Conquistadors, Gold and Charlemagne: How California Got Its Name

By: Kristen Hall-Geisler  | 

California
California conjurs up images of the Beach Boys, surfboards and Hollywood for many, but the origin of the state name comes from a 16th-century Spanish novel by Garcí Rodríguez de Montalvo. Andrea Hill-Getty Images/Nick Youngson-Alpha Stock Images (CC BY-SA 3.0)/HowStuffWorks

Some states have very straightforward names. Pennsylvania? Named for William Penn and the sylvan woods found in the state. Virginia? Named for Elizabeth I, known as the Virgin Queen. At first glance, California seems to have a simple name. It sounds kind of floral, like Florida.

But the story is far, far cooler than that: California takes its name from a 16th-century Spanish novel featuring a society of Black warrior women.

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"Amadis de Gaula"

Garcí Rodríguez de Montalvo of Seville, in Spain, wrote a novel called "Amadis de Gaula," or "Amadis of Gaul." Amadis was an early action hero, and the book was ridiculously popular. Montalvo was no fool, so he wrote a sequel featuring the son of Amadis, "Las Sergas de Esplandian," or "Exploits of Esplandian."

In "Las Sergas," Constantinople is being besieged on all sides. One of the attacking forces is an army of women led by Queen Califia. "These women had energetic bodies and courageous, ardent hearts, and they were very strong," Montalvo wrote. They also had pet griffins – half lion, half eagle – and they fed men to them.

He described their homeland, called California, as being close to the earthly paradise. It had "the wildest cliffs and the sharpest precipices," which certainly must sound familiar to anyone who's driven sections of Highway 101 in the Golden State. Speaking of gold, the only metal found on the island was gold, which the women used to fashion their armor.

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The Conquistadors Arrive in the Americas

"Las Sergas de Esplandian" was published in 1510, during the time that the Conquistadors were arriving in the Americas. Those who were literate brought along books, and Montalvo's wildly popular works were among them. The Spanish believed what we now call Baja California to be an island, like the island ruled by Queen Califia (or Calafia) in the novel. And so it was dubbed California by the European colonizers.

In 1602, an expedition led by Vizcaino learned that the "island" was actually a peninsula connected to a far larger mainland in the north. This led to these places being called Baja California (lower California) and Alta California (upper California) by Europeans.

Eventually, Alta California became the state we know as plain old California, with its wild cliffs and sharp precipices. And 350 years or so after Queen Califia and her warriors clad themselves in gold armor in an attempt to take Constantinople, gold would be discovered in the real California and cause a rush to mine it.

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Charlemagne and "The Song of Roland"

But we can trace California back even earlier than Montalvo in 1510. He didn't make that name up out of thin air. He based his book at least in part on "The Song of Roland," a famous French poem written in the 11th century about the exploits of Charlemagne in the 8th century. Late in the work, Charlemagne lists all the people he expects to rebel against his rule, including "men of Africa and those of Califerne."

At the time, there were fortified towns in north Africa called "kalaa" or "kalat." Many of these towns used this as a prefix for their names, including one founded by a warrior named Beni-Hammad. His vassals were a tribe known as Beni-Ifren, and so he named his city "Kalaa-Ifrene" or "Kal-Ifrene." It was located south of the city today known as Bejaia on the coast of Algeria and apparently quite famous to Christian Europeans for it wealth and magnificence. But alas, Kalaa-Ifrene met its downfall in the 12th century not long after "Song of Roland" was written down. But its name lives on thanks to a Spanish adventure novel and a state on the West Coast of America.

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