Montalvo and Calafia - the Naming of California

Most Spanish place names in California are derived from religious terms, Native American names, geographic peculiarities, and the like. The word "California" itself does not appear to have been derived from any of these common sources. Who first applied the name to the present day State of California and when is unknown. Scholars who have researched the subject have developed several theories. These notes present the most plausible.

The first recorded use of the word California that has been found to date is 1541 in documents related to a breach-of-contract suit brought by Juan Castellon against Hernan Cortes. In a letter by Franciscan Father Antonio de Meno introduced as evidence in the trial, Father Meno referred to the "Isla de California." Father Meno had accompanied Francisco de Ulloa on one of his expeditions in the Sea of Cortes in 1539 and so it is possible, even probable, that the name was in use at that earlier date.

The driving force behind the Ulloa expedition was Cortes. Vasco Nunez de Balboa had discovered the Pacific Ocean in 1513. Cortes had been replaced in New Spain by the King's Viceroy, Antonio de Mendoza and, in 1528, was commissioned to explore the Pacific Ocean. Myths circulating at the time spoke of lands of great wealth located in distant oceans. These myths depicted wondrous islands of gold and pearls inhabited by beautiful amazons and guarded by rocky shores and strange beasts. Cortes and the King of Spain appear to have believed that there was at least some substance to these myths. As a reward for his services, Cortes was to be given the governorship for life of any island that he found.

Also circulating at the time was a fifteenth century Spanish romance in five volumes entitled Amadis de Gaula by Garcia Ordonez de Montalvo. The first four volumes were a translation of an older Portuguese romance. The fifth volume was a sequel by Montalvo entitled Las Sergas del muy esforzado caballero Esplandian, hijo del excelente rey Amadis de Gaula. (The exploits of the very powerful cavalier Esplandian, son of the excellent king Amadis de Gaula. The subject of Montalvo's work was the conflict between Christian and Moslem in the Crusades. The first four volumes were respected, but the fifth was not well received by the critics of the time. Cervantes, in Don Quiote, had his hero keep the first four books in his library but burn the fifth.) Esplandian's adventures took him to an island called California ruled by a beautiful black Amazon Queen named Calafia. California fit the myths then circulating in all respects. It had gold in plenty, free-loving amazons living in caves, strange beasts, and was very difficult to reach.

Cortes had lost his position in New Spain and needed an island of riches to renew his financial fortunes. In 1533 he commissioned Diego Bezerra de Mendoza to search the Pacific for islands. Bezerra's pilot, Ortuna Ximenes, murdered his captain and took over the expedition. Ximenes discovered the southern tip of what is today known as Baja California and thought that it was an island. Ximenes went ashore with a landing party and was killed by a party of natives. The survivors aboard the ship returned to the mainland with word of their discovery. On May 3, 1535 Cortes landed on his "island," claimed it for Spain, named it Santa Cruz, and laid out the town site that would become La Paz. On May 10, 1535 he proclaimed himself governor.

It is not known if Cortes actually referred to his "island" informally as California, but it is easy to speculate that wishful thinking might have encouraged him to do so. Another possibility is that after Baja was proven to be barren of amazons and gold and rather poor in pearls the name was applied in sarcasm by enemies of Cortes. In any case sometime between 1535 and 1541 the name California became associated with the peninsula now known as Baja California. Gradually in the years that followed the name was applied to other areas. After Cabrillo's voyage in 1542 the concept of Alta (upper) California and Baja (lower) California emerged. Alta California was to become what is now known as the State of California.

It is also intriguing to speculate as to where Montalvo got the word California for his romantic novel in the fifteenth century. Here again there are a number of theories and no definitive proof. The most plausible theory relates the Queen Calafia to a modification of the Spanish word Calif (Caliph in English). Calafia being the feminine form of Calif, a woman ruler of a Moslem kingdom. This theory further postulates that California is a form of Califerne meaning the realm of the Calif. Other theories attempt to reach back even further to trace the origins of Calif and Califerne, but links get pretty vague pretty quickly. The best of the lot points to the word Califerne being used in the eleventh century's Chanson de Roland when King Charles the Great enumerates the foes that will attack him as including those of Califerne.

It is perhaps fitting that the word California can trace it's origin back to dreams of great wealth, beautiful women, strange beasts, and difficult obstacles. Certainly all have played a part in the history of this place.