A Mountain’s Name Shrouded in Mystery

n By Martin Cheek

Special to South Valley


As Morgan Hill celebrates its centennial birthday today, it’s appropriate to reflect that the city’s beloved “El Toro” peak is a mountain of mystery.

Visitors and residents alike often mistakenly believe the large cone-shaped mountain on Morgan Hill’s western city boundary is an ancient volcano. It is not. They also mistakenly believe the community was named after this geological landmark. In truth, the town that was incorporated on Nov. 10, 1906, was named after a man named Hiram Morgan Hill.

The real mystery, however, still remains to be revealed on the origins of El Toro’s unusual name, which translates from Spanish to English as “The Bull.”

The prominent peak has come to symbolize Morgan Hill as it’s now used on the official city seal and logo. A large painting of the mountain is on display in a place of honor in the Morgan Hill Community Center. The landmark was also once the focal point of intense local controversy when real estate developers unsuccessfully tried to construct a restaurant at its 1,403-foot summit.

Today, it’s little wonder many people mistakenly think El Toro is actually “Morgan Hill.” The mountain has been called many things over the years.

It’s been often referred to as “Murphy’s Peak” after Martin Murphy, Sr., an Irish immigrant who came to the South Valley in 1844 and soon after bought the land that now makes up Morgan Hill. It’s also been called “21 Mile Peak” after a nearby stagecoach stop that served the Butterfield Overland Express route from St. Joseph, Mo., to San Francisco.

Other names given the peak include “Oreja de Oso” (Spanish for “Bear’s Ear”) and “Loma de Toro” (Bull’s Hill). But even though some long-time residents of Morgan Hill still refer to it as “Murphy’s Peak,” it’s commonly accepted name is “El Toro.”

In her masters thesis on the history of Morgan Hill, former city mayor Beth Wyman gives one simple account of the naming of the peak. Vaqueros in early Californio days often watched bulls fight each other on the slopes of the hill when it was part of Juan Maria Hernandez’s land grant estate, she explained in her paper.

“Although a date cannot be affixed to the exact naming of El Toro, it appears to have occurred during the Mexican period between 1822 and 1846,” Wyman wrote.

An 1844 legal agreement Hernandez signed for his Ojo de Agua de la Coche land grant uses the name El Toro, she wrote. This is the earliest known documented evidence of the name.

Another local legend explains that it was perhaps because of the animal the mountain might have resembled from the right direction in the right light. Wyman suggests that travelers looking at the peak from the south might see a vague appearance of a large Spanish bull. Perhaps the peak forms the “hunched shoulder blades” and the little round hill just to the south forms the “hindquarters,” she wrote.

“Even today this form can occasionally be discerned, especially at dusk or on certain gloomy days when the clouds hang low and blur the geographic features,” Wyman wrote.

Another story involves the famous California writer Bret Harte who, legend has it, supposedly visited Murphy’s ranch to write an article about the esteemed pioneer immigrants. According to a Morgan Hill Sun newspaper article published on Oct. 15, 1902, the two men rode horseback up the hill and on their ascent came upon “two wrathy bulls engaged in fierce conflict.”

The two men annoyed the bulls and the big animals turned on them, forcing the riders to race down the hill again to safety. Some locals claimed that Harte gave the mountain the name “El Toro” in his article.

This local legend is most certainly fictitious. Harte did not come to California until 1854, 10 years after the 1844 Hernandez legal document calling the mountain “El Toro.” Perhaps the fanciful tale began, like many legends do, when someone heard of New York Tribune reporter Bayard Taylor’s ride up the hill with Murphy and thus mistakenly changed the eastern journalist to the famous Bret Harte.

Taylor sailed to San Francisco in 1850 to report on the newly formed state’s constitutional convention held in Monterey. On his way south on Monterey Road, he stopped one afternoon at Murphy’s homestead to spend the night. Around sunset, his cordial host suggested an adventure to the top of the nearby peak and the two men rode up El Toro, an experience Taylor later recorded in his best-selling California travel book “El Dorado.”

Like it was in Murphy’s day, the peak El Toro remains private property. And like Murphy and Taylor, local residents still have an overwhelming urge to climb up to the top. Every spring, the Morgan Hill Historical Society sponsors a community climb up the landmark mountain. It’s a way for locals to end at least one of the mountain’s many mysteries – what their city looks like from the top of El Toro.

Martin Cheek is the author of ‘The Silicon Valley Handbook.’ He can be reached at [email protected]