When I arrived in California and the Bay Area, my attention was drawn to the numerous Spanish place names scattered everywhere. Although some contain grammatical, syntactic and phonetic errors, their sheer numbers are impressive: Tiburon, Corte Madera, San Anselmo, San Rafael, Lagunitas, Nicasio.
I had mixed feelings about seeing my familiar language in a strange, rich, modern land, where it is often mispronounced, where its meaning is lost, and where it is used only to identify places.
The origin of many names associated with saints—San or Santa—is obvious, given the state’s Spanish Catholic past, but other names like Point Reyes, not so much. I was not surprised to learn that “Reyes” concerned the three wise men of the East, those mythical kings who, according to legend, brought gifts to the newborn baby who had come to redeem the world, initiating the Christian era whose traditions and calendar still govern us.
I thought, then, that on Jan. 6, the day that Catholic tradition devotes to those kings, there would be some local celebration, at least at the church in Olema. But no, not even the Latino immigrants of that time, and they were numerous, did anything. They knew that, traditionally, children ask for toys from the Magi that day, like Santa Claus at Christmas, but nothing more.
But was Point Reyes Station not founded by Spaniards and inhabited by Mexicans before becoming part of the United States?
According to Wikipedia, Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino called the area Punta de los Reyes, or Point of the Kings, because he anchored in Drakes Bay on Jan. 6, 1603, the day of those kings. Yet this vast northern territory of New Spain, the main Spanish colony of the Americas, was virtually neglected and it was not until the latter half of the 18th century that the Spaniards discovered its potential when the English, French and Russians became interested in this rich coastal area. Then Spain sent the governor of Baja California, Gaspar de Portolá, to explore it to establish presidios and missions.
In 1817, with the struggle for Mexican independence underway, the Spaniards established the Mission of San Rafael Archangel to Christianize the native Miwoks and explore Punta de los Reyes. The Miwoks, devastated by disease and other calamities brought by the outsiders, refused to meet the demands of the missionaries, who were in need of indigenous labor.
When Mexico became independent from Spain in 1821, the immense land holdings of almost all of the California missions were subdivided and granted for cattle raising. The Point Reyes area was deemed unsuitable for this purpose and became part of Rancho Punta de los Reyes Sobrante.
In 1836 that territory was granted to Rafael Garcia, a corporal in the Mexican army. Other Mexicans also wanted to obtain land, but without fulfilling the mandate of actually living on the land, and illegal sales and general chaos proliferated. In 1844, landowners asked the Mexican government to clarify ownership of the lands in question and to grant titles. Although the ranchers eventually achieved ownership, they were later forced to sell the properties to repay debts.
The newly arrived Americans took advantage of these sales after 1847, when the United States defeated Mexico in a one-sided war whose hidden purpose was to expand the country to the Pacific coast. After its defeat, and as part of a subsequent agreement, Mexico “sold” half of its territory, including California, to the United States.
Olema came into existence in what is now West Marin when a hotel and bar were built there in 1857. Three years later, it was the commercial center of the area. When the railroad arrived in 1875, Olema was bypassed in favor of Point Reyes Station, mostly due to pressure from the powerful Shafter brothers. By 1880, due to the demand for services by train passengers, Point Reyes Station had a hotel, bar, stable, blacksmith shop, butcher shop and school. In 1882 a post office arrived and, a year later, a store.
The name Point Reyes, a mixture of English and Spanish, would seem to have no connection to the Three Magi, as it would if it were called, for example, Point Tres Reyes. Melchior, Gaspar and Balthazar are well-known names to Latino children who, on Jan. 6, expect gifts from the three kings to whom they have written letters expressing their wishes. So since Point Reyes Station was not founded by Spaniards, it never celebrated the three wise kings who came to worship the Messiah some 2019 years ago—if we want to believe in this calendaring tradition.
Victor Reyes is a Cotati resident with decades-long ties to the Point Reyes Light.