The Wappo, who made the mountain their home for thousands of years before any others set foot on her majestic slopes, called her “Kanamoto,” meaning “human mountain.” The figure of a woman in repose, one to be revered and respected, one of magic and consequence.
Robert Louis Stevenson, having spent his honeymoon in Calistoga in 1880, wrote of her:
“Its naked peak stands nearly 4,500 feet above the sea; its sides are fringed with forest; and the soil, where it is bare, glows warm with cinnabar. Life in its shadow goes rustically forward. Around the foot of that mountain the silence of nature reigns in a great measure unbroken, and the people of hill and valley go sauntering about their business as in the days before the flood.”
Local history tells us three separate yet significant people gave the mountain her name, Mount St. Helena. These three individuals were unknown to one another, a coincidence possibly, or had their paths crossed? What was the commonality between the three, and who exactly was Saint Helena?
The first naming is believed to have come from Franciscan Friar Jose Altimira. In the spring of 1823, Fr. Altimira accompanied a group of Spanish explorers given the task of locating a new mission site in the valleys to the north of San Francisco. As he explored parts of the upper Napa Valley (now Calistoga), meeting the Wappo and seeing firsthand the hot springs bubbling out of the ground, he christened the area “Agua Caliente.” It was here that he first met the mountain.
In late June he found himself in the Valley of Sonoma. He spent a few days investigating the area to ensure conditions were favorable for a successful mission (water sources, location and climate). On the morning of July 4, 1823, Fr. Altimira held the ceremony that would mark the beginning of Mission Sonoma. It is said that while the Padre was resting and contemplating near the mission site, his eyes rose to the mountain he had met earlier and was overcome by her magnificence. He recalled in his memory a carving he had seen at the Abbey of Rheims in France, one that appeared to look the same as the mountain. The carving was that of Saint Helena, hence the first naming.
The second person claiming the mountain was a Russian princess. It was 1841 when Baron Alexander Rotchef visited Fortress Ross. The Baron brought with him his beautiful and adventurous wife, the Princess Helena, whose godfather was none other than Czar Nicholas himself. Princess Helena had been named after Saint Helena and was held in high regard by her people.
The Princess had seen the mountain from afar and was anxious to get a closer look. Fortunately for her, a team of Russian scientists had been dispatched to climb the mountain to collect specimens. She would accompany them, finally reaching the summit on a clear afternoon. To the west she could see the huge, blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean, to the east the still snow-capped Sierra. She stood in awe and reverence for what she knew was a gift from God.
As they raised their flag on the mountaintop, they placed a copper plate inscribed with their names and the date, June 1841. It was then they named the mountain “Mount St. Helena.” This copper plate was ultimately stolen. Replicas were placed, one with the original inscription, the other a translation. They remain in place to this day.
The third and final naming came from an American sea-faring man, Capt. Stephen Smith. In 1844, then-Mexican Governor Micheltorena granted the captain over 35,000 acres. This land had previously been occupied by the Russians on the coast and known as Rancho Bodega. In an area just east and densely forested with redwood trees he built a sawmill.
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The captain was not a man of God, nor was he born of nobility. His was a simple life guided by hard work and opportunity. Standing at his newly constructed sawmill, he could see the harbor to the west where his beloved ship lay anchored. On the side of the ship was inscribed her name, Saint Helena.
Legend tells us the captain then looked up toward the majestic mountain he had looked upon so many times with admiration, making the decision to name her “Mount Saint Helena.”
Was it possible the paths of these three had passed on some level? Father Altimira was of course known by General Vallejo visiting his pueblo of Sonoma at the mission of Solano. The Padre’s records of his explorations are detailed and clear on that fact, thusly the naming of Mount Saint Helena would be included in those records. The Baron and Princess Helena also visited the pueblo and met with General Vallejo. Captain Smith had gotten his ship from the Russians who earlier occupied Rancho Bodega, also known to the Princess who had visited the mission of Solano, who had met General Vallejo who knew Fr. Altimira.
We need to back up over 1,700 years to the year 250, when Flavia Iulia Helena was born. She was the mother of Constantine the Great. She was a devout Christian and is credited with establishing Christianity at the heart of Western civilization. Constantine fully absorbed the teachings of Christianity, becoming the first Christian emperor of Rome, 306 until the time of his death in 337. It was during his reign that Christianity became the accepted Roman religion.
Although Helena’s birthplace is disputed, it is believed she was a native of the province of Bithynia in Asia Minor and born of humble beginnings. Her son renamed the city “Helenopolis” after her death in 330, which supports the belief this was her birthplace.
In 326, Helena undertook a journey to the Holy Places in Palestine. It was here that she constructed two churches, one the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, and the other the Church on the Mount of Olives. These church sites represent Christ’s birth and ascension, respectively.
It was during this time that Helena had ordered excavation to begin over the site of Jesus’ tomb near Calvary, which had been covered by a temple built by Emperor Hadrian. As the site was being reclaimed, Helena discovered three crosses; one is believed to be the cross on which Christ was crucified. Many paintings and carvings of Saint Helena depict her holding this cross.
Helena, famed for her piety, was ultimately granted sainthood. To distinguish her from others with similar names, she is also known as Helen of Constantinople.
Her feast day as a saint of the Orthodox Christian Church is celebrated with her son on May 21, the “Feast of the Holy Great Sovereigns, Equal to the Apostles”; her feast day in the Roman Catholic Church falls on Aug. 18.
She lived to be 80 years old and is the patron saint of new discoveries.