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What’s in a name? Pismo, Morro and Cayucos have some answers

Jim Gregory’s “San Luis Obispo County Outlaws: Desperados, Vigilantes and Bootleggers” sets the Prohibition era in SLO County in lively contexts. Gregory will present a talk and book signing at Mission San Luis Obispo’s Parish Hall at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
Jim Gregory’s “San Luis Obispo County Outlaws: Desperados, Vigilantes and Bootleggers” sets the Prohibition era in SLO County in lively contexts. Gregory will present a talk and book signing at Mission San Luis Obispo’s Parish Hall at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

What’s in a name? “Pismo” means “tar” in the language of the Salinan and Chumash Native Americans. The Franciscan missionaries spelled it “Pizmo” or “Pismu” when they asked the name of the black resin that the Chumash used to caulk their tomols, the driftwood plank canoes that navigated out to the Santa Barbara Channel Islands.

The tar springs in Price Canyon near Pismo Beach were a leading source of pismu.

The meaning of “Morro” is less certain. Many locals will tell you that Sebastián Vizcaíno and early explorers of the California Coast thought the volcanic rock “resembled a Moor’s turban.”

The Moors were driven from Spain in 1492. It’s unlikely that Vizcaíno, who was in California in 1602 and 1603, ever saw a Moor. By that time, most Europeans were more clearly focused on the Ottoman Turks and their huge turbans.

The connection between Morro Rock and a “Moor’s turban” is a bit tenuous. “Morro” is a Spanish term meaning “the promontory” or hill. On the outskirts of many Spanish cities, the Moorish conquerors (after 711) might build their fortified headquarters on hills.

Cayucos is the Spanish term for the dugout or tule canoes, very different from the Chumash tomols that explorers observed along the coast north of Point Sal.

In 1842, Rancho Moro y Cayucos was granted to Martin Olivera, from Rancho Sausal in Monterey County, and to Vicente Feliz, former mayordomo of another rancho. When I wrote several articles using the single “r” spelling for “Morro” in the 1980s, the chair of Cal Poly’s modern languages wrote a letter attacking “those who desecrate the Spanish language.” Another writer for this paper said I “ruined my career as a historian.”

The following week, I published an exact copy of the land grant with the single “r” in Morro. I simply commented that standardized spelling is a recent matter of the past 200 years in most European languages.

I’ll be speaking about the history of the Rancho Moro y Cayucos at 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 14, at the Morro Bay Library, 625 Harbor St. The event is free.

Prohibition connection

Pismo Beach, Cayucos and Morro Bay acquired notoriety during Prohibition. Because of their remoteness and the fact that the Coast Guard originally had only two aging patrol boats to guard against rum runners, the beach towns soon filled with illicit activities. Some locals, especially along the North Coast, were active participants in smuggling booze. Most locals “just turned in the other direction.”

Jim Gregory’s “San Luis Obispo County Outlaws: Desperados, Vigilantes and Bootleggers” sets the Prohibition era in SLO County in lively contexts.

Jim takes us to when “Al Capone stopped briefly for a game of billiards at the Waldorf Club in Pismo Beach — today, Chele’s Restaurant on Pomeroy Avenue. In December 1927, he needed the relaxation. Chicago was a tough place, and he had never seen the beautiful California coast before.” Capone returned to Chicago in time to avenge his issues with the Bugs Moran Gang in the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre.

Jim’s account of the July 1922 Arroyo Grande “raid” is both sad and hilarious. After many students at Arroyo Grande High showed up in various states of intoxication, the state superintendent of instruction was notified. 27 prohibition agents were sent to “bust the Arroyo Grande Boys.”

Readers are invited to Jim’s talk and book signing in the 1850s-era courtroom and juzgado, Mission San Luis Obispo’s Parish Hall, on Wednesday, Oct. 11 at 7 p.m. It’s free and sponsored by the Mission Docents.

Jim will also talk and sign books at the Railroad Museum, 1940 Santa Barbara St., SLO, at 11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 14, as part of the Central Coast Railroad Festival.

Dan Krieger is professor of history, emeritus at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.

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