When the Spanish first began exploring the Pacific Coast of North America, they mistakenly believed that California was an island. (Some of the earliest and most fascinating maps of the state depict it as separated from the mainland.) This is considered one of the greatest, albeit short-lived, cartographic errors. 

Early mapmakers began labeling the “island” as California, the name of a mythical island in a book called Las Sergas de Esplandián, “The Adventures of Esplandián,” written by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo. The book was part of a popular series of Spanish romance stories.

In the book, the mythical California is ruled by Queen Califa and populated only with female warriors who brandish gold weapons. They even harness their animals in gold because it is the only mineral on the island.

The legend of Califa and her island was well known among New World explorers. In 1536 when Hernán Cortéz arrived in Baja California, he believed he had landed on the legendary island.

Over three hundred years later gold was discovered in California, making the legend partially true and earning the state its nickname: The Golden State.

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  1. chemosi -  December 6, 2012 - 8:21 am

    Wow! This should be a GRE passage! Lol!

  2. ????? -  June 20, 2012 - 3:21 pm

    Well, this article was a waste of time!
    Why can’t they write well on dictionary.com?

  3. Jeanne -  June 9, 2012 - 1:14 pm

    Actually, it’s a little more complicated than this. Those of you who have noted the connection to Latin are correct. The original name came from the Latin “calida fornax” which means “hot oven”, an appropriate designation for the extreme lower portion of the peninsula of Baja California, which was the first part of the “Californias” explored by the Spanish from the 1530s onward. Temperatures in the extreme south of Baja California Sur easily reach well into the 100s on a daily basis in the summer. The name “California” eventually was used to refer to the entire peninsula of Baja (Lower) California, comprising what are now the states of Baja California Sur and Baja California Norte–in Mexico– as well as what is now the state of California, USA, originally known as Alta California–upper California.

    The confusion with the mythical island of Calafia came later with the misrepresentation of the peninsula of Baja California as an island, and what with the similar-sounding name, caused many to mistakenly connect the two. The discovery of gold both in Alta California as well as in Baja California only served to reinforce the idea of a connection. Many places in both upper California and in Baja California have places named for the legendary Queen Calafia, which, by the way is pronounced ca-LA-fia with the accent on the second syllable, not ca-la-FEE-a as the street in San Clemente, CA and other places is usually pronounced.

  4. ann -  June 7, 2012 - 2:28 am

    quite interesting

  5. Carl -  June 4, 2012 - 10:37 am

    I’m having a hard time believing real people actually posted all these comments.
    It’s an article about California’s name, not the bear on the flag, not the state’s nickname. Google it – it’s true that the gold rush contributed to the state being nicknamed “the golden state.”
    Come on people.

  6. Bob -  May 24, 2012 - 12:34 pm

    Wow! In ‘when Jessie went to sea’ I wondered why many people dreamed of going to america. They said ” Oh I can’t image it, the streets paved with gold!” It wasn’t. I bet it was the story. It was so amazing to the poor guys wanted to go.

  7. Brian N. -  May 4, 2012 - 11:55 am

    You all should watch King of California instead. Evan Rachel Wood’s character explains it a lot better than this article:

    “You want to know how California got it’s name? It’s not named after some explorer, or king. Nope. Someone made the name up – a writer. He just pulled it out of his imagination in the 16th century, in Spain. He made up this place where there was unlimited gold, and pearls, and beautiful fierce women who wore gold armor, and rode wild beasts. And he called it California. It’s true. It was a best seller back then. Charlie told me that. He said I could like it up if I didn’t believe him. But I didn’t need to.”

    So, California has been wonderful and amazing and fun even before it existed. You should probably back off, Betsy.

  8. Betsy -  April 14, 2012 - 6:50 am

    My grandmother was once sassed by a Californian.

    She and my grandfather were staying in a hotel in San Francisco. They were having breakfast, and she asked the waitress if they had any biscuits. (We live in LA – Louisiana, mind you, not Los Angeles.) The waitress yelled, “BISCUITS?!” And then she added, very snottily, “No, and we don’t have grits, either!” (My grandmother doesn’t even LIKE grits.)

  9. Betsy -  April 14, 2012 - 6:42 am

    @jay that’s not a black bear, dummy, that’s a grizzly!

  10. Wytchkraft -  April 9, 2012 - 10:18 am

    I’ve learnt in school that the name California comes from the latinism ‘Calidax Fornax’ something like “heat oven” due to its high desert temperatures (Baja California) That is the same source the author used to write his adventure book.

  11. Gene Fellner -  March 23, 2012 - 8:03 am

    Gilgamesh: You forgot Montana, from Spanish “Montaña del Norte.”

    Florida was never part of Mexico. France had always vied with Spain for possession and ultimately prevailed, but ultimately the British took the colony in 1763, long before the Mexican independence movement gained traction.

    Geographers, geologists and sociologists define the name “America” differently, so there’s no true universal meaning for the word. Spanish-speaking people call the Western Hemisphere “the Americas,” not “America.” So do others, including many anglophones, to avoid ambiguity. When speaking precisely, Latin Americans often refer to people of the USA as “norteamericanos,” literally “North Americans.” When being precise they call us “estadounidenses,” an adjective formed from “Estados Unidos.” They generally do not call themselves “Americans” in recognition of the fact that, justly or not, we have appropriated the name.

    The exception would be in “Aztlán,” the contiguous states of the Southwestern USA and northern Mexico with a turbulent history of migration and conquest resulting in a population and culture that is a hybrid of both countries and feels not totally at home in either. A song by Lost Tigres del Norte titled “Somos más Americanos,” “We Are More American,” recently triggered a fatal shooting in a karaoke bar in Texas, highlighting this sore point.

    It’s not clear if they include Canadians as norteamericanos, since they have the perfectly good name “canadiense” for them.

    As for an “American” language, there are many dictionaries and other reference books that specifically refer to themselves as authorities on “the American language.” To be precise, what we speak is the American dialect of English, or “American English,” with “Standard American” being the hybrid Hollywood-Manhattan accent, vocabulary and grammar of network radio and TV announcers, which has steadiy been leveling our regional dialects and accents in the postwar era.

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