The 50 American States are mostly named for a wide variety of places in England, people, geographical features—often in the language of the local Native American Indian tribe—and the tribes themselves. People: Pennsylvania for William Penn, its founder; Virginia for Elizabeth I, the virgin queen; Washington for our first President, and so on. Native American Indian words for prominent geographical features and the tribes themselves are easily recognized in the names Dakota, Mississippi, Illinois, Missouri, and others. A few names, like Idaho, just seem to have been invented even though they sound like Native American Indian words.
Surprisingly, one State—California—is named for a powerful, wealthy, handsome, black lesbian. Well, that sounds improbable; doesn’t it? But it’s true nonetheless. California is named for Calafia (sometimes spelled Califia), warrior queen of a mythical tribe of Amazon warriors who were believed by early Spanish explorers to inhabit the place we now call California. How did that happen?
The legend of Calafia goes back to a time well before actual Spanish exploration of the west coast of North America, but in the minds of the adventurous, the exploration had already begun. Spanish writer Garci Ordonez de Montalvo wrote three adventure novels about an early 16th century knight errant, Amadis de Gaula, who journeyed the world. In fact, Montalvo appears to have plagiarized a 100-year-old predecessor, but "his" novels were very successful. His successes with Amadis led him to a fouth novel, one actually written by him and about the travels of Esplandian, the son of Amadis. Esplandian explored in western North America, a safe place for Montalvo’s hero to visit since, in 1510 when the novel was published, almost nothing solid was known about it. Calafia, the golden queen of the Amazons, makes her world debut in this passage from Montalvo’s novel:
“Know ye that at the right hand of the Indies there is an island named California, very close to that part of the Terrestrial Paradise, which was inhabited by black women, without a single man among them, and that they lived in the manner of Amazons. They were robust of body, with strong and passionate hearts and great virtues.
“The island itself is one of the wildest in the world on account of the bold and craggy rocks. Their weapons were all made of gold . . . The island everywhere abounds with gold and precious stones, and upon it no other metal was found. They lived in caves well excavated. They had many ships with which they sailed to other coasts to make forays, and the men whom they took as prisoners they killed . . .
“There ruled over that island of California a queen of majestic proportions, Calafia, more beautiful than all others, and in the very vigor of her womanhood.” LasSergas de Esplandian(The Deeds of Esplandian).
Despite being sold as fiction, the Spanish explorers of western North America took LasSergas de Esplandian at face value. They succumbed to other implausible tales of gold and riches in the New World as well—the Seven Golden Cities of Cibola for one—but Esplandian was especially persuasive, and they began to mount expeditions from their colonies in Mexico, up the western coast of North America in search of the rich, gold laden island described in the book. On one such expedition, Cortez himself found the Baja peninsula, which is separated from the Mexican mainland by the aptly named Sea of Cortez. He assumed the tip of Baja was the tip of the island that was Calafia’s empire, but further exploration many years later turned up nothing like an island kingdom filled with gold.
However, despite the disappointment of not finding gold, the name California persisted. The power of the myth was such that even though the explorers on the ground could not confirm the existence of an island, full of gold or not, Europeans still believed in the golden land. The best mapmakers in Europe, the Dutch, showed California as an island almost uniformly until about 1720. Even after that the myth of Calafia’s golden island was so pervasive that in 1747, Ferdinand VII of Spain issued a royal edict declaring California a part of the mainland, i.e. not an island.
The idea of a rich land governed by a beautiful queen persists in California even today. The State Seal shows the profile of a handsome woman with helmet, shield and spear. She could be Calafia, but is officially recognized as Minerva, the Greek goddess of wisdom. Public art such as the stone relief by Maynard Dixon, installed at Villa Montalvo, the appropriately named estate of California Governor Phelan, and a mosaic in a prominent San Francisco hotel show Calafia.
Ironically, due to tectonic plate movement, that part of California west of the San Andreas fault may well separate from the mainland in 25 or 30 million years and continue drifting in a somewhat northwesterly direction, thus creating an Island of West-California. Clearly, Montalvo, Cortez, et al. were just a little early on the scene.
16th century fiction or 21st century fact, California is a remarkable place and, for sure, it is the only state named for a powerful, wealthy, handsome, black lesbian—Calafia, the Golden Queen.