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Origins of the Name of Marin County

Was our beautiful county named after a Miwok chief or a body of water? Here are our theories.



Of the many intriguing names in Marin County—Nicasio, Sausalito, Bon Tempe, Blithedale, etc.—few have a more clouded origin than Marin.

Going back centuries, several minor saints were dubbed Marius, implying “of the sea.” Over time, Marius became a Roman family name. As the years passed, the Italian derivative Marino emerged as did Marin, the Spanish adaptation.

One possibly valid genesis for the name Marin took place in 1775, when Spanish Naval Lieutenant Juan Manuel Ayala became the first European to enter the San Francisco Bay. While spending 40 days charting the bay’s surroundings, Lt. Ayala named the inlet between what is now Marin’s San Pedro Point and Point San Quentin Bahia de Nuestra Senora del Rosario la Marinera, meaning Bay of Our Lady of the Rosary, the Mariner. Many assume that Marin became an abbreviation of that rather lengthy nomenclature.

The other, possibly more accepted source of the name Marin, involves an Indian chief, Chief Marin, who died either in 1834 or 1848, the year of which has never been firmly established. Prior to his death, Chief Marin reportedly roamed the area that is now mostly Marin County gaining varying reputations as a warrior, peacemaker, landowner and/or mariner. Furthering the futility, many historians claim his nickname was El Marinero, which alludes to Ayala’s 1775 naming of a bay in what is now Marin County. So which came first? Obviously, the bay did.

Adding to the confusion, the name Marin is of Latin or Spanish origin, hardly part of the Coastal Miwok Indian lexicon, a tribe to which the chief supposedly belonged. Would any Indian chief, real or supposed, allow that to occur?

Nevertheless, if a conclusion regarding the name Marin is needed, it may appear in Louise Teather’s exhaustively researched book Place Names of Marin (Scottwall Associates, 1986). “The name Marin,” writes Teather, “honors a legendary Indian who was either a great chief or a skilled sailor, or one and then the other; or (it honors) a Spanish name given during the first charting of the bay in 1775; or all of the above.”

You can make your own choice: Is it A or B? Or both?

Photos by Kglavin (top) and Stepheng3 (bottom) from Wikimedia Commons

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