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Queen Califia
Las Sergas de Espandian
The lure of an earthly paradise California and where the name came from

Las Sergas de Esplandián

In the minds of European explorers, an island populated by Amazons off the coast of the Indies was a long-established expectation. The earliest known application of the name "California" to this island of the Amazons was in the 1510 romance novel Las Sergas de Esplandián (The Adventures of Esplandián) by Spanish author Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo. The book described the Island of California as being east of the Asian mainland, "very close to the side of the Terrestrial Paradise; and it is peopled by black women, without any man among them, for they live in the manner of Amazons." The Island was ruled by Queen Califia. In his work, the author drew on a long-standing European belief in such an island.

Sabed que a la diestra mano de las Indias existe una isla llamada California muy cerca de un costado del Paraíso Terrenal; y estaba poblada por mujeres negras, sin que existiera allí un hombre, pues vivían a la manera de las amazonas. Eran de bellos y robustos cuerpos, fogoso valor y gran fuerza. Su isla era la más fuerte de todo el mundo, con sus escarpados farallones y sus pétreas costas. Sus armas eran todas de oro y del mismo metal eran los arneses de las bestias salvajes que ellas acostumbraban domar para montarlas, porque en toda la isla no había otro metal que el oro.

Know that on the right hand from the Indies exists an island called California very close to Earthly Paradise; and it was populated by black women, without any man existing there, because they lived in the way of the Amazons. They had beautiful and robust bodies, and were brave and very strong. Their island was the strongest of the World, with its cliffs and rocky shores. Their weapons were golden and so were the harnesses of the wild beasts that they were accustomed to domesticate and ride, because there was no other metal in the island than gold.

 – Las Sergas de Esplandián, (novela de caballería)
by García Ordóñez de Montalvo.
Published in Seville in 1510.

Since then, that unknown Amazon's Island came to be known as California.

Some scholars speculate the Song of Roland, an 11th century Old French epic poem, may have served as the inspiration for the name California. It refers to the defeat suffered August 15, 778, in the retreat of Charlemagne's army at the hands of the Muslim army in Battle of Roncevaux Pass in the Pyrenees. On line 2924 of the poem, which is in verse number CCIX (209), the word Califerne is one of the lands mentioned, with no indication of its geographic location. It is, however, named after a reference to Affrike, or Africa.

Morz est mis nies, ki tant me fist cunquere
Encuntre mei revelerunt li Seisne,
E Hungre e Bugre e tante gent averse,
Romain, Puillain et tuit icil de Palerne
E cil d'Affrike e cil de Califerne.
My nephew's dead, who won for me such realms!
Against me then the Saxon will rebel,
Hungar, Bulgar, and many hostile men,
Romain, Puillain, all those are in Palerne,
And in Affrike, and those in Califerne;
 – Song of Roland, Verse CCIX (i.e. 209; lines 2920–2924), 11th c.

"Since the Roland poem concerns the 'evil' Saracens, it's possible that the poet derived 'Califerne' from 'caliph'. Montalvo might also have been influenced by such similar names as Californo and Calafornina in Sicily or Calahorra in Spain."

This notion of a place of women without men echoes a passage from the diary of Christopher Columbus's first voyage:

Dixéronle los indios que por aquella vía hallaría la isla de Matinino, que diz que era poblada de mugeres sin hombres, lo cual el almirante mucho quisiera por llevar diz que a los Reyes cinco o seis d'ellas... mas diz que era cierto que las avía y que cierto tiempo del año venían los hombres an ellas de la dicha isla de Carib, que diz que qu'estava d'ellas diez o doze leguas, y si