conundrum for local historians is a factual account of where Chino got its name.

There are numerous theories, most of them disproved. For many years I’ve gone with the explanation provided me by Thomas Clay Mayhew, grandson of pioneer farmer Jesse Mayhew who settled in the Rincon area in 1866. In a letter to me after I arrived here in the late 1950s he said:

“The name (given to the ranch in 1841) is translated to mean Ranch Saint Ann of the Fair Hair. By no stretch of imagination could it mean Ranch Saint Ann of the Chinaman.”  Jesse Mayhew came to California in 1849 with Robert Carlisle and purchased 2,200 acres in the valley from the Carlisle estate. His family’s version was confirmed to me by descendants of Jesus Villa, a refugee from Mexico who settled here in 1830. I felt it to be the most authentic one available.

Up to my reporting this in 1971 there had been a variety of explanations, all based on various translations of the Spanish term “Chino,” which could mean either curly or China. Among them were reference to the curly-leafed willow trees on the ranch, the reportedly curly headed half-breed Indian majordomo (foreman) on the ranch operated by the San Gabriel Mission, and the wavy grass in the valley.

The name Chino is not exclusive to this area. There is a Chino Valley near Prescott, Arizona which apparently was named Vad de China in 1854 by a U.S. Army lieutenant who noted that the abundant growth of grama grass, a drought-resistant forage plant, was called “de china” by the local Mexican population. Erwin G. Gudde, in his California Place Names, said that “Chino” appears as China on maps prior to 1830. It was believed that the name had been applied by a padre from the San Gabriel Mission which controlled the area before the land grants to Don Antonio.

Tom Mayhew, known here as Clay, was the first Chino High graduate to attend Cal and ended up being a neighbor of my boyhood home in Berkeley where he served with the UC agricultural department before I ever heard of Chino. Descendants of Jesus Villa family later told me of singing the lullaby to St. Ann as children. 

Edwin Rhodes, in his “Break of Day in Chino” (1951) says the early mission lands were known as Santa Ana because of the proximity of the Santa Ana River, and locally was changed to Santa Ana del Chino to distinguish it from other land grant properties bearing the Santa Ana name.

The dictionary of California Land Names compiled by Phil Townsend Hanna says the name is unrevealed, according to my 1982 column after I did some research. L.A. Ingersoll, compiler of the History of San Bernardino County over 100 years ago, liked the curly-leafed willow version. 

Of course, chino also means “kinky” in a variation of Spanish applied to the “rough” jeans that bear the name. 

Historians are never satisfied, and as a result I have come to accept another version. In a 1925 Champion I stumbled across a reference to a story carried in “The Don," the official publication of the then newly established Los Serranos Country Club, written by Eugene C. Broderick, said to have been a direct descendant of Don Antonio Maria Lugo, receiver of the local land grant from first Spain, then Mexico. According to the 1925 Champion, the story “clears the blot that has been placed upon the name of Chino by scoffers and forever dispels the thought” that Chino is derived from curly as applying to willows or other trees, grass or hair, or Chinaman and other “unseemly” derivations. Because the story comes from the family of Don Lugo, the editor felt it was authentic “and cannot in any way be doubted.”

The Champion article admitted that the record was obscure but that the best available information was that a Spaniard from a ranch in Sinaloa, Mexico came to this country shortly after the padres claimed the land. He called it Chino, a word that apparently also meant “little sparkling water” in an Indian dialect. This had been the name of his ranch in Sinaloa, “a fact which somewhat recent discoveries has established.

“The ranch fairly bubbles with artesian wells” it was noted. 

Knowing that artesian wells here sustained the large herds of horse and cattle of the early ranch days, and that water from the lush underground Chino Basin has long benefited local agriculture, I believe there is validity to this version also. It is quite likely that the Saint Ann translation was nevertheless easily adopted by those early settlers.

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