(a fanciful history)

by Robert Haney

Somewhere quite close to the geographic center of California (I'm not going to tell you precisely where) lies a village, although hardly even that, that poses problems in history, spelling, and pronunciation. You find it on a state map and probably not on many local maps. Lacking any significant population and any uniqueness of industry, occupation, or individuals, or any notoriety, there is no reason or need that the general population should be able to find it on a map or in a directory. Yet this village is not without its importance in the early history of California, unrecorded as it may be; and certainly it is not unimportant in its contribution to the agricultural production of the area and the state.

To the northwest a hundred or so miles away lies the great city and bay of San Francisco, to the west little more than an hour away lies a seaside playground that extends for hundreds of miles, a jewel of the Pacific rim. Great and historic cities lie a hundred miles to the north and more than that to the south.

Directly to the east, however, there is no city of note for a thousand miles. What does lie to the east, perhaps two hours away, embedded in the snow-covered Sierras is that treasure of California and all mankind -- Yosemite National Park.

You'll find out soon anyway so I'll tell you now, the name of the place (area, village) is 'Ballico'. It lies a bit off the Merced river and if you take to the high ground on a clear day you can see El Capitan and Half Dome thrusting from the floor of Yosemite Valley; but unless you know what you're looking for and have a bit of Irish imagination, as do I, you'll miss them both. But there they are, and if you proceed up the Merced river (in Spanish the name means gift or mercy) it will take you right to them (isn't that a great name for a river?).

It is not Yosemite, that awesome restorer of mind and body and soul of which I write, but of Ballico and its origin and of the origin, spelling and pronunciation of its name. Yosemite has yielded its fame and its history to far more accomplished pens than mine. My pen is better suited to the Ballicos of the world. Maybe that's why I chose Ballico when I escaped the hectic life of Los Angeles. Its obscurity suited me. I had, coming from Michigan, become and Oklahoman by choice (my wife's choice); together we had become Southern Californians by choice. But I chose Ballico. Well, maybe I didn't choose Ballico. I just went north along a two-lane highway for three hundred miles and turned right. I saw an old house surrounded by old trees, an old barn, its shingles gone, a once or twice used silo, and a sign in front. I needed it; it needed me! Maybe we just chose each other. The village of Ballico just came along with it. So I took off its old trees, almonds all, and replaced them with new trees, almonds all, and slipped my chariot into neutral; but I left the motor running.

But I digress from my digression. Again, this is about Ballico, a village, an area, and how it may have come to be, and how its name should be spelled or pronounced, and let others winnow fact from fiction.

The various pronunciations of its name lead, of course, to the misconception that there are several communities in the area, a problem which occurs only when references to it are auricular in nature, as written references now reflect consistent spelling.

It should be recognized that Ballico is a venerable village, dating back to the earliest days of California as a territory of the United States and, by one account at least, to those days when the friars, penetrating north out of what is now Baja (ba ha) California, first introduced Spanish culture and agriculture to what is now the State of California. This could account for one of the explanations of the origin of the name of the town, ballico being a type of grain said to be known to the Spanish. However, there are no specimens of the grain either in the area of this community or in the 400 miles of agricultural land to the south. Whether or not it is in evidence in Baja California is not known to me. The grain in question is spelled with a double "l", which in Spanish render the "y" sound of the English language. Thus the early pronunciation of the name of the area would have been rendered "ba-yi-ko". Local residents pronounce the "l's" like "l's", double or not, and accent the second syllable; but telephone solicitors from across the nation place the accent on the first syllable, making them, perhaps, more historically accurate but for the wrong reason.

Cities both north and south of Ballico boast of names of Spanish language origin, yet history yields neither physical evidence nor written record which suggests that there was a Spanish-speaking community at the site that either established or preserved the name "Ballico" as persons of Anglo origin increasingly populated the area. However, a telltale artifact or archive in Mexico may still prove the name's Spanish origin.

Another fascinating but undocumented version of the origin of the name "Ballico" is one that requires some background. Shortly after the middle of the 19th century, gold was discovered some forty miles east of what is now Ballico in a range of Sierra foothills now known as the "golden chain." A town, soon to be a ghost town, known as Hornitos sprang up overnight. Lusty and eager men of many national origins rushed to the discovery, soon finding themselves with gold to spend and nothing on which to spend it in the desolate hill country in the watershed of the Merced River and the morning shadow of the High Sierras. Being in an occupation prone to dispute, quarreling and violence, a cemetery was soon established on a hill barren of the coveted ore. It soon became well populated. It was a peculiarity of the geology of the area that the ground had near the surface a thick layer of hardpan that did not lend itself to grave digging. The enterprising miners and panners saw fit to place their defunct comrades on the surface of the ground and pile over them rocks which abounded naturally in the area and which were an abundant by-product of the mining operation being employed. One can imagine a ragtag queue, each individual with his token of respect, throwing a final rock at the deceased until he disappeared from view. The Spanish-speaking pioneers who populated this inhospitable area for a while after its treasure had been exhausted (among those Joaquin Murietta, the bandit scourge of early California from the Simi Valley west of Los Angeles north to the Merced river), seeing the mounds termed them "little ovens," "hornitos" in Spanish, giving it the only name by which what is now a ghost town was ever known.

