California, a Fantasy Name

California got its name before anyone knew what or where it was. In 1510 author Garcia Ordonez de Montevaldo published The Sergas de Esplandian in Seville, Spain. The fantasy romance novel about the exploits of a swashbuckling cavalier, who traveled to a mythical island named California, became wildly popular. This island, located “on the right hand of the Indies,” was populated by tall, black female warriors who had shields and swords and ornaments made of gold. Their ruler was the beautiful queen Calafia. Subsequent to Hernan Cortéz’s conquest of Mexico in 1519, his officers Francisco de Ulloa or Hernando Grixalva (accounts differ) discovered that the mystical island was actually a mainland. There weren’t any Amazon-like black women toting golden shields, either. If he was disappointed, Ulloa (or Grixalva) nevertheless named his find California. However, the myth lived on. As late as 1696, European cartographers were still drawing California as a large island in the Pacific Ocean adjacent to the coastline of the New World.