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Arts & Culture

The Source: Give Me A Home Where The Sea Elephants Roamed


California seems to be getting it from both sides. The state is in a serious drought at the same time coastal areas are studying ways to avoid being drowned. This is nothing new, according to Kay Norman of Orinda.

“Many millions of years ago Orinda used to be under a shallow sea,” she tells school groups at the Orinda Historical Society. The children are dazzled to hear that sea elephants might have been swimming by “right where [they] are sitting.”

But the story of present-day Orinda, with dry, golden hills and not a sea elephant for miles, starts in the early 1800s. That’s when a man from Massachusetts named John Marsh arrived in California. Local history says that he’s known as the first non-Hispanic white settler in what is now Contra Costa County. And he’s thought to be the first person to practice Western medicine in California. Marsh charged dearly for his services; one report says his fee for delivering a baby was a head of cattle. Such hard-nosed business practices helped Marsh become a wealthy cattle baron.  

Speaking of babies, Marsh and his wife Abigail had a daughter named Alice.  When Alice was 19 she attracted the attention of the local deputy sheriff, William Camron.  They wed and Camron started buying property, using his wife’s funds.

Alice named their tract in the Berkeley hills Orinda Park. Why? Kay Norman says the new Mrs. Camron “was very interested in a 17th Century English poetess, Katherine Fowler Philips,” founder of a social circle called The Society of Friendship.  Members took on a “poetic personae” for their meetings. The name the founder chose was Orinda. Her friends, who considered her to be without peer, added to that, calling her The Matchless Orinda.

While that’s accepted as the inspiration for the town’s name, no one is sure who, or what, an “Orinda” is.

“The first rumor I heard,” Kay Norman relates, “was that it was an Egyptian breadfruit. But another idea says it’s of Latin origin, and possibly related to the Spanish word, oro, meaning gold. Or it might be a variant of the Spanish word, linda, meaning ‘pretty.’”

The Spanish connection would seem to have some merit, since Orinda is located on land that was part of Spanish ranchos. Relics from the Conquistadors - unearthed in back yards - are on display at the Historical Society Museum. But poet Philips, The Matchless Orinda, would not have known this.

Such ambiguity seems appropriate, though, for a place-name inspired by an imaginative poet from another time.