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Origin of the Name of Mount Diablo

by Mariano Vallejo, Dan McLeod and Randall Milliken


Mt. Diablo translates, more or less, to the "Devils Peak", but that is the modern name for it, and the Indians no doubt knew Mt. Diablo by another name that is now lost to us. But we do know that the peak figured prominently in their creation myths. To the Spaniards the mountain was known as "Cerro Alto de los Bolbones", which translates to the "High Hill of the Bolbones" - the Bolbones (Volvones) being a band of Bay Miwok Indians who lived in their village of Volvon in the shadow of the mountain.

The name Mt. Diablo is thought by many to derive from a skirmish near the base of the mountain between Spanish soldiers and the Chupcan, a Bay Miwok tribelet related to the Bolbones. The skirmish is thought to have taken place at a site near the present city of Concord. A Chupcan medicine man, adorned in feathers and paint, suddenly emerged during the fight from the bushes, waving his arms and screaming wildly. The dance of this shaman so excited the Chupcan that they fought with renewed vigor, momentarily routing the Spaniards, and then escaping into the woods. The thicket of shrubs from whence the wild man appeared came to be known as "monte del diablo", or the "devil's woods". Later non-Spanish speaking settlers, confusing "monte" with "mount", corrupted this to Mount Diablo, and assumed that it applied to the high hill of the Bolbones.

The story of the Spanish encounter with the Chupcans originated from an 1850 report that General Mariano Vallejo presented to the California State Senate to explain how Contra Costa County got its name. An extract from this report follows.

"Mount Diablo, which occupies a conspicuous place in modern maps, is in the centre of this County [Contra Costa]. It was intended so to call the County, but both branches of the Legislature, after warm debates on the subject (the representatives of the County opposing the proposed name), resolved upon the less profane name of " Contra Costa." The following is the history of "Mount Diablo" (Mount Devil): In 1806 a military expedition from San Francisco marched against the tribe "Bolgones," who were encamped at the foot of the Mount; the Indians were prepared to receive the expedition, and a hot engagement ensued in the large hollow fronting the western side of the Mount. As the victory was about to be decided in favor of the Indians, an unknown personage, decorated with, the most extraordinary plumage, and making divers movements, suddenly appeared near the combatants. The Indians were victorious, and the incognito (Puy) departed towards the Mount."

"The defeated soldiers, on ascertaining that the spirit went through the same ceremony daily and at all hours, named the mount "Diablo," in allusion to its mysterious inhabitant, that continued thus to make his strange appearance, until the tribe was subdued by the troops in command of Lieut. Gabriel Moraga, in a second campaign of the same year. In the aboriginal tongue "Puy" signifies Evil Spirit; in Spanish it means Diablo, and doubtless it signifies Devil in the Anglo-American language."

Dean McLeod, a historian with the Bay Point Historical Society, quotes an interview from a Chupcan Indian named Eccuse that presents a different perspective. McLeod does not provide us with the source for this interview, but implies that Eccuse was an eyewitness who provides a first-hand account of the event. A guess as to the origin of the interview might be that it was one of several conducted about 1874 by Enrique Cerruti, when he was collecting eye-witness accounts for a history of California that Hubert Howe Bancroft was researching.

"Just before acorn harvest time all our fears came to pass. Our southern scouts ran into the main village one afternoon shouting that the soldiers were coming. They had been seen on the western side of the Great Mountain, coming with their horses, their thunder sticks and their powerful magic. There was near panic in the villages. Our wise men talked and planned for the safest defense. It was decided that the soldiers would arrive near the village as it was getting dark and would not want to fight. We built big fires that night. We feasted on the food too heavy to carry. The men danced and sang loudly as the women and children packed our possessions into the tule boats."

"As the singing and dancing continued, the children were rowed quietly across the bay to the villages of the Suisuns. It took many hours. Late in the night, with the fires still burning brightly, the men rowed the women across. Just before morning, the last of our people left the villages of our people, to keep from being killed by the white soldiers."

Finally, to put these two accounts into perspective we have the version that follows from the late Randall Milliken, a professor at the University of California at Davis, who draws upon more than twenty years of research on the Indians of the San Francisco Area. Milliken corrects Vallejo's dates, and brings in mission records and military accounts, whereas Vallejo relied solely on his memory of an event that took place more than fifty years prior before Vallejo was even born. The quote below is from Milliken et al. (2009, p. 111).

"Circumstantial evidence indicates the Chupcans were involved in the 1804 altercation in Suisun lands that led to the 14 deaths (Milliken 1995:182, 204). A Spanish military expedition under Luís Peralta raided the main Chupcan town in the present Concord area in September of 1804. The majority of the resident Chupcans avoided capture by slipping away at night across Suisun Bay on tule boats. (The odd spectacle of burning fires, but no people, in the village that night seems to have generated the Spanish tale of Monte del Diablo, later the source of the name of Mount Diablo [Milliken 1995:184-185]."


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