According to this version of California history, an enterprising Yankee sea captain and his Yankee clipper put in to the port of San Francisco. While his cargo was being off-loaded he chanced by an embarcadero saloon where he learned of the gold strike in Hornitos. Having enough time, endless curiosity, and a liberal portion of Yankee enterprise, he hastened to the site, first by boat through the delta and San Joaquin river, then by both boat and horse up the Merced river valley.

The sea captain, Jack Teal by name, immediately witnessed the degrading effect upon the human psyche and spirit of men who had money they could not spend and who were totally lacking in diversion except for an occasional brawl that escalated as often as not into a knife-fight or a gunfight. Being of Puritan stock he conceived the notion of solving their soul-threatening problem of excess money and lack of diversion at one time.

Captain Teal hastened by both horse and boat back to San Francisco where he discussed his newly conceived plan with his first mate, the roguish holder of the ship's purse, whereupon they together formed an entertainment company. Taking the money, the gold and letters of credit received for the off-loaded New England machinery, tools and fabrics, he headed for the island of Bali, which he had visited upon every opportunity. This time, armed with gold and barter, he soon had the diversion he coveted for Hornitos; ten beautiful, young, half clad and elegantly trained female dancers.

Once again in California, in late spring, Captain Teal deposited his human cargo in a large home in what is now the Russian Hill section of San Francisco. The young ladies were left in the charge of a somewhat severe duenna who was to provide elementary language instruction in English and Spanish, for there was no one in San Francisco who knew their language, a rare Malay dialect.

Captain Teal proceeded toward Hornitos with a tremendous supply of building materials and a goodly supply of laborers. At the point where the valley flatland meets the rolling hills below the Sierras, he found a beautiful tree-dotted stretch of bottom land on the north side of the Merced river. Here he set his laborers and artisans to work building living quarters, a saloon, and a playhouse with a stage similar to those that had been described to him as having been erected at the site of the Comstock silver strike at what is now known as Virginia City, Nevada. Here, too, he envisioned churches, opera houses, hotels -- a center of culture all financed by Hornitos gold paid by miners to see his elegant Balinese dancers, taming their passions and diverting them from their violence.

Although many of his workers defected to Hornitos, the project was completed by late summer. The indians who lived in similar areas along the river for the fishing and hunting it afforded spent many hours puzzling over the progress of the project, shaking their heads, throwing up their hands and talking questioningly among themselves. Late in October, to signal the project's completion, on the largest hill on the north side of the river and immediately east of the valley floor, a large sign proclaiming "The Bali company" was erected, and Captain Teal prepared to return to San Francisco. At about the same time, the indians gradually became fewer and fewer in number, taking with them the articles which supported their existence there. By the time he was ready to leave, he saw them no more, their having answered to an ancient wisdom. He also rose one morning to find the boat in which he intended to float back to the bay was gone, presumably a victim of rising waters caused by the first warm rains in the headwaters of the Merced. That meant he had to proceed on horseback along the Merced to the San Joaquin, some fifty miles as the Merced meanders. En route he was forced into a prolonged encampment by an incessant driving rain. As he resumed his journey along the ever-rising river he was disturbed to see some building materials floating over bottom land similar to that the indians had so recently abandoned. Late one afternoon the oriental stage he had so carefully supervised in construction floated by. He never turned back and no Port of San Francisco record of him or his ship survived the 1906 earthquake and fire. The sign he left became a victim of the wind and the weather, standing perhaps for a decade destroyed at both ends and barely legible, reading "Bali co." A tantalizing and exquisite hand-hammered metal strap or ornament occasionally is found downstream of Teal's site at nearby McConnell Park and at other bends in the river, giving credence to this story. The gold of Hornitos vanished but some of the miners stayed, as did an occasional laborer or artisan from the Bali company. The land was good; Ballico and other villages were born.

The gold had petered out with a puzzling suddenness. One day the vein was rich and full, the next day there was nothing. Perhaps the vein had been severed eons before by giants in the earth, its missing part a yard or miles from where their digging stopped. There is a story too that a small number of Asian beauties, lithesome and gentle of speech and motion, were left one day in the charge of what served San Francisco as both orphanage and school for young ladies run by an order of Dominican nuns. One by one suitable marriages were arranged and their progeny add oriental mystery and grace to that melting pot that has always been the heritage and legacy of San Francisco. Thus, by one account Ballico, uncertain of origin, spelling and pronunciation, made its contribution to the ethnic diversity that has been the hallmark of California. With this in mind, perhaps it would be better not to inquire further into the origin of this sleepy village and let what it is and does give it significance in the minds of men.

Go on to Part II

Navigational Assistance:

Jasper's home page is "up" from here.

Story copyright by Robert Haney. Shown by permission of the author.
Website design and HTML source code copyright 1995-2003 by John Paulsen.
You can send him your comments.

Last updated January 5, 2003.