What’s in a name? In Stanislaus County, pioneering history.
Stanislaus County is a region rich with agriculture, native history, and technological progression. Its name first stemmed from the Stanislaus River, which was commemorated to honor a Native American warrior.
Chief Estanislao was a member of the Laquisimas tribe, which was a division of the California Northern Yoquts, and named after St. Stanislaus, a patron saint of Poland. He attained an education at Mission San Jose and worked as a “vaquero” (mule breaker).
After learning about an upcoming onslaught of invaders from the South, Estanislao decided to lead his brethren to freedom from the Mexican army. He escaped the mission and initiated a troop of fellow tribe members to annex the Mexicans. Despite Estanislao’s efforts, the tribe members were defeated.
The last battle was along what is known today as the Stanislaus River, and was commonly known as “Rio de Estanislao” until American occupants began to populate the Valley. An explorer named Captain John C. Fremont came to Rio de Estanislao on March 27, 1844, and translated the name to Stanislaus in his diary. Since then, the name has garnered greater attention, and even led the entire region to be known as Stanislaus County.
Equally important is the history of its county seat, Modesto.
Despite having a population of over 200,000 citizens, and ranking in the top 20 of largest cities in California today, not many residents in the Central Valley or Stanislaus County have any idea as to why the City of Modesto holds a unique name.
Modesto was originally just a stop on the transcontinental railroad that stretched from Sacramento to Los Angeles, and boasted a sea of agriculture that would soon have settlers prophesying their future livelihood.
In 1870, the town was originally declared to be named after William Chapman Ralston, founder and president of the Bank of San Francisco, and director of the Central Pacific Railroad that connected the newly formed city to the Bay Area. Ralston possessed a progressive stance in his endeavors, and was well known for building San Francisco’s $6 million Palace Hotel. He was referred to as one of “the most resourceful and daring of the West Coast’s financiers.”
The Central Pacific railroad chose the name Ralston for the new town, but when informed of their decision, Ralston negated the choice and believed himself a modest man incapable of accepting such an honor. According to legend, one of the Spanish-speaking railroad workers declared Ralston was “muy modesto” (very modest) at the naming ceremony. Though it is unknown whether the legend is fact, the name stuck.
“This is what has been passed down, but no one knows the exact details behind the story,” said Ellen LaCoste, senior administrative assistant for the McHenry Museum and Historical Society.
In 1884, the city was incorporated into Stanislaus County as Modesto and had over 1,000 residents. The town grew significantly with irrigation, dams, and railroad traffic. In 1911 a contest was run to determine the town slogan, which became “Modesto — Water, Wealth, Contentment, Health.”
In 1912, Oramil McHenry, son of the original occupants of the historical McHenry Mansion in Modesto, presented a library to the City of Modesto, which is used today as the McHenry Museum and Historical Society. The Historical Society, which is located at 1402 I Street in Modesto, features the history of Modesto and American Indian relics of Stanislaus County.
For more information, call the McHenry Museum and Historical Society at 577-5235.
— BROOKE BORBA /
209 staff reporter