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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

California: What's in a Name?

Many American states derived their names from native American Indian words, some from European monarchs; a few from early French or Spanish influences. Rhode Island was named for the Greek island of Rhodes, and Washington for our first president. California, the nation’s 31st state, got its name before anyone knew what, or even where, it was.

In the early 16th century, author Garcia Ordóñez de Montevaldo (or Montalvo) published The Sergas de Esplandian in Seville, Spain, a fantasy-adventure novel about the exploits of a swashbuckling young cavalier, whose travels took him to a mythical island called California. This island, located “close to the Terrestrial Paradise,” and ruled by the beautiful queen Calafia, was solely populated by tall, black female warriors who had shields and swords and ornaments made of gold. The novel became wildly popular, and several editions were printed.

One passage reads: “. . . on the right hand of the Indies, there is an island called California . . . which was populated by black women, without any men among them . . . Their island was the strongest in all the world, with its steep cliffs and rocky shores. They were of strong and hardened bodies, of ardent courage and of great force. Their arms were all of gold, and so was the harness of the wild beasts which they tamed and rode. For, in the whole island, there was no metal but gold.” 

It was an age when superstition, myth and legend became truth in men’s minds, and the Spanish were, in fact, looking for gold in the new lands they were finding following the discoveries of Christopher Colombus. Subsequent to Hernan Cortéz’s conquest of Mexico in 1519, when Spanish explorers first encountered the Baja California Peninsula, they believed it to be the fabled island described in Montevaldo’s novel, so they gave it that name.

Not long thereafter, Cortéz’s officers Francisco de Ulloa or Hernando Grixalva (accounts differ), sailing north of Baja, discovered that the mystical island was actually a mainland. There weren’t any Amazon-like black women toting golden shields, either. If he was disappointed, Ulloa (or Grixalva) nevertheless gave the name California to this mainland area as well, creating what the Spanish referred to, for decades, as “the two Californias.” However, the island-legend lived on. As late as 1696, European cartographers were still drawing California as a large island in the Pacific Ocean adjacent to the coastline of the New World.

Today most scholars agree that the name California came from Montevaldo’s novel, (although there are other, lesser theories). Nonetheless, no one agrees on how or where Montevaldo came up with the name: did he steal it from Arabic/Spanish/Islam words and modify it, or was it one wholly invented by himself?



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