Alcatraz (KQED Perspective aired Oct. 6, 2000)

When the Moors invaded and conquered Spain and Portugal in the 8th century AD
they brought with them more than just superb architecture. Most of the
Spanish words that begin with al- Alhambra, Almaden, Alameda, alcohol,
algebra for example – are Arabic in origin. Al is the article “the”. To the
Moors a bucket on an irrigation wheel that scoops up water was called an “al
catraz”. The Moors thought that pelicans scooped up water in their large bill
to carry to their young in the desert. So they named the pelican – the
“alcatraz”. They don’t actually do that. To the Spanish seafarers the word
eventually came to mean not just pelicans but any seabird. The word was
further corrupted into albatross.

When the first European, Juan Manuel de Ayala sailed into San Francisco Bay
in 1775, the local Costanoan Indians met him. Of course, these native peoples
already had names for all the geographic features of the area but that didn’t
stop ole Juan. His first morning in the Bay he was anchored near a tiny dense
patch of trees, so he named that place Saucelito, which means a small thicket
of willows. The first island that he visited he called Isla de Los Angeles or
Angel Island, after the Spanish tradition of naming places after the Catholic
Feast days closest to the discovery date. A nearby island he christened
Alcatraz after the thousands of pelicans and other seabirds wheeling around
it. However the island he named Alcatraz was actually the one we now call
Yerba Buena. How did this happen? Well an Englishmen sailing into the Bay
made a typographical error in 1826. Captain FW Beechey accidentally
transcribed the name Alcatraz onto a much smaller island thereby cementing
the mistake into the Royal Navy’s nautical charts. Yerba Buena Island was
perhaps named for a common native mint. So two mistakes – one a typo and the
other an observational mistake resulted in the name of the most popular
tourist attraction in the Bay. This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

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August 6, 2009