How one resident is exploring the stories behind Coastside locations (and reevaluating the naming process moving forward)
By Kara Glenwright and Sarah Wright // Photos by Adam Pardee
El Granada resident Pamm Higgins doesn’t know why the Burnham Strip still carries the name Burnham.
“We’ve already got these markers for Daniel Burnham,” Higgins said, pointing out that Burnham’s connection to the community was mostly transactional. Burnham, a well-known urban planner and architect who most famously designed “The White City” for the 1893 Chicago World Fair, was assigned a work-for-hire contract to design the town of El Granada in the early 1900s.
For this reason, Higgins is questioning if a plannedpark along the Burnham Strip should someday carry that name as well or whether, like all of the other aspects of the park up for community discussion, the name should be, too.
“An inclusive naming process would create that personal connection to the setting, a setting that’s supposed to work for everyone,” Higgins said. “That connection is going to be so important to the success of the space.”
Higgins is not alone in wanting to take a closer look at who the we honor in our parks, beaches, statues and other historical markers. A national reckoning is happening as Americans are reconsidering who bears the names of landmarks, who has statues erected in their honor and how these physical and symbolic representations of American history affect how U.S. history is taught and talked about today.
In the American South, Confederate monuments have come down. In San Francisco, statues of Francis Scott Key, Junípero Serra and Christopher Columbus have been removed. And across California, residents are reexamining the role of missions, once seen as a proud centerpiece of history, and the violence their founders inflicted on the Native American people who first called this state home.
Coastside history isn’t free of the horrors of colonialism and California’s mission history, and many of the people honored locally reflect those most powerful or wealthy throughout Coastside history. But for the most part, local historians say, there isn’t a whole lot around here to “tear down.”
“We don’t have a spotless history in California, but I think the Coastside has a pretty clean history,” said David Cresson, founder of the Half Moon Bay Historical Association. “There is not a lot, if anything, to be ashamed of.”
But local and national historians agree that it matters who our landmarks honor, and understanding their origin is important.
Locally, one woman is doing just that. What started as a desire to correct locals’ pronunciation of Coastside names like Cabrillo and Año Nuevo has now become a booklet project on place names and Coastside history. Former volunteer, now board member of the Half Moon Bay History Association Ellen Chiri hopes her research project will be used by docents to guide visitors and locals alike through Coastside history.
In her research, Chiri uncovered fun facts, lost histories and even unsolved mysteries. But ultimately, her project is one of remembrance, and of giving people the answers to who and what came before them.
“There is a lot of interest, and probably a lot of knowledge out there,” Chiri said. “There is information that could be shared.”
While not everyone says that tearing down monuments or stripping locales of their names is the solution, local historians agreed: Integrating more names that honor Native Americans and other underrepresented histories should be a priority.
“I think adding stuff not subtracting stuff is always good,” said Mitch Postel, president of the San Mateo County Historical Association. Postel has been working with government and tribal representatives on the creation of
the Ohlone-Portolá Heritage Trail. The 90-mile trail, a large part of which spans the California Coastal Trail, is an effort to tell the history of the Ohlone people along the original route of the Portolá Expedition in 1769. Last month, it went in front of the California State Office of Historic Preservation for approval. Postel said the vision for the trail is to mark native village sites with informational placards noting their names, what the natural landscape looked like when tribes lived there, how native people lived and the notable differences in their cultures and languages.
“To put the Native people’s stories in context, you have to know what happened to them and who came after them,” Postel said.
The Half Moon Bay Historical Association is thinking about how to be more inclusive, too. Board Member Dave Olson said members have discussed the topic of names at a few board meetings, but have yet to hear about any movements to change them. He thinks the board would welcome the discussion and would support renaming efforts.
On the Coastside,the names of people we see in our streets and on our schools don’t show the full picture. The oldest community in San Mateo County, Half Moon Bay’s history is one of waves of settlement. The Ohlone people populated the area originally, including the Chiguan of today’s Midcoast area, the Cotegen of Half Moon Bay, the Oljon of San Gregorio and the Quiroste of the Pescadero, Butano and Año Nuevo regions.
The first foreign settlers were families who received Mexican land grants and first developed the area. In the mid-1800s, immigrants from around the world, including Portugal and Italy, moved to the Coastside. Following the Gold Rush and the advent of the Ocean Shore Railroad, the population of the area continued to expand. But even with diverse waves of residents throughout its history, most names on the Coastside take after its first Spanish-speaking developers.
“The multiracial past of the coast is underrepresented, particularly the indigenous peoples,” Higgins said.
There is just one name on the Coastside that historians can point to when asked about Native Americans: Pomponio. The name Pomponio was given to José Lupugeyum, a Coast Miwok from the Bolinas area, by the mission system where he was raised.
Pomponio became captain of an insurgent group that rebelled against and led raids on the mission. He hid out along Pomponio Creek. He met his demise in 1824, when he was captured and executed, but he became a celebrated hero among the local Native Americans and his name is remembered today through Pomponio State Beach and Pomponio Creek.
Mark Hylkema is interested in bringing more names honoring Native American people to communities within California. He is the supervisor and tribal liaison of the Cultural Resources Program for the Santa Cruz district of California State Parks, managing cultural resources across 32 parks in the state. According to Hylkema, his goals are to reconnect tribal partners and stakeholders back to local park lands, and honoring Native history through naming is part of that effort.
Groups like Peninsula Open Space Trust, Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District and Sempervirens Fund, Hylkema said, all are working to consult tribes and expand integration of tribal history into their preservation work.
But it’s not just Native Americans whose names are missing from local landmarks. Other underrepresented groups on the Coastside, like Black people and women, often go unrecognized, too. Of the most notable names on the coast, just one was a descendant of slaves, and one other is a woman. And Asian immigrants, like the local Japanese population, are rarely noted in Coastside history.
“It surprises me how hard it is to find anything about non-white residents on the San Mateo County coast,” Olson said. “The history of Black people on the coast, as far as I can tell, is nonexistent. We know they were here … through census records … but it’s almost like they were just skipped. You see that with almost all of the populations other than the European populations.”
Sam McDonald Park, located in the hills of La Honda, bears its name from a descendant of slaves who attended Stanford University and later donated this parcel of land to the university. Today, the county operates the land as a park. The Naomi Patridge trail honors local former mayor and World War II internment camp survivor, but it was built and named after her very recently.
Years ago, the Spanishtown Historical Society — today, the Half Moon Bay Historical Society — named their building for the society’s president at the time, Mary Vallejo. But her name did not last.
Without naming local landmarks after women, for example, will Coastsiders forget their valuable contributions to our history? These are the types of questions Higgins wants to bring to the forefront by opening up the conversation about Burnham Park. She also hopes a community conversation will bring Coastsiders together, and will lead locals to value their new park with more significance because they had a hand in creating it and making it more reflective of who, as Coastsiders, they are.
“It’s not the answer to world peace, but it’s a place to start just because it sparks the dialogue and gets people to reflect on what their personal connection to the community is,” Higgins said.
(Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the September issue of On the Coastside magazine (via the Half Moon Bay Review). This version is a cross publishing collaboration between our two publications.)
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