The creek running through the Terra Linda area north of downtown San Rafael is named Gallinas Creek. Gallinas is Spanish for a female chicken, i.e. hen. So how did this area get named after a bird? Were there chicken ranches in the area when it was named? Or perhaps there was a population of Ridgway’s Rails (formerly known as California Clapper Rails) large enough to be noticed by the Spanish missionaries?
Mission San Rafael was founded in 1817 and served as a hospital to treat the sick, since the weather was much better than in the San Francisco mission. In late May 1819 Luis Arguello, Father Gil and Father Payeras passed through San Rafael to investigate a more northerly mission site. They traveled to a tract of land north of Point San Pedro which Payeras mentioned as “sitio de las Gallinas” i.e. “place of the hens”. In 1844, the name was incorporated into the “San Pedro, Santa Margarita y las Gallinas” land grant. The place name “Gallinas” is used to this day.
So why did Father Payeras call this area “sitio de las Gallinas”? It seems highly unlikely that domestic chickens were being raised by the local Miwoks in the early 19th century. In those years the Spanish were rounding up the locals and bringing them to the mission in San Rafael to work and to convert them to Christianity. The Spaniards were mostly interested in sheep and cattle and keeping the Russians in Sonoma County (Fort Ross) at bay.
Did Father Payeras observe some California Quail and called them “hens”? The Spanish name for quail is la codorniz. Father Payeras might have had a familiarity with the European variety of quail and should have called them by their correct Spanish name or possibly gallinitas (little hens).
Or were Ridgway’s Rails observed in the marshes north of San Rafael? Rails are relatively large secretive birds that inhabit marshes. Ridgway’s Rails could remind a person of skinny chickens; they are rather tall, stand upright like chickens and prefer to walk rather than fly. If Ridgway’s Rails were in fact observed by Father Payeras in 1819, there must have been sufficient numbers to warrant evoking the place name of “sitio de las Gallinas”. During high tides rails will move to higher ground where they are more exposed and can be more easily observed.
Much of the travel from Mission Dolores in San Francisco was by boat so rails could have been easily observed in the marshes. During today's Christmas Bird Counts -conducted by the Audubon Society- Ridgway’s Rails are often heard and even observed around Santa Margarita Island off of Vendola Drive in Santa Venetia as well in other places in the marsh remnants along Gallinas Creek.
By 1844, Mission San Rafael Archángel had been abandoned and the property was sold off. The California gold rush brought many European settlers to the West Coast and into Marin. California became a state in 1850 and San Rafael was incorporated as Marin’s first City in 1874. In the 1870’s the State commissioned surveys of the tidelands surrounding the San Francisco Bay, which documented the extent of the tidelands which existed at that time.
On the 1871 Tide Lands Map No. 3 (see illustration above), some 50 years after Father Payreas referred to the area north of San Rafael as “Sito de las Gallinas” the name “Gallinas Canal” is shown in the right center of the map together with the north and south forks of the estuary. Extensive marshlands (shaded areas) are shown surrounding the Gallinas estuary. “County Road” (now Highway 101) is shown on the left side and Santa Margarita Island is located between Tide Lots 16 and 9 in the lower left.
Over the years, development has been inexorably obliterating the marshes on either side of Gallinas Creek and replacing them with roads, housing and commercial buildings. Similar development has happened in the marshlands all around the San Francisco Bay.
Despite major habitat loss Ridgway’s Rails are rather rare but they still exist and can be observed. Ridgway’s Rails are now listed as “endangered” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It is important that the remaining marshes be protected as habitat for the birds and wildlife that use them. Most importantly we should protect the Ridgway’s Rails of Gallinas creek, as possible descendants of Father Payeras’ “Gallinas”, so that we don’t lose this possible intriguing connection to Marin’s early history.