California Name Origin: Why Was California Named After A Black Queen?

The starry glamor of Hollywood, the surfer and hippie vibes of Los Angeles, the beaches, the Mexican food, or just the overall kindness of the people: California is one of the most vibrant and well-known states in the United States.

The actual inhabitants of California might even argue that the state can be divided into two separate states, one representing the North and one representing the South. Yet, all of the states are referred to with just that one name: California. But what exactly does the name California mean, and what does it mean to be Californian?

California Name Origin: Spanish Explores and Las Sergas de Esplandián

In the 16th century, way before the United States became an actual country, a group of Spanish explorers started searching for an island called California described by a Spanish writer in a book called Las Sergas de Esplandián.

READ MORE: How Old Is the United States of America

The book was written by a man named Garcia Ordonez de Montalvo, a critically acclaimed writer at the time. It describes a mythical island paradise populated only by black warrior women, east of the Indies, and close to the garden of Eden.

The Spanish explorers did indeed find an unexplored area and believed it to be an island. They believed it to be the mythical island as described by Montalvo.

Little did the explorers know that it wasn’t the exact island they were looking for, or even an island altogether. This didn’t stop them, however, from naming the place after the island described in Montalvo’s novel.

Today, we know that the Spanish conquistadors did discover a terrestrial paradise on the Pacific coast. However, it was the area that we know today as the Baja California Peninsula, or the Baja Peninsula of California.

Spanish conquistadors

Etymology of the Name California

Wait, etymology? Yes, referring to the exact meaning of the name. That doesn’t mean that it’s so straightforward. It’s a guessing game, really, and only the writer himself would be able to tell where the name comes from.

The term California is often related to the term calif: a Spanish word for a leader of an Islamic community. It is derived from the Arabic word khalifa, which means leader. Khalifa or calif, thus, refers to a leader. To make the word specifically feminine, it would be spelled calafia: the name of our queen.

However, other historians also relate the term to some French and Greek words. But, these theories are way more contested than the Spanish and Arabic background of the word.

Lost and Found: How California’s Name Origin Was Rediscovered

The name got adopted widely, but the origin of the name and Montalvo’s story got lost over time. However, in 1864, a writer and researcher named Edward Everett Hale published one of his discoveries after reading the book of Montalvo. Hale wrote in a magazine named the Atlantic monthly: 

 Throng down to the wharves to see the Golden Era or the Carnelius’s Coffin, or whatever other mail-steamer may bring these words to your longing eyes. […] Rush upon the newsboy who then brings forth the bale of this Journal for the Multitude, to find that the Queen of California of whom we write is no modern queen, but that she reigned some five hundred and fifty-five years ago.

We might say a lot of things about his writing style, but we can’t say that he doesn’t have a sense of the sensation.

The discovery by Hale has been widely contested over time. However, it kept its ground, and today the origin of the name California is almost exclusively related to the discovery of Hale.

Queen Califia and an Island Called California

So, the Spaniards wanted to find the island of California as described in Las Sergas de Esplandián. But why, exactly?

Well, all the credit must be given to the writer of the book, Montalvo. He described the island so vividly that the Spaniards felt the urge to go on a voyage and search for the earthly paradise.

Montalvo describes the island of California as being populated by exclusively black women with beautiful and robust bodies and strong and ardent hearts. The entire island was inhabited by women, so no man existed. 

Montalvo described the rocky shores, cliffs, wild beasts, and el oro: as golden weapons. Indeed, the island was described as un gran fuerza and the mightiest in all of the world. 

Why golden weapons, you ask? Well, there was simply no other metal whatsoever on the island. Quite the paradise, indeed. However, it didn’t necessarily help the queen of the island.

The front page of “Las Sergas de Esplandián” by Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo

The Story of Queen Calafia

In Montalvo’s book, a queen by the name of Calafia was directly responsible for the name California. However, the mighty and beautiful queen was also quite hungry for war. This wouldn’t help to bring her personal story to a happy end. Still, this story about the origin of an island called California continues to be relevant to this day.

The Island of California

With great mythical charm, Montalvo describes that queen Calafia would set sail with her great fleet of ships. The ships were filled with 500 mythical warrior beasts. The ‘wild beasts’ were described as being trained from birth to feed on men. The aim of the voyage was to conquer all and everything in the Battle of Constantinople.

Mythical beasts and golden weapons. What could go wrong?

Yet, although Calafia’s island was described as the strongest of all, Montalvo had another intention for the narrative of the story. In line with the zeitgeist at the time, the Christian man would become the hero.

Indeed, the fierce and proud Amazon queen falls in love with one of the knights who defeated her, abandons her queendom, converts to Christianity, and marries one of the knights.

