How and When Did Golden Gate Become the “Official” Name?

Berkeley and Golden Gate from Wikimedia Commons
Berkeley and the Golden Gate, between 1890 and 1905, from Wikimedia Commons

During the research for my previous post about the Golden Gate, I wondered how and when the Golden Gate become the “official” name.  What was the process for naming things in the 19th century? Did Fremont’s map for the U.S. Senate give “official” status to the name? Did the U.S. Government have a standing panel that approved the names of new parts of the country? Or was this something for the states to handle? Or did explorers lobby mapmakers to include their preferred names on the first editions of maps for new territories, thus giving the name some inertia? Or did names simply work their way onto maps through some kind of diffusion, appearing on one after another until the name becomes the de facto official name?  Of course, different processes applied to different places, with cities and counties requiring some sort of governmental action, while things like straits, rivers and mountains might be less formal.

Lacking the time or skill to look into the process of naming things in the 19th century (that’s something for another day, when I can go to the UC Berkeley library and pester a research librarian), I thought it would be interesting to look at the when part of the initial question.

Early Names for the Strait

Let’s first look at some of the earlier names for the strait, via yet another document in the Google Books collection, a 1907 monograph by George Davidson called The Discovery of the Bay of San Francisco and the Rediscovery of the Port of Monterey.  On pp. 137-138, Davidson has a lengthy exposition about the various names and descriptions for the strait (but oddly, for what is a scholarly work under the aegis of a scholarly organization, the Geographical Society of the Pacific, Davidson’s book lacks a bibliography or footnotes, so I don’t know the sources of the quotes below).  For the sake of brevity, I’ll summarize his findings in a table:

Who When What
Comandante Pedro Fagés 1772 “La Bocana de la Enseñada de los Farallones” (the large entrance to the Gulf of the Farallones)
Alexander Dalrymple 1790 “Entrance of the Famous Port of San Francisco”
Captain George Vancouver 1792 “The channel leading into this spacious port”
Langsdorff 1805 “This arm of the sea”
Otto Von Kotzebue 1824 “The channel which leads into this beautiful and spacious bay”
Captain F.W. Beechey 1826 No name given
Sir George Simpson 1841 “Strait about two miles in breadth”
Wilkes 1841 “The entrance to the harbor is striking. Bold and rocky shores confine the rush of the tide…”
Commodore Sloat and Captain Montgomery 1846 No name given after the seizure of the port of San Francisco from Mexico

The records found by Davidson indicate that the strait was nameless when Fremont got there, if we assume that the explorers listed above were familiar with the past and current writing and maps of the area, and therefor would have included things like “the strait was named X by Y in the previously published document Z” in their works, and that Davidson would have mentioned those citations.

When the Golden Gate Name Was First Used

To get a sense of when the name was first used, I went digging in the remarkable David Rumsey Map Collection.

The earliest non-Fremont map I found in the collection was Chart of the Farallones and Entrance to the Bay of San Francisco, published by Jno. T. Towers (Washington).  The map is marked 1850 below the title (but dated 1852 in the map collection’s bibliographic information).  This map was published, but by a private publisher — who was probably trying to get some of their own gold from the Rush — not by a government body, so we can’t really call it official. (Of course, the mapmaker could have gotten the name from an official document.)

A 1851 map from Cooke and Lecount (San Francisco) called State of California does not have the Golden Gate marked, but it covers the whole state, and with space a premium around San Francisco, they marked things like the points on the coast (“Boneta” [sic, see notes below] and “de los Lobos”) and the cities (including “Saucelita”, now called “Sausalito”). (Also of note is the absence of San Mateo and Alameda counties in the north — with San Francisco County covering the entire peninsula and Contra Costa County covering the entire east bay region — and the absence of Orange, Riverside, San Bernadino and Imperial counties in the south.)

An 1853 map from the U.S. Coast Survey called Reconnaissance of the Western Coast of the United States from San Francisco to San Diego…(by Lt. Alden) doesn’t denote the strait as “Golden Gate”, but since it covers a wide span of the coast, from Point Reyes in Marin County to Point Loma in San Diego County.

A very early official map of California called the Approved and declared to be the official map of the State of California by an act of the Legislature passed March 25th 1853 (California was admitted to the Union on September 9, 1850).  Here’s a detail of that map with Golden Gate marking the strait:

1853 California map from David Rumsey Collection 00434108
Detail of 1853 official map of California from the David Rumsey Map Collection

In Davidson’s The Discovery of the Bay…, he also reviews some early maps of the San Francisco Bay, noting that “Golden Gate” was used in an 1850 survey of the approaches and entrance to San Francisco by Commander Cadwalader Ringgold, U.S.N., but not in several documents published in 1851 and 1853.

So it looks like the Golden Gate name had seeped into an official nautical map in 1850 and was in a very early official map of published by the California government in 1853.  Whatever the actual earliest official mention happens to be, Fremont’s name was prophetic, preceding the nation-changing gold rush by just a few months, which forever associated San Francisco with gold.


Regarding “Point Boneta”, on page 139, in The Discovery of the Bay of San Francisco and the Rediscovery of the Port of Monterey, Davidson writes:

It may be mentioned in this connection that for a while after the occupation of California by the United States the spelling of the name of the north head of the Golden Gate was undecided but the United States Coast Survey finally settled upon Point Bonita. The proper name is Bonete the hat worn by some of the clergy When a vessel was approaching the north point she would see three heads each of which resembled the bonete and the point is referred to in old Spanish documents under that designation. The southern of the three has been cut down to give a lower position for the light house because the fogs sometimes lie well above the surface of the sea.

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