Turning Stones ~ George McKale

George McKale George McKale is a practicing archaeologist and Sonoma’s City Historian. He has excavated throughout California ranging from Native American sites thousands of years old to Gold Rush era locations. His passion and specialty in archaeology is the study of human remains.



Posted on November 8, 2012 by George McKale

One of the four sub-disciplines of anthropology is linguistics. Linguists believe they can trace a language back at least 8,000 years based on a set of universal principles allowing for an understanding of how words change through time. So what’s the word of the day? Yulupa.

Recently, the valley’s own historical ecologist, Arthur Dawson, wrote about the word of the day.  His research indicated that “Yulupa” is a Coast Miwok word meaning “centers around things bright and shiny, like crystals, diamonds and the sparkle of sun on water”.  As Dawson points out, the word itself is widely used throughout the county.  It is displayed on early maps as a Mexican land grant. We have Yulupa Creek in Bennett Valley and Yulupa Avenue in Santa Rosa.

While the origin of the word as presented by Dawson may be true, Jesse O. Sawyer, a Wappo linguistic, has another thought.  Sawyer concludes that the word “Yulupa” is a Wappo word and translates to the word “ostrich”. Now this is getting exciting. It doesn’t take a genius to know that the ostrich is not native to California.  Just so you don’t jump to conclusions about Sawyer’s sanity and question his scholarly merits, he published the English-Wappo Vocabulary in 1965.

The Wappo held territory in the hills north and east of Sonoma as well as the upper Napa Valley extending north into the Mayacamas.  Understanding the native languages of California is not an easy task.  Two-hundred years ago there were an estimated 115 distinct languages spoken throughout the state.

Sawyer indicates that “Yulupa” was borrowed from Spanish, but acknowledged that what it meant in California Spanish is unknown. He also suggests that the word could have been borrowed from a neighboring tribe and may have occurred in several languages in the area.

William Bright, author of American Linguistics and Literature, believes the word “Yulupa”, to simply be the Wappo word for “bird”.  By the way, America’s first ostrich farm was established in 1886 by Edwin Cawston, in South Pasadena. How and why would the Wappo have borrowed a word meaning “ostrich”? If you’re looking for an answer in this column, you’re out of luck.

Some may look for guidance in the Erwin G. Gudde classic, California Place Names. Gudde associates “Yulupa” with a name common in the early mission records, “Jalapi”.  Sawyer doesn’t buy it.  In Wappo, Jala (Hala) means “dance hall center-post female”.  The ending “pi” is a common way of separating the Wappo from other tribes and was used to indicate a female.

World-wide, approximately 600 languages have become extinct in the last century.  UNESCO estimates that by the end of this century, 90 percent of the world’s languages will disappear. Sadly, of the 115 native languages once spoken on California soil, only about 50 remain today.

We may never know the true origins of the word “Yulupa”.  I do enjoy entertaining the notion, that sometime in the 1830’s, the Spanish obtained ostriches from early trade ships making port in the bay.  These ostriches then made their way through our northern missions and the Wappo seemingly created the word to describe them. Or not!

2 thoughts on “Yulupa

  1. George! Hi. I bought a 450 acre ranch in and above Bennett Valley which includes the top of Bennett Mountain, previously named Yulupa Mountain. I am thinking to name the ranch “Yulupa Ranch” or “Yulupa Mountain Ranch”. Thanks for your article…it is humbling to know I may have bought an…ostrich! Do you have an opinion as to the best name? Cheers!

  2. Interesting!

    My research had turned up that Yulupa was a term used by the Indians who settled in the Bennett Valley to describe the land… “Fertile, Magical, Sacred”.

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