How the Golden Gate Got Its Name

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How the Golden Gate Got Its Name
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Golden Gate Bridge spanning the Golden Gate Strait. (Photo courtesy of flickr.com/photos/groundzero. …

If you believe that San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge is named after the straits of the waterway known as the Golden Gate, you would be correct. But have you ever wondered how the Golden Gate got its name? Actually, it has nothing to do with the fact that California is known as the Golden State. Nor has it any connection to the 1849 Gold Rush. It's not about the color of the bridge, either; that color is called international orange. The Golden Gate is named after the Greek word for a harbor in Istanbul, Turkey.

Golden Gate Strait

Written reports of the strait were not made until Spanish naval explorers got through successfully in the summer of 1775, nearly two centuries after Sir Francis Drake had come looking about the area on behalf of Queen Elizabeth I. Could fog have obscured the passage from his view? The mile-wide entrance to the San Francisco Bay from the Pacific Ocean is known to be a treacherous and deep one, with powerful tidal currents running up to 7.5 knots, about 8.5 miles per hour. Dense fog and rocky reefs have contributed to the 100-odd shipwrecks thought to rest beneath this 3-mile stretch.

The Spanish Connection

Lt. Juan Manuel de Ayala y Aranza was the Andalusian naval officer assigned to explore northern California by vessel, the royal military officials hoping that he would hook up with Juan Bautista de Anza, who was leading the land expedition. Although they missed one another, Ayala lucked out on weather and made it to Angel Island, now named for him. Resting there, he named the island now known as Yerba Buena Island "Isla de Alcatraces" for the abundant brown pelicans resting on it, a name later transferred to Alcatraz Island. The strait itself was simply called "Boca del Puerto de San Francisco," the mouth of the port of San Francisco, until 1846.

Enter John Charles Fremont

Born out of wedlock in Savannah, Georgia, in 1813, John Charles Fremont headed out west as a soldier and explorer, writing and mapping throughout his expeditions of the Missouri River, Lake Tahoe, the Sierra Nevadas, and the Oregon Trail, eventually reaching California. What followed was a flamboyant career of political and personal ups and downs, including service as military governor of California, United States senator, Civil War general, and unsuccessful presidential candidate, but also involving an arrest for mutiny, a trial, and a guilty verdict.

Golden Horn

The naming of the Golden Gate Strait was referenced by Fremont in his 1848 memoirs submitted to the U.S. Senate, writing, "To this Gate I gave the name of 'Chrysopylae' or 'Golden Gate' for the same reasons that the harbor of Byzantium was called Chrysoceras, or Golden Horn." In 1846, prior to the discovery of gold in California, Fremont envisioned rich commercial opportunities at the passageway of the Golden Gate, just as Constantinople's Golden Horn had served for centuries as a gateway to and from the Orient.

Historical Marker

A California Historical Marker No. 181 at Fremont Peak in San Juan Bautista commemorates the spot of an 1846 standoff with the Mexicans. The inscription reads in part, "Besides his military activities in California, Fremont is remembered for giving San Francisco's 'Golden Gate' its name..."

And so, for trivia and pub quizzes: The Golden Gate is named for the Golden Horn adjoining the narrow that connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara at Istanbul. This is the unlikely but true story of how the Golden Gate got its Greek-derived name from an American explorer from Georgia buried in New York.

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