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How Did California Get Its Name?


The name “California” comes from a 16th-century Spanish novel that involves a warrior queen named Calafia. But the name also has much deeper roots that connect North African pirates and a medieval epic poem.

What Does “California” Mean?

There are many of theories about where the name California comes from. Some suspect that the word “California” comes from the Latin or Spanish phrases for “hot furnace” (calida fornax in Latin or caliente horno in Spanish).

One California pioneer, Josefa Carrillo de Fitch, was convinced that California was an indigenous word. When interviewed about her recollections of early California, Josefa said she remembered her mother saying “that ‘California’ is an Indian word, and in Spanish means ‘high hill.’” (Testimonios, p. 76).

A 16th Century Novel

While it is difficult to verify Josefa’s theory, the most widely accepted origin of the name California comes from a Spanish novel written in the 16th century, Las Sergas de Esplandián (The Exploits of Esplandián), by Garcí Rodríguez de Montalvo. Montalvo is best known for writing one of the most popular action/adventure stories in Spain, Amadís de Gaula (Amadis of Gaul).

Who was Queen Calafia?

Published in Seville in 1510, before Europeans and reached the northern Pacific coast, Las Sergas recounts the adventures of a knight named Esplandián, the son of Amadís, the hero of Montalvo’s earlier novel.

During an important juncture in the novel, Esplandián has to help defend the city of Constantinople. Among those assaulting the city is a group of woman warriors led by a queen named Calafia. Calafia rules over an island called — you guessed it — California:

I tell you that on the right-hand side of the Indies, there was an island called California, which was very close to the region of the Earthly Paradise. This island was inhabited by black women, and there were no males among them at all, for their way of life was similar to that of the Amazons. The island was made up of the wildest cliffs and the sharpest precipices found anywhere in the world. These women had energetic bodies and courageous, ardent hearts, and they were very strong. Their armor was made entirely out of gold –which was the only metal found on the island– as were the trappings of the fierce beasts that they rode once they were tamed.”

(English translation from Lands of Promise and Despair, p. 11.)

In the novel, California is a fantastic place, filled with warrior women and fierce beasts. Of course, in Montalvo’s story, someone as powerful as Calafia can’t remain an enemy for long. She eventually switches loyalties, becomes Christian and marries Esplandián’s cousin (p. 10).

Don Quixote and Burned Books

According to Rose Marie Beebe and Robert Senkewicz, Montalvo was influenced by stories from Christopher Columbus and other explorers about the marvels of the New World. Chivalric or knightly novels like Amadis and Las Sergas were very popular in sixteenth-century Spain, so popular that Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, the madness of his own knight on the late-night reading of these novels. Cervantes considered most of them to be trashy. In fact, Las sergas is one of the first books burned in the bonfire in Don Quixote.

Knights and Conquistadors

We know that Spanish conquistadors were reading books of chivalry. Bernal Diaz de Castillo, who was a soldier in Cortez’s campaign against the Aztecs, says that the first time he and his comrades saw the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, “We were amazed. We said it looked like the enchanted things they tell of in the book of Amadís.” (The True History of The Conquest of New Spain, LXXXVII).

We don’t know who exactly gave California its name, but by the 1540s, Spanish explorers were already referring to the peninsula as “California.” Of course, when early writers mentioned “California,” they meant Baja California since the existence of Alta California wouldn’t be confirmed until Sebastián Vizcaíno’s 1602 voyage.

Vizcaíno learned for certain that California was not an island but rather a peninsula connected to the North American mainland. Could early explorers have called it California as an ironic reference to the dry and forbidding landscape of the peninsula? We don’t know.

So, if we know the name California comes from Montalvo’s novel, just how did Montalvo arrive at the name California? Did he base it on calida fornax or caliente horno?

A Medieval Hero

King Charlemagne mourns the death of his greatest knight, Roland, in The Song of Roland.

400 years before Montalvo’s novel, a very similar name appears in one of the most important epic poems of all time, the medieval Song of Roland.  Montalvo surely read the Song of Roland since his characters are all connected to the poem

The Song of Roland tells the story of the famous king Charlemagne and his most heroic knight, Roland. As is common in medieval epic poems, Charlemagne, a Christian king, is locked in a continual series of battles with non-Christian kingdoms. In stanza CCIX of the poem, Charlemagne lists the enemy realms that oppose him:

“Against me then the Saxon will rebel,
Hungar, Bulgar, and many hostile men,
Romain, Puillain, all those are in Palerne,
And in Affrike, and those in Califerne” [emphasis mine].

So “Califerne” is clearly the precursor to the name California. But was Califerne an imaginary place?

A Real Place

According to an article in journal of the Historical Society of Southern California in 1923, there were a number of fortified cities located along the coast of North Africa during the Middle Ages, “some of them famed for their magnificence as well as for their strength, and the Arabic word for this type of town was kalaa or kalat…this word was used as a prefix in forming their names, and a number of such names were known to the Christian world.”

The authors tell us that there was a city known as ”Kalaa-Ifrene” or “Kal-Ifrene,” which was “the capital of a great empire founded by a warrior called Beni-Hammad.” Beni-Hammad’s empire was in existence at the time the Song of Roland was written down in the 11th century. It was on the coast of what is today Algeria.

The Barbary Coast

According to the article, Kal-Ifrene “was the queen city of Barbary in the XI century,” which eventually fell in the middle of the twelfth century. The term “Barbary” was used to refer to the lands of the Berber people of North Africa and is what is collectively referred to today as the Maghreb.

Since the early Middle Ages privateers from the North African coast would make raids all over the Mediterranean (especially Spain and Italy), often to capture slaves. These slave traders would become known as the “Barbary pirates,” and from the 16th century on, served the Ottoman Empire (Miguel de Cervantes was a prisoner of Barbary pirates in Algeria for five years).

In the early 19th century, U.S. Marines battled Barbary pirates in what is today Libya. The battles are memorialized in the Marine Corps anthem with the lines “to the shores of Tripoli.”

So, Montalvo’s name is not invented but derived from a real place.

The New Barbary Coast

But you may also be familiar with the name “Barbary ” because it is associated with the city of San Francisco, which had a rough reputation in the 19th century. In the 1850s and 1860s, the city’s notorious red light district was so dangerous that sailors referred to it as the “Barbary Coast.” If you weren’t careful, you might not make it out alive. Little did these sailors know that they were hearkening back to the origin of the name of California.

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