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Origin of the name "Shasta"

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Folk etymologies of place names are sometimes funny, frequently confused, and just about always interesting. A few common or twice-told etymologies about place names include names supposedly taken from the side of a box of food, names created from randomly opening a book such as the Bible, names formed by accidentally spelling a word backwards, or names occurring due to post office error. Whatever the reason, it's quite common for the folk imagination, especially when they have no idea about the real etymology, to concoct an interesting story about a place name--including the naming of Mt. Shasta.

One of the first questions that people from out of town ask is, "Where did the name 'Shasta' come from?" I have had the pleasure of hearing this question asked a number of times, and I have also been surprised at the number of contradictory responses offered as explanations. The four most common reasons offered for our mountain's name are the following:

  1. Our mountain is named after a very famous local Indian.
  2. It's named after a local Indian tribe.
  3. It comes from the Indian word Tsasdi, meaning `three' and refers to our triple-peaked mountain.
  4. The Russians who settled at Bodega could see it from the Coast Range. They called it Tchastal or "the white and pure mountain."

What Research Suggests is Most Likely

William Miesse, author of Mount Shasta: An Annotated Bibliography, has extensively researched this issue. Anyone wishing to review the scholarly work on this interesting topic should refer to Miesse's text, and the best general overview is offered in Miesse's introduction to Chapter 14: The Name 'Shasta.'

According to Miesse, Peter Skene Ogden (in his 1826-27 journal) refers to a mountain, a tribe, and a river as "Sastice" "Castice" "Sistise" and "Sasty." Based on his description, we know the mountain he was referring to was actually what is now known as Mt. McLoughlin in Southern Oregon. The Sastise River is now called the Rogue (some Indians in the area referred to themselves as "Kqwu'-sta"). It is also believed that the Wilkes Expedition (1838-42) mistakenly transposed Ogden's Sastise to the mountain that we call Shasta today. This is not as hard to do as it seems. By the time of the Gold Rush (1849) lots of maps showing our local mountain with names such as "Shasty", "Shaste", and "Sasty" were printed. Also, between 1842 and 1850 a number of journals and maps listed our mountain as Saste, Sasty, Shaste, Shasty, Shatasla, Sastise, Castice, and Sistise.

Interestingly, the modern spelling ("Shasta") did not appear until 1850 when the name was first chosen for "Shasta" County by the California State Legislature. The county included, I believe, what is now Siskiyou, Shasta, and Modoc Counties. The "a" was placed at the end of the word to make it similar to many Spanish endings of other counties (ending with an "a" or "o").

For further information see The Name Shasta by Arthur Francis Eichorn, Sr. (1954).

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