WHAT DOES "SIMI" MEAN?
The name "Simi" comes from the name of the Chumash Indian village that was located at the western end of Simi Valley. But what does the name mean? The late Janet Cameron, in her book of recollections about old Simi (Simi Grows Up, 1963), indicated that it means "valley of the winds". That explanation sure is appealing - especially if you have been here during one of our intense Santa Ana windstorms. Some folks have observed that there is a "Simi" winery in northern California and just assume that there is some connection. (That “Simi” is derived from the name of a town in Italy.)
Our first recordings of the name come from the baptismal records of the San Fernando Mission. The name is listed over and over again as the place where those being baptized are from. The mission fathers wrote the name as they heard it. No doubt a convention was soon adopted for how a place name was to be spelled and how it was to be pronounced, especially after the establishment of El Rancho Simi. That spelling and pronounciation may or may not have been recognizable to their Chumash subjects. The first baptism from Simi was listed as Simi’. In any case, the various other spellings used were Simi, Simii, Simji, Samy, Simih, Samij, Simiji, Semi, and Sami. A Ventura Mission vocabulary of Ventureno Chumash place names lists Ci-mi-i and Shimzi. The Spanish, of course, pronounced a "j" as we pronounce "h", such as in San Jose and La Jolla.
Linguist and ethnographer John Peabody Harrington had a Chumash informant, Fernando Librado, who listed the name as Shimiji. Another of his Chumash informants gave the name as Shimij'i. Whether or not the shorter version, i.e., Simi, is correct we will never know for sure. Certainly the mission records of 1799-1812 seem to suggest that the shorter version may be closer to the name used around the time of first contact with the Indians of our area. While John Harrington was arguably the leading linguist of his time, his information was record more than 100 years after the mission baptisms were recorded.
The meaning of the word "Simi" is very clear in the ethnographic records. Our earliest source comes from a list of Ventureno Chumash words compiled by Fray Jose Senan sometime during the first or second decade of the life of the San Buena Ventura Mission. The list includes the word "tsimi", the meaning of which is given as "... a type of small white cloud." It is apparent from looking at other words on the list that the "ts" is pronounced as "sh" is today.
The next and most authoritive source comes from the notes of John Peabody Harrington. Mr. Harrington worked for 40 years for the American Bureau of Ethnology, a branch of the Smithsonian Institute, and did field work among all north and central American Indian groups for 50 years. His notes contain two references to the meaning of "Simi". What is significant about the notes is that the proper form of the word was recorded directly from Chumash speakers by one of the foremost linguists of his time. The first note is attributed an Indian of San Fernando, named Manuel Capon, lists the name as "simijash" and gives the explanation that: “…long ago the Tapo Ranch had something like a mist or cloud that could be seen sometimes in November. The thread-like clouds started at the Tapo and went south. Kmi ‘my thread’ Lokakmiash, ‘it is my thread.” The root of the work refers to a thread. The second note is consistent with the first. Robert E. Harrington, included the meaning of Simi in a May 21, 1969 article in the Enterprise Sun and News. He refers to the word meaning: "Little white wind clouds so often seen when the wind blows up here and Indians living on the coast, as most of them did, would never venture up here when those wind clouds were in the sky. The work Simiji was contracted by whites to the work Simi." He gives his source as his brother, John Peabody Harrington. This explanation suggests that the name "Simi" originated at a time when there was no permanent settlement in the valley - in other word, prior to about 950 A.D. It is tempting to speculate that the "threadlike wind clouds" which sometimes appear over the Tapo in November refer to cirrus clouds, which do normally start appearing in November, are harbingers of storms and are concomitant with northwestly and northerly wind, eventually followed by northeasterly and easterly, i.e., Santa Ana, winds. When a series of storms come through, cirrus clouds appear while Santa Ana winds are still blowing. The Chumash, of course, did not have the same global view that we enjoy. They had no way of knowing that cirrus clouds are so widespread when they appear. It seems to me that the “thread-like clouds” did not refer to encroaching coast fog for three reasons. First, the coastal fog hanging over the Tripas and extending down into Simi Valley could not have be observed from the Oxnard Plains. Second, the presence of fog would not have given the Chumash any good reason to cancel a planned journey from the coast to Simi Valley. Fog is not a harbinger of stormy weather. Third, fog in the Tripas would hardly have been referred to as “wind clouds”.
Finally, a trunk full of John Peabody Harrington's notes and personal effects was found in the old R.E. Harrington house by his niece, Ruth Dempsey, in March 1981. One of the linguistic notes in the trunk listed the word "sh'eme" in linguistic notations. (In this case the two inverted “e's” represent relatively neutral sounds. This would be consistent with Barbareno Chumash.) However, it is not clear what dialect of Chumash is being quoted since the informant is not noted. The meaning listed is "any cloud any color". The text goes on to give several phrases using the work "cloud". This Harrington note is not in reference to the place "Sim’i", rather, it is simply a linguistic note. It does seem to bolster the connection between Simi and some form of cloud.
All of the foregoing sources of the meaning of the word "Simi" are in general agreement. We know that the name was that of the Indian village - the name that the Indians used. And I have derived my explanation for its meaning indirectly from Indian sources.