Cortés Looks for Amazons

California had to be an island.

POP QUIZ: What does California mean?

Hernán Cortés

Hernán Cortés

Most historians agree that California got its name from Garda Ordonez de Montalvos chivalric romance, Las Sergas de Esplandian (1510). Calafia, a black queen, reigns over a gold-laden island “very near the Terrestrial Paradise” — i.e., Eden — named California. She takes her army by- of Amazon-like women to Constantinople, gets defeated, converts to Christianity, marries (but not the man she loves), and submits to male authority.

No one agrees, however, on who first applied the name.

From 1533 to 1541, Hernán Cortés sent several ships, from Acapulco and Jalisco, to explore uncharted waters beyond the west coast of Mexico. These voyages discovered the Baja peninsula and eventually led to Cabrillo landing on San Diego Bay in 1542. On one of them, California got its name.

Like many explorers, Cortés was obsessed with finding the Strait of Anian — i.e., the Northwest Passage, also known as “the Englishman's Strait”— which would link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. He also sought uncountable wealth, native souls to convert, and, according to many, the home of Calafia. An island populated solely by women would not only spark a lonesome sailor’s delight, it meant the Terrestrial Paradise might be close at hand.

Cortés wasn’t alone in his quest for Amazons. The largest river in South America is named for them.

Three voyages get the most nominations as namers of California. In 1533, Diego Becerra sailed the Concepcion in search of a previous explorer. Not far from port, his pilot, Fortun Jiminez, and crew mutinied. They killed Becerra “while sleeping soundly on a chest” and dumped his body overboard. They marooned other officials and headed west, landing near present-day La Paz.

Jiminez was probably the first Spanish explorer to see Baja, though not for long. Survivors say he and 20 others barely reached shore before natives slaughtered them. Those who stayed on board sailed back to Cortés and reported an island — California? — rich in pearls.

“Perhaps it was Jiminez who gave California its name,” says David J. Weber. “Nearly a decade before Jiminez discovered Baja California, Cortes had heard accounts of an island rich in pearls and gold and, as he put it,‘inhabited only by women without any men.’ Jiminez, then, may have known what to look for.”

In 1535, Cortés sailed three ships into La Paz Bay, renamed it Santa Cruz Bay, and established a colony. Many attribute the name California to Cortes, including chroniclers Bernal Diaz and Antonio de Herrera. The “Santa Cruz experiment,” the first nonnative settlement on Baja, failed. Rocky terrain, paltry supplies (23 died of starvation), and inhospitable natives forced Cortés to abandon the project.

Because of this disaster, some feel the name might have been ironic. Just as Jiminez named the bay La Paz (“the peace”) and was murdered shortly thereafter, so linking a foiled experiment with the land of gold could have a similar tinge. Hubert Howe Bancroft believed “the name was applied in derision” by colonists fleeing Baja. Nellie Van de Grift Sanchez disagrees. Cortés and company “were not looking for green trees and babbling brooks, but for the yellow gold, and none knew better that the precious metal was more often found in such bare, desolate land.”

In 1539 Cortés still believed Baja was an island. He ordered Francisco de Ulloa to sail three ships from Acapulco to La Paz, then up the east coast of Baja, to find a passage north. Ulloa lost one ship, in transit, to the Gulf of California’s notorious storms. When he reached the river-mouth of the Colorado, the tides spun his ships around — and proved that “California” was actually a peninsula.

Few believed his report. “California” had to be an island.

Ulloa, who gets historian Harry Kelsey’s vote as the namer, then sailed south. He fought violent storms around Cabo San Lucas and eventually headed up the west coast. How for? Some say his ships were the first to reach San Diego. But few believe that either.

Regardless of who bestowed the name, it was in currency—but referred only to the tip of the peninsula—when Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo anchored near Cedros Island, off the Baja coast. On July 31, 1542, he reported, “From California to here, we have not seen an Indian.”

