Legends Of The “Devil” Mountain Of California
Mount Diablo has a unique story to be told that is as outstanding in its natural and human history as the mountain itself is in its sheer physical dominance over Contra Costa County. Located on the western edge of the San Joaquin Valley, about thirty-eight miles northeast of San Francisco, Mount Diablo stands as one of the most prominent natural landmarks in the Bay Area. It occupies almost the exact geographic center of Contra Costa County and dramatically rises above the surrounding foothills.
Perhaps no other mountain in California has received as much attention from writers and historians as has Mount Diablo. It is small when compared to Mount Shasta, Mount Wilson or Mount Whitney, but its isolation from other mountain peaks makes it an imposing feature on the landscape of the entire Bay Area.
Part of Mount Diablo’s uniqueness centers around the many legends dealing with the origin of the name “Monte del Diablo” (mountain of the devil). The Costanoan Indians of western part of Contra Costa County called the mountain peak “Kah Woo Koom,” which has been translated as both “Everywhere Seen” and “Laughing Mountain.”
The 1865—1866 session of the California State Legislature defeated a motion to have the mountain’s name changed back to its original Costanoan Indian name. The support for the name change came from a group of poets who lived at the foot of the mountain. These poets felt that the name, “devil mountain,” was not very appropriate for such a beautiful mountain. The State Senate’s Committee on Public Morals reported that as far as the name Diablo was concerned, there was “nothing in the name that needed to be offensive.” The committee also reported that it did not have authority to change a name that was used on maps and atlases throughout the world.
One of the more interesting legends about the mountain is that told by General Mariano Vallejo in his April 16, 1850 report to the California Legislature. He gave the following report on the origin of Mount Diablo’s name in its Spanish form:
In 1806 a military expedition from San Francisco marched against the tribe “Bolgones,” who were encamped at the foot of the mount; the Indians were prepared to receive the expedition, and a hot engagement ensued in the large hollow fronting the western side of the mount; as the victory was about to be decided in favor of the Indians, an unknown personages decorated with the most extraordinary plumage, and making divers movements, suddenly appeared near the combatants. The Indians were victorious, and the incognito (puy) departed toward the mount. The defeated soldiers, on ascertaining that the spirit went through the same ceremony daily and at all hours, named the mount “Diablo”, in allusion to its mysterious inhabitant, that continued thus to make his appearance until the tribe was subdued by troops in the command of Lieutenant Gabriel Moraga, in a second campaign of the same year. In the aboriginal tongue “puy” signifies “evil spirit,” in Spanish it means “diablo” and doubtless it signifies “devil” in the Ang1o-American language.
It is interesting to note that in this same report General Vallejo stated that there was a movement within the legislature to name the entire county “Diablo County.” However, both branches of the legislature, after heated debate selected the less profane name of “Contra Costa County.”
Another legend, said to have been preserved in the archives of one of the old Spanish Missions, deals with Mount Diablo and the “evils of gold.” According to this legend, shortly after the Spanish Padres arrived in California in 1769, the Indians brought them gifts as a tribute. Among the gifts were gold nuggets from a high mountain adjacent to San Francisco Bay. The good Padres wanted to forestall a search for gold and feared that this gold would prove to be a destroyer of all their pastoral plans. The Padres took the gold, secretly poisoned it, and then placed it in a tub of water. The obedient Indians were then directed to have their dogs drink of the poisoned water. When the dogs died the Padres quickly pointed out to the Indians that the gold was the cause of the dogs’ death and this bright metal would bring about the destruction of the Indians and their land if they used it as a medium of exchange. From that time on, the Indians carefully avoided the mountain from which the gold was obtained. The mountain was held to be of diabolical origins and they named it Monte del Diablo or “Devil’s Mountain.”
Still another legend tells of a group of Spaniards who were climbing Mount Diablo and met an Indian spirit or “would be spirit.” This spirit lived in a cave and was disturbed by the Spaniards approaching its living quarters. The spirit suddenly came out of its cave and appeared dressed with bright feathers and war paint. The Spaniards attempted to offer it gifts and tribute, but the spirit refused these offerings and made motions for the intruders to leave. One of the Spaniards managed to lasso this spirit with a lariat and the spirit shouted to be released. When the Indians of the area were told about this incident, they pointed to the mountain and muttered “cucusy.” The Spaniards translated this word as meaning “devil.”
