How California Got Its Name

The etymology of California has a curious story. America’s richest and most populous state is named after a fictional country from a 16th-century Spanish novelWhen the Spanish were exploring the Americas, they named the lands northwest of Mexico after the made-up island of California. It would be like naming a region Gondor or Narnia today.

Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo wrote the Amadis series around 1500 by translating and retelling older French and Portuguese tales. His books followed the adventures of Amadis of Gaul, a knight-errant who went about slaying giants and rescuing damsels. Although near unknown today, it was incredibly popular in its time. A century later, Miguel Cervantes parodied the Amadis books in Don Quixote, whose lead character claims Amadis of Gaul as his favourite.

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The land of California appears in Montalvo’s fifth bookThe Exploits of Esplandian (1510). Written when the Spanish were exploring the New World, which they still thought was Asia, it follows the adventures of Amadis’s son and his war with the amazon queen Califia (whose name likely derives from the Arabic ‘caliph’). Her kingdom, California was an island somewhere west of the Caribbean and east of Constantinople. Its people were amazons who rode griffins to battle and whose only metal was gold. Of course, by the end of the novel, Esplandian defeats Califia; she converts to Christianity and accepts men into her land.

Montalvo describes:

Know that on the right hand of the Indies exists an island called California, very close to a side of the Eartlhy paradise; and it was populated by black women, without any man existing there because they lived in the way of the Amazons. They had beautiful and robust bodies and were brave and very strong. Their island was the strongest of the World, with its cliffs and rocky shores. Their weapons were golden and so were the harnesses of the wild beasts that they were accustomed to taming so that they could be ridden because there was no other metal in the island than gold.

Montalvo’s chivalric romances were easily accessible, credit to the newly invented printing press, and especially popular amongst men seeking adventure in the New World. Hernan Cortes referenced Amadis when seeing Tenochtitlan for the first time.

In 1542, Juan Rodriguez, a Portuguese conquistador working for the Spanish, sailed from Honduras up the western coast of North America. Like most Spanish adventurers, he was familiar with Montalvo’s books and may even have thought them true. Rodriguez found a peninsular, mistook it for an island and named it California. In 1602 the Spanish colonised the region and applied the name not only to the peninsular (today’s Baja California, Mexico) but the land north as well, which they still believed to be an island. The name California has stuck ever since. 

Source: John Man – Amazons: The Real Warrior Women of the Ancient World (2017)

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