How the Golden Gate Got Its Name

golden gate bridge under construction by ray strong 1934 from 640x393
Golden Gate Bridge by Ray Strong (1934), from the Smithsonian Institution

During the weeks leading up to the big 75th birthday party for the Golden Gate Bridge, I listened to a few podcasts about the bridge’s history (like a Commonwealth Club panel, an hour of KQED’s Forum, to name two).  During one of these, I learned how the Golden Gate got its name.

With the tremendous political, social, and economic effects of the gold rush that started in 1849 – massive migration, generation of wealth, rapid development of political and economic institutions, California statehood† – I had always assumed that the Gate was named because of the Rush.  But that’s not the case.  (And my readers agree, with 100% of the respondents to the poll in my previous post saying the the Gate doesn’t owe its name to the Gold Rush.)

The Golden Horn Inspired the Name “Golden Gate”

The name was given by John C. Fremont, one of those larger-than-life men of the 19th century:  explorer, military governor of California, one of California’s first U.S. Senators, a Major General for the Union in the Civil War, and so on.  During the mid-1800s, he went on tremendous journeys around western North America – the Rocky Mountains; Oregon and California; the Great Basin; the Sierra Nevada mountains; the Mojave Desert– often traveling in lands were few white people had been (careful inspection of this map in the David Rumsey collection will show some routes of Fremont’s groups during 1843,1844, 1845, and 1846).

One of the journeys began in 1845, when Fremont headed a team of surveyors, other science experts, and several Native American guides (but no soldiers – remember that in these days the areas he was visiting were theoretically part of Mexico, and often controlled by Native American tribes).  They had been sent by Fremont’s father-in-law, Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri.  Benton hoped that explorations like these would enable procurement of more land for the nation – and more land for his slave-owning allies in the South (If my history is correct, the 1840s were a time when the Missouri Compromise was in effect, which specified that whether slavery would be allowed in new states admitted to the Union would be decided by popular vote in that state. It sounds simple, but in reality was much more complicated, as Professor David Blight masterfully explains in this lecture archived at Academic Earth, which is also available as video+audio or audio-only from iTunes U and other podcasting services).

In 1846, they reached California and spent some time exploring the state, visiting the Sacramento Valley, San Jose, Monterey (the seat of Mexico’s government in Alta California), and as far north as Klamath Lake – but, interestingly, not San Francisco.  After returning to the East, Fremont and colleagues wrote an official report of their journey and submitted it to the U.S. Senate.  In this report††, Fremont christened the Bay’s inlet “Chrysopylae”, Greek for golden gate.

In Fremont’s Words

Thanks to the expansive collection of old books in Google Books, I was able to find an 1849 reference to the Golden Gate from Fremont himself (and his deputy, Major Emory), in the Notes of Travel in California: comprising the geographical, agricultural, geological and biological features of the country, from the official reports of Col. Fremont and Maj. Emory (full text available at Google Books).  Here Fremont and Emory describe San Francisco Bay and its surrounding lands and waters, with the origin of the term Golden Gate in a footnote:

The bay of San Francisco is separated from the sea by low mountain ranges. Looking from the peaks of the Sierra Nevada, the coast mountains present an apparently continuous line, with only a single gap resembling a mountain pass. This is the entrance to the great bay and is the only water communication from the coast to the interior country. Approaching from the sea, the coast presents a bold outline. On the south, the bordering mountains come down in a narrow ridge of broken hills, terminating in a precipitous point against which the sea breaks heavily. On the northern side, the mountain presents a bold promontory, rising in a few miles to a height of two or three thousand feet. Between these points is the strait – about one mile broad, in the narrowest part, and five miles long from the sea to the bay. Passing through this gate,* the bay opens to the right and left, extending in each direction about 35 miles, having a total length of more than 70, and a coast of about 275 miles. It is divided, by straits and projecting points, into three separate bays, of which the northern two are called San Pablo and Suisoon [sic] bays. Within, the view presented is of a mountainous country, the bay resembling an interior lake of deep water, lying between parallel ranges of mountains. Islands which have the bold character of the shores – some mere masses of rock and others grass-covered rising to the height of three and eight hundred feet – break its surface and add to its picturesque appearance. Directly fronting the entrance mountains a few miles from the shore rise about 2,000 feet above the water, crowned by a forest of the lofty cypress, which is visible from the sea, and makes a conspicuous landmark for vessels entering the bay. Behind the rugged peak of Mount Diavolo [sic] nearly 4,000 feet high (3,770) overlooks the surrounding country of the bay and San Joaquin. [Ed. Note: this is on pp 22-23]


