California’s Mythical Queen Calafia

CA poppy real close

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, a fantasy-adventure novel that became wildly popular. One passage reads: “. . . on the right hand of the Indies, there is an island called California . . . which was populated by black women, without any men among them . . . They were of strong and hardened bodies, of ardent courage and of great force. Their arms were of gold, so were the caparisons of the wild beasts they rode.” The island was ruled by 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.

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