Who Is California’s Namesake?

In 1534, when Hernán Cortés’ men first saw what would later be named Baja California, they thought they’d found an island. They, or later Cortés himself in 1535, imagined it could be the fabled land of Black Queen Calafia and her Amazon warriors. These were well-known characters from the popular romance novel, The Adventures of Esplandián (Las sergas de Esplandián, c.1500) by Garcia Rodríguez de Montalvo. The book boasts battles, romance, adventure and strong women. The name Calafia, sometimes written as Califia, is thought to originate from the Arabic word khalifa (califa in Spanish), meaning ruler or religious leader. In honor of Queen Calafia, the explorers named the land California, as her island realm was called.

Many early maps show California as an island! Cartographers tended to refer to previous maps to develop their drawings, and continued the error shown below for centuries. The mistake was so widespread that 200 years later in 1747, King Ferdinand VI formally decreed that California was not an island. A royal stamp of the foot was not enough to correct the misperceptions. Collector Glen McLaughlin found stacks of evidence it continued and he’s donated maps to Stanford chronicling this folly well into the 1800s.

Map of California as an island, c. 1650

I think it is great to discover California was named for the strong, beautiful, regal Calafia.

Did you know about the origins of the name California? Would you say it’s a figurative island?

Gracias for reading Fake Flamenco. ¡Olé! –Rebecca

TheDons_Detail (1)
Queen Calafia mural in the Room of the Dons at the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco Photo: Wysinger



Rebecca Cuningham

22 thoughts on “Who Is California’s Namesake?

  1. Wow! Rebecca, great post! I never knew that historical fact. I often wondered where the name California had come from but it is interesting to know and to know it comes from such a queen! Loved it! Thank you for the knowledge.
    All the best and my greetings,

    Liked by 2 people

  2. That is very interesting information. Thanks! I didn’t realize the early explorers thought California was an island. I guess I can see why. It’s not like they could fly over it and see that part of it is attached.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Carol Anne. Turns out some of the first Spanish speaking settlers in California were of African descent! I hope to get a post out this week about the new information I’ve read.


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