Author Titus Fey Cronise wrote in THE NATURAL WEALTH OF CALIFORNIA, published in 1868, that about 1814, an expedition of Spanish soldiers was sent from the presidio of San Francisco to punish raiding Indians who were roaming through this portion of the Coast Range Mountains. The soldiers finally caught- up with the Indians and during the ensuing fight, three of the soldiers were killed and the others quickly retreated to a small hill about seven miles north of Diablo’s summit where they could defend themselves. The soldiers posted a sentry at night on a nearby ridge. This sentry suddenly saw a “spectral figure of colossal proportions flying through the air towards the hill where his comrades lay sleeping.” The terrified sentry cried out, “El Diablo, El Diablo!” The soldiers did not fear the Indians as much as the Devil and quickly fled from this spot which thereafter was known as “Monte Diablo.”
What was the “spectral figure of colossal proportions”? Some local historians claim this fight between the Indians and Spanish soldiers took place where there was a small spring and fireflies. The fireflies were often seen near an Indian burial ground and had frightened the Indians who thought they were the spirits of their dead ancestors. Could these fireflies have been the “spectral figure” that terrified the sentry?
Early American settlers in the area tell their versions of how the mountain was named. According to one version, a group of California dons was chasing horse-thieving Indians around the mountain. Suddenly, the Spanish dons met a band of robbers coming down the mountain. The bandits were laden with packs of stolen goods and the dons decided to chase them instead of the Indians. While chasing the bandits halfway up the summit of the mountain, the bandits entered a cave that suddenly began to pour out flames and loud roars. The frightened dons quickly left and were convinced that the bandits had been helped by the “devil” himself and that this “devil mountain” should be avoided by all in the area.
The most colorful of the American legends is that told by the novelist and poet -Bret Harte, who visited the region in the early 1880’s. He left the following legend on the origin of the name Mount Diablo, On a hot day in August of 1772, Father Jose Antonio Haro climbed to the top of the mountain to get a view of the countryside and make plans for his future work among the aborigines of the area. While kneeling in deep prayer at the summit, the Devil suddenly appeared in his plumed hat and ordered the Padre to look below. The Devil then conjured a vision out of the fog that showed the cavalcades of Castile and Aragon--the glory of Old Spain — marching from the ravines and canyons of the mountain and finally boarding ships to sail out to sea. The meaning of the vision was clear to the Padre. The glory of Spain would pass forever from this land.
The Devil then said to the Padre, “Thou has beheld, Sir Priest, the fading footprints of adventurous Castile. Thou has seen the declining glory of Old Spain.”
The good Padre was quick to reply, “The seed they have planted shall thrive and prosper on this fruitful soil.”
The Devil then directed the Padre to look to the east, across the crest of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and again he conjured a vision out of the fog. This time the vision was of blue-eyed, flaxen-haired Saxons – the fortyniners – crossing the Sierras and descending its passes into California. The meaning of the vision was again clear. If the Padre stayed, all of the nearby land and California would pass into the hands of these Saxons (Americans).
The Devil spoke again to the Padre, “If you go back to Castile and leave me here in peace, you will avert this issue for a time -and you shall not lack anything to make your old age a blessing.”
The Padre shouted back in anger, “Diabolus, I defy thee.” As we now know, this vision did come true when the Americans replaced the Spaniards in all of California
Some authorities claim that Devil Mountain really represents a misnaming of the mountain based upon English translations of the Spanish word “monte.” The early American explorers passing through the area in the 1840’s thought that “monte” was the Spanish for “mountain,” but it is actually a Spanish word for “woods or thicket “ These authorities go on to claim that the name Monte Diablo was actually that of an Indian village located where the present-day city of Concord now stands. In the 1800’s, a fight took place in this wooded thicket between Spanish soldiers and local Indians. Suddenly, an Indian medicine man appeared “dressed fantastically” in wild plumage and bright body paint and frightened the soldiers away. The soldiers thought he was the Devil himself who came to aid the Indians. Afterwards, this willow grove was known as “El Monte del Diablo.”
Stories of strange happenings atop Mount Diablo continued right down to modern times. A number of years ago a group of campers near the summit woke one morning and saw giant “ghostly figures with human shapes” in the sky that were over a half mile tall. These figures were most likely the result of a rare optical illusion known as the “Spectre of the Brocken” (named after the Brocken Peak of the Harz Mountains in Germany where this phenomena was studied). These giant figures were believed to be produced in the sky as the rising sun began to shine through a notch in the crest of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the east. The sun’s rays passed through the notch and then projected and enlarged the shadows of the campers and the mountain’s summit onto a thick fog bank engulfing San Francisco Bay and nearby Twin Peaks to the west. This natural phenomena happens only rarely when the sun, the winter fog banks and the mountain peak itself are in proper perspective to each other.
It is quite obvious that there are several colorful legends concerning the origin of Mount Diablo’s name. Each reader may select whichever of the legends presented here that seems most likely to be the one responsible for the mountain peak being so named.
Cowell Historical Society