*Called Chrysopylae (Golden Gate) on the map on the same principle that the harbor of Byzantium (Constantinople afterwards) was called Chrysoceras (golden horn). The form of the harbor and its advantages for commerce (and that before it became an entrepot of eastern commerce), suggested the name to the Greek founders of Byzantium. The form of the entrance into the bay of San Francisco, and its advantages for commerce, (Asiatic inclusive) suggest the name which given to this entrance. [Ed. Notehere is an old map with a clear view of the Istanbul waterway known as the Golden Horn]

Below is a detail of the map that Fremont and his associates produced for the U.S. Senate, the “Map Of Oregon And Upper California From the Surveys of John Charles Fremont And other Authorities.”  In this detail, you can see that “Chrysopylae or Golden Gate” marks the entrance into San Francisco Bay.

detail of map of San Francisco Bay from David Rumsey Collection image number 1857001
Detail of 1848 map from the David Rumsey Map Collection

Another Description of the Golden Gate’s Naming

For another description of the naming, we turn to History of California, Volume 1, by Theodore Henry Hittell (published in 1898, full text available at Google Books), which has this as a footnote on pages 391-392, during a discussion of the travels of Juan de Ayala, a lieutenant in the Spanish royal navy, in 1775:

The name Golden Gate as applied to the entrance to San Francisco bay first appeared in John C. Fremont’s map of Oregon and California. That map was published at Washington in 1848. In the accompanying “Geographical Memoir upon Upper California in illustration of his Map of Oregon and California,” published at the same time, Fremont called the strait “about one mile broad, in the narrowest part, and five miles long from the sea to the bay” a gate. In an explanatory note to the word “gate,” he wrote, “Called Chrysopylae (Golden Gate) on the map on the same principle that the harbor of Byzantium Constantinople afterwards was called Chrysoceras (Golden Horn).” He added that, as the form of the harbor of Byzantium and its advantages for commerce suggested the name of the Golden Horn to the Greek founders of that city, so the form of the entrance into San Francisco bay and its advantages for commerce had suggested the name of the Golden Gate which had thus been given. – Senate Doc. 30 Con 1 Sess. Misc. No. 143, p. 32.

So that’s the story, as far as I can tell:  the men that wrote the official reports chose the name – even though they certainly weren’t the first Americans to visit the area,  an area that had plenty of names from the Spanish, who had been there for almost 100 years (but not many from the Native Americans, who had been there for thousands of years).  This leads to other questions, like “What else did Fremont name on this trip?” and “When and how did Golden Gate become official?”  I’ll take a look at the second question in a future post.


† The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill occurred in early 1848, and news of the discovery didn’t hit the rest of the world until late in the year, so it’s likely that Fremont’s crew had no idea about the discovery.  PBS’s American Experience has an informative documentary about the California Gold Rush and the significant social impact of the mass migration, available on DVD.

†† With the limited resources of Google Books, I haven’t been able to nail down the first time the Golden Gate was used, and so I’ll settle on the 1848 report to the Senate with the following biographical citation: “Geographical Memoir upon Upper California in illustration of his Map of Oregon and California” Senate Doc. 30 Con. 1 Sess. Misc No. 143, p. 32, 1848. (Someday I’ll pester the reference librarians in the UC Berkeley libraries to see if they can find the document in the University’s collections so I can see it for myself.  Or perhaps there are some other books about Fremont that reveal an earlier use of Golden Gate.)

Image Credits
Painting of Golden Gate Bridge by Ray Strong, 1934, from Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery.

San Francisco Bay map showing “Chrysopylae” is a detail of map from the David Rumsey Map Collection, “Map Of Oregon And Upper California From the Surveys of John Charles Fremont And other Authorities.” Drawn By Charles Preuss Under the Order of the Senate Of The United States, Washington City 1848. Lithy. by E. Weber & Co. Balto.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *