Contra Costa can change the name of the route; namesake scalped Native Americans
By Tony Hicks | Bay City News Foundation
Like so many people who grew up in Contra Costa County, Karen Mitchoff just thought Kirker Pass was named after a rancher who settled near the busy road that winds through the hills between Concord and Pittsburgh. .
“I had no idea,” said Mitchoff, chairman of the county board of supervisors and whose district includes the western portion of Kirker Pass Road. “I’ve lived here since I was a kid. I had no idea how despicable this person was.
That person was James Kirker. And, while he settled in the area and may have ranched, he was far from the average 19th-century settler. This is why the council is considering changing the name to Kirker Pass.
As municipalities across the United States reevaluate the names of schools, roads, and other local institutions, long-held traditions are challenged by a new reluctance to condone the misdeeds of once famous figures.
In the case of Kirker, the name has been spoken by locals for at least 130 years, since at least 1892, when county supervisors officially named the road and the steep hills around it after Kirker, who lived in the county for less than three years. Kirker came to Contra Costa County in 1850 and died in 1852 or 1853, depending on who you ask.
What is not disputed is that Kirker was widely known as a “scalp hunter” and killer of hundreds of Native Americans, working for the Mexican government in the 1840s.
Some accounts say he was responsible for killing women and children. He is said to have come to northern Contra Costa County only after switching allegiance in 1846 to fight for the United States in the Mexican–American War, earning a bounty on his head from Mexico.
“I even have a hard time saying his name in public,” Mitchoff said. “There is absolutely nothing redeeming about this individual.”
The issue was raised at the February 8 board meeting, where Daniel Kelly spoke about Kirker. Kelly, a retired social worker from San Francisco and a master’s student in history at Arizona State University, wrote an op-ed for a Bay Area publication about Kirker.
Kelly accused Kirker of leading a raiding party in the Mexican state of Chihuahua during the night of 1846 and killing 130 to 170 Apache men, women and children as they slept, after making a deal with the authorities locals to stay and trade in the area.
“They rode their scalps on poles,” Kelly wrote. “A few months later, an English traveler passing through the capital of Chihuahua found the square adorned with Apache scalps.”
The Contra Costa County Historical Society has in its archives an essay written by local historian William Mero, in which he describes Kirker as an Irish immigrant who fought the British as a privateer in the War of 1812. He went on to moved to the southwest, working as a trapper and soldier, sometimes for the Mexican government.
In New Mexico, he “appears to have become friends with the first American settler in Contra Costa County, Dr. John Marsh,” Mero wrote. Kirker became a naturalized Mexican citizen until the Mexican–American War.
“He protected the Mexican copper mines of Santa Rita from Indian raids,” Mero wrote. “He was a friend of young Kit Carson and got him a job in the mines. Kirker organized militias in many villages in the state of Chihuahua against increasing Apache attacks.
“Later, James Kirker led a large party of Mexican, American, Delaware, and Shawnee warriors. They fought the Apaches, who were attacking deeper and deeper into northern Mexico. Kirker’s party was only the “one of several mercenary gangs of American and Mexican Apache scalp hunters working for the state of Chihuahua. However, there is no evidence that Kirker personally took any scalps himself,” Mero wrote.
When Kirker moved to Contra Costa County in 1850, he settled on land adjacent to Marsh, including the hills where Kirker Pass Road now connects central Contra Costa to the eastern part of the county. The pass was known as “Kirker’s Pass” as early as 1856, according to Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia.
“I am aware of his reputation as essentially a mercenary – carrying out attacks on indigenous groups,” Gioia said. “He was called a scalp hunter, not the kind of person you want to name a major county road.”
Gioia is a history buff who is curating an exhibit of previous boards of supervisors for the county’s relatively new building that supervisors will eventually return to after the pandemic. He said his collection includes a book in which Kirker is personally responsible for 487 scalps. Although he acknowledged that the author did not show strong attribution for the charge.
Either way, he said Kirker wasn’t worthy of his name on a county road.
“We are clearly much more aware of our history, and we are re-evaluating place names and changing them where appropriate,” Gioia said. “And it’s the right thing to do. We don’t want to name important places in the county after racists and killers.
Mitchoff said she requested a report from county staff outlining the steps needed to rename the road, which she hopes to return to soon. She said the process will likely take at least six months, including what will likely be a very public route renaming process. Mitchoff agrees with Kelly that a name honoring local Indigenous people might be appropriate.
“I want this done as soon as possible,” Mitchoff said.