Detail of Calafia mural at the Mark Hopkins Hotel, San Francisco painted by Maynard Dixon and Frank Von Sloun

Fictional Defeat, Non-Fictional Resistance

However, the actual conversion of the native inhabitants of Baja y Alta California wouldn’t be as smooth as described in the novel. Although the explorers had great faith in the Christian missions – the name California is a testament to that, it would be the natives who would become honored.

This started when the Spaniards arrived at the Pacific coast intending to conquer the area. However, they found that the native inhabitants weren’t prone to be colonized. The many protests and revolts by native women produced a strong counternarrative to the Spaniards.

While the Christian man would turn out to be the hero in Mondalvo’s story, the native women would become the heroes in real life. This, too, is reflected in the many images of both native women and Queen Calafia across the state of California.

How the Explorers From Spain Tried To Reproduce Montalvo’s Narrative

The explorers from Spain might have read Montalvo’s book a little too closely. That is to say that they were indeed on a mission to convert the non-Christians of the area. To ‘convert,’ however, would mean the colonization and enslavement of the native inhabitants of California.

Despite the romantic portraits of the initial mission in California, they were necessarily religious. The conquistadors had set up labor camps for the benefit of the colonizers before the native inhabitants knew what was going on.

“Conquistadors Discover the Pacific” – a mural done by Anton Refregier

Native Hospitality

It is well documented that the native and Indigenous groups of the Americas welcomed the Europeans with open arms. However, in the name of Jesus, the Spaniards weren’t keen to give back this same hospitality. Because of the different intentions, it was quite easy to colonize the original inhabitants with brute force.

Christian Destruction

The newcomers introduced domestic stock animals, destroying the majority of native foods and undermining the economic independence of the area. In addition, a profound pattern of bribes, intimidation, and the expected onslaught of European diseases ensured that most of the native heritage was destroyed.

The missionaries were given ten years to ‘convert’ the natives. If not converted by then, they would be forcefully displaced from their lands and killed en masse. Unfortunately, the latter came to be the reality.

How the Native Women Became the Heroes

Yet, as indicated, it is not the Christian missionaries and conquistadors from Spain that are acknowledged as heroes today. Rather, the native women are acknowledged as heroes all over the state of California. How did that happen?

Native Resistance

The conditions created by the missionaries resulted in several well-documented forms of resistance. Worshiping of native deities continued to take place, including the many rituals that surround it. Also, many people that were subjected to the colonial structures were successful in their attempts to flee the labor camps.

Not only that, there are a handful of assassinations that were carried out by the natives toward their colonizers. While some assassinations were conducted through poisoning or stonings, some missionaries were also killed during widespread armed revolts.

Some of the most notable revolts were carried out by the Kumeyaay of San Diego, who launched two military assaults within five weeks after the arrival of the Spaniards, desperate to stop the pattern of sexual assaults that the missionaries already established.

The assaults, however, didn’t stop and forced the natives to continue their resistance. One of the last rebellions occurred in 1824 when disenchanted Chumash Indians overthrew the colonial troops.

The Chumash Revolt of 1824 – painted by 20th-century American artist Alexander Harmer

How Native Resistance Resulted in the Right to Culture

The impact of the missionaries on the natives of California was devastating, to put it mildly. Missionaries required tribes to abandon their aboriginal territories and live in filthy, disease-ridden, and crowded labor camps.

One out of three natives died as a direct consequence of the mission, and many more were raped or tortured. That’s about ten times the rate of people that died from the Spanish flu.

Yet, the resistance of the natives led to the fact that they were able to cherish their original language and traditions. Indeed, they managed to continue their cultural identity, although missionaries had tried their utmost best to destroy every part of it.

Because of the continued cultural identity, many see the natives as the heroes, rather than the Christians. The many depictions of queen Califia and important native persons are a testament to this view of the name’s origin.

Although Montalvo and the explorers from Spain gave California its name to reflect Christian superiority, contemporary art and architecture show otherwise and have praised and affirmed the counter-narrative.

What Does the Name California Mean?

The name origin of California is, thus, derived from a 16th-century novel. While the original meaning of the story, as described in the novel, is celebrating Christian men, the actual story rather celebrates native and black women. This, too, is reflected in the etymology of the name California.

1827 Finley Map of Mexico, Upper California, and Texas

Can We Be Sure of California’s Name Origin?

As always with history, we can only be sure of the story to the extent that the evidence supports the proposition. The story of a 16th-century novel, in combination with the native inhabitants and the Spanish missionaries, makes a very convincing case for the name origin of California.

Still, one other argument that is made for the origin of the name is the two words derived from the Old Spanish Calit Fornay. The argument here is that the Spaniards transformed it into ‘Cali Fornia,’ meaning a hot furnace. Later on, the English translation would convert it into one word. Although an argument can be made, the theory of Hale definitely seems more plausible.

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