky. Gharky built one of the early wharfs, off the main Santa Cruz beach, in 1856. A Google search on the name shows that many Gharkys still live in Ohio, and that the German original family name is spelled Gehrcke. So the Gehrcke family changed the spelling even David came to Santa Cruz. Nice try – but it still wasn’t enough to stop the confusion. An 1856 California state legislature resolution authorizing the building of the wharf in Santa Cruz spelled his name Girky (which is actually a pretty good phonetic spelling of the original Gehrcke). As a final indignity, the Westside street that remembers David’s name today is spelled Gharkey.

Those German surnames seem to have been especially problematic, maybe because a fairly large number of native Germans moved to Santa Cruz in the period from 1846 to 1871 (it seems to have tapered off after the Franco-Prussian War). It continued to be a problem even after several generations in America, as the Gharky story illustrates. Moses Meder, a well-known pioneer and one of the first County supervisors, is another example. He was born in New Hampshire, where his family had lived for several generations. Yet, in some local historical records, we find his name spelled Meader. On his wife Sarah’s headstone, it’s spelled Meeder. At least the street sign got it right.

Finally, there’s the case of the ex-slave London Nelson, who is remembered for leaving his entire modest estate to the Santa Cruz school district. Apparently, the spelling of his first name is not entirely clear in hand-written probate records (any of us who have looked at old census records understand that problem). In the 1930s, Nelson’s wooden grave marker at Evergreen Cemetery was replaced with one made of marble, a generous act by someone. The stone-cutter, however, was given the name “Louden Nelson”, and that spelling has persisted ever since.  

When we think about how future generations will remember us (if we think about that at all), we don’t usually worry about future generations misspelling our names. In today’s world, such an occurrence is less likely, but it’s a normal part of historical/genealogical research.

  • Clark, Donald Thomas. Santa Cruz County Place Names (expanded 2nd edition 2008 - available at SCPL)
  • Santa Cruz Public Library, online local history articles

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.


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