Spanish Place Names in the U.S.

Sources include family names, natural features

Key West for article on Spanish place names
Docks in Key West, Fla.

Max and Dee Bernt / Creative Commons

Much of the United States was once part of Mexico, and Spanish explorers were among the first non-indigenous people to explore much of what is now the U.S. So we'd expect that an abundance of places would have names coming from Spanish — and indeed that's the case. There are too many Spanish place names to list here, but here are some of the most well-known:

U.S. State Names from Spanish

California — The original California was a fictional place in the 16th-century book Las sergas de Esplandián by Garci Rodríguez Ordóñez de Montalvo.

Colorado — This is the past participle of colorar, which means to give something color, such as by dyeing. The participle, however, specifically refers to red, such as red earth.

Florida — Probably a shortened form of pascua florida, literally meaning "flowered holy day," referring to Easter.

Montana — The name is an anglicized version of montaña, the word for "mountain." The word probably comes from the days when mining was a leading industry in the region, as the state's motto is "Oro y plata," meaning "Gold and silver." It's too bad the ñ of the spelling wasn't retained; it would have been cool to have a state name with a letter not in the English alphabet.

New Mexico — The Spanish México or Méjico came from the name of an Aztec god.

Texas — The Spanish borrowed this word, spelled Tejas in Spanish, from indigenous residents of the area. It relates to the idea of friendship. Tejas, although not used that way here, also can refer to roof tiles.

Key Takeaways: Spanish Language Place Names

  • Spanish-language place names abound in the United States in part because its history includes Spanish colonization and exploration.
  • Many of the Spanish place names in the U.S. have been anglicized, such as by changing ñ to "n" and by dropping the accent marks from accented vowels.
  • Many of the Spanish names are derived from the names of Roman Catholic saints and beliefs.

Other U.S. Place Names From Spanish

Alcatraz (California) — From alcatraces, meaning "gannets" (birds similar to pelicans).

Arroyo Grande (California) — An arroyo is a stream.

Boca Raton (Florida) — The literal meaning of boca ratón is "mouse's mouth," a term applied to a sea inlet.

Cape Canaveral (Florida) — From cañaveral, a place where canes grow.

Conejos River (Colorado) — Conejos means "rabbits."

District of Columbia; Columbia River (Oregon and Washington) — These and many other place names honor Christopher Columbus (Cristobal Colón in Spanish), the Italian-Spanish explorer.

El Paso (Texas) — A mountain pass is a paso; the city is on a historically major route through the Rocky Mountains.

Fresno (California) — Spanish for ash tree.

Galveston (Texas) — Named after Bernardo de Gálvez, a Spanish general.

Grand Canyon (and other canyons) — The English "canyon" comes from the Spanish cañón. The Spanish word can also mean "cannon," "pipe" or "tube," but only its geological meaning became part of English.

Key West (Florida) — This may not look like a Spanish name, but it is in fact an anglicized version of the original Spanish name, Cayo Hueso, meaning Bone Key. A key or cayo is a reef or low island; that word originally came from Taino, an indigenous Caribbean language. Spanish speakers and maps still refer to the city and key as Cayo Hueso.

Las Cruces (New Mexico) — Meaning "the crosses," named for a burial site.

Las Vegas — Means "the meadows."

Los Angeles — Spanish for "the angels."

Los Gatos (California) — Meaning "the cats," for the cats that once roamed in the region.

Madre de Dios Island (Alaska) — The Spanish means "mother of God." The island, which is in Trocadero (meaning "trader") Bay, was named by Galician explorer Francisco Antonio Mourelle de la Rúa.

Merced (California) — The Spanish word for "mercy."

Mesa (Arizona) — Mesa, Spanish for "table," came to be applied to a type of flat-topped geological formation.

Nevada — A past participle meaning "covered with snow," from nevar, meaning "to snow." The word is also used for the name of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. A sierra is a saw, and the name came to be applied to a jagged range of mountains.

Nogales (Arizona) — It means "walnut trees."

Rio Grande (Texas) — Río grande means "large river."

Sacramento — Spanish for "sacrament," a type of ceremony practised in Catholic (and many other Christian) churches.

Sangre de Cristo Mountains — The Spanish means "blood of Christ"; the name is said to come from blood-red glow of the setting sun.

San _____ and Santa _____ (California and elsewhere) — Almost all the city names beginning with "San" or "Santa" — among them San Francisco, Santa Barbara, San Antonio, San Luis Obispo, San Jose, Santa Fe and Santa Cruz — come from Spanish. Both words are shortened forms of santo, the word for "saint" or "holy."

Sonoran Desert (California and Arizona) — "Sonora" is possibly a corruption of señora, referring to a woman.

Strait of Juan de Fuca (Washington state) — Named after the Spanish version of Greek explorer Ioannis Phokas's name. Phokas was part of a Spanish expedition.

Toledo (Ohio) — Possibly named after the city in Spain.

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Your Citation
Erichsen, Gerald. "Spanish Place Names in the U.S." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Erichsen, Gerald. (2023, April 5). Spanish Place Names in the U.S. Retrieved from Erichsen, Gerald. "Spanish Place Names in the U.S." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).