Our state has an uncharacteristic name. Dora Beale Polk: “That California is not a saint’s name, or otherwise connected with the religious calendar, makes it, in Carlos Pereyra’s words, a 'merla blanca,' a white crow among Spanish names, hence especially curious and mysterious.” We have a fairly clear sense of what it meant to explorers. What the word might mean etymologically becomes another voyage into uncharted waters.

Adam’s main task in Eden was to name the objects around him. Explorers seeking the Terrestrial Paradise relished this function as well: to name was to claim. Also, around the time of Columbus and Cortés, the literate public loved etymology, the history of a word, its roots, linguistic changes, the words inside it that melded — or tussled — for meaning.

Etymological claimants come in two kinds. There are those, like Charles E. Chapman, who believe it was a native word garbled. “It was not the habit of Spanish explorers to assign Latin names or to mix Spanish with Latin or with Catalan.... A more likely suggestion was that the Spaniards might have misunderstood some Indian word and applied it to a name, but this was a mere guess.”

Thus the name could have come from the Baja native’s Kali forno, which meant, says Donald Cutter, “high hills, mountain, or native land” (if this is true, imagine Cortes’s elation when he heard it).

Another local possibility: the native word for peninsula, Tchali-falni-al, meant “the sandy land beyond the water.”

Most speculative etymologists believe the name derives from Montalvo’s island of California in Las Sergas de Esplandian. But what does that word mean?

The most frequent nominee joins two Latin words, Calida and fornax, the former meaning “hot” (also in the Spanish word caliente), the latter, “furnace.” A Catalan word, Cal-ifomo, also means “hot furnace” or “oven.”

Some point to the Arabic Kali-fat, which means “province.”

Others to the Persian Kar-l-Farn, which is the “mountain of Paradise” in Iranian myths.

Cala and fornix, the Spanish word for “cove,” the Latin for “vault” or “arch,” suggest a coinage made at La Paz or Cabo San Lucas, based on a geographical structure.

Any of these, or some combination, could resemble what Montalvo had in mind. But there’s another persistent tradition, far less prudish, that posits an alternate. Over a hundred years ago, the Reverend Dean Trench suggested that the roots were Greek, cale and porneia: “beautiful” and “adultery.”

The Latin word fornix means “arch” and “vault” but also “brothel” and always had a lively, visceral connotation. Words can have double meanings. So can the joining of roots. Thus “California” might mean “hot furnace” or “female Caliph”—or could refer to Julius Caesar’s fourth wife, Calpurnia — but if you combine the Latin calida and fornix, or point to the similar Greek structure, the name of our state could also mean “hot sex.”

The Queen of California: The Origin of the Name of California with a translation from The Sergas of Esplandian by Edward Everett Hale

“Sources of the Name ‘California,’ ” Donald C. Cutter, Arizona and the West, VoL 3, pp. 233-244 (autumn 1961)

The Island of California: A History of the Myth, by Dora Beale Polk, University of Nebraska fress, 1991

The Spanish Frontier in North America, by David J. Weber, Yale University Press, 1992


  1. Antonio de Herrera: “It was the custom of those who discovered new lands to give their own names to the riven, capes, and other places, or else the name of the saint on whose day they made the discovery; or else, other names, as they wished.”
  2. Hernan Cortes, Fourth Letter to the King, 1524: “...[I have heard] there is an island inhabited only by women without any men, and at given times men from the mainland visit them.... This island is ten days’ journey from the province.. .and is very rich in pearls and gold.”
  3. Dora Beale Polk: “Cortes comes through as a man consumed with fantasies in this final phase of his career.” His “reputed sexual appetite must have given him added interest” in the myth of an island inhabited by women, because he spent “as liberally on [women] as on war and ‘fancies.’ ”
  4. Charles E. Chapman, A History of California: The Spanish Period: “...the term ‘Californias,’ which for centuries was much more current than the use of the word in the singular, was intended for the numerous.. .pearl islands of the gulf, one of which might contain the long-sought Amazons, though nobody had seen them. In later years the word was retained as a normal plural for the eventual two Californias, Alta and Baja.”

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