I’ve heard more than a dozen different origin theories for Nappa, the town’s original name, but most claim the word derived from a Wappo or Patwin word, which is probably true. What that original term was, is an entirely different matter.
Wappo were one of the two largest Native American groups that called the Napa Valley home historically; the other one was the Patwin. Pomo and Miwok also lived in the Napa County area, though in smaller numbers.
A book written in 1873 on Napa County claimed the old pioneers who came to the region in the mid-1800s insisted the word meant “fish” in the language of the local Wappo who lived along the river. On the other hand, a similar book from 1881 claimed that the word “nap-po” (spelled with 2 p’s) meant “village.”
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“Napa” or “Nappatos” also have been offered as the name of the tribelet or village located where downtown Napa is today. Yet still others have claimed Napa means everything from “grizzly bear,” “house” and “motherland.” Although no one seems to know what the true origin is, Napa is most likely a Spanish or English corruption of a Wappo word. In fact, Wappo is itself a bastardization of the Spanish word guapo, meaning “handsome” and “brave,” in reference to the Wappo’s strong resistance against Spanish occupation.
An interesting fact to note is that Napa was originally spelled with two p’s: Nappa. Napa County Historical Society has, in its collection, the oldest map of the city of Napa, drawn in 1847 under the guidance of Nathan Coombs, the city’s founder. The map, as well as the deed records predating the admission of California Territory into the United States in 1848 with the resolution of the Mexican-American War, frequently spell Napa with two p’s. What makes this especially curious is that even the deeds from 1846-1847 written in Spanish use the two-p spelling … and the Spanish language doesn’t use double p’s! It would be like the English language suddenly using Cyrillic letters.
Another interesting fact is that the second “p” was dropped after 1848, and I do mean dropped. There is no historical record of a city council action, a proclamation, a state announcement or local legislation to be found anywhere. Historical sleuths: Please let us know if you know of such documentation because though we have searched high and low, we find no official announcement of the name change. Maps and records printed after 1848 spell the town’s name with only one “p.”
Long story short: No one really knows what “Napa” or “Nappa” means, but it makes for a good mystery.
Alexandria Brown is on the staff of the Napa County Historical Society, which contributes a monthly column to the Napa Valley Register. The society’s headquarters are in the Goodman Library building at 1219 First St., Napa. For information, visit NapaHistory.org or call 707-224-1739.