EXPLORING BAJA
AND ALTA CALIFORNIA
CHAPTER 3

The name California was derived from a sixteenth-century Spanish novel, Las Sergas de Esplandían (The Exploits of Esplandían) by García Ordóñez de Montalvo. The narrative was one of those impossible romances of chivalry that grew out of the crusades of the eleventh century. In it, the protagonist Esplandían is a knight bound to vows of courage and chastity and sworn to follow in his father’s footsteps as the conquistador (conqueror) of all his enemies. At one point, the hero visits “California,” a wonderful island inhabited by tall, bronze-colored, and tempestuous Amazons. Their powerful queen, Calafía, leaves the island to go to the assistance of forces besieging Constantinople. Even though the Amazons of California repel their eager male suitors, the strong and beautiful women of the narrative excited the imagination of many a Spanish soldier who read it.

The Las Sergas saga was popular at the time when the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortés arrived in New Spain. Following his conquest of Mexico (1519–1521), Cortés wrote to the Spanish king about a rumored island of Amazon women purportedly “abounding in pearls and gold.” At the time, the Spaniards still believed that the peninsula of Baja California was an island. By the mid-1530s, mariners dispatched north by Cortés had landed in Baja (Lower) California. Most historians, however, give credit for the first official use of the name California to Francisco de Bolaños, who explored the Baja peninsula in 1541. Whoever first named the province probably did so in anticipation of finding there pearls, gold, and other riches mentioned in Montalvo’s fantastic tale.

There also might have been Asian contact with Alta (Upper) California before 1542, when the first Spanish navigator, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, arrived there. Junks sailing from Asia via the North Pacific Ocean could have utilized the Japanese current to propel them as many as one hundred miles

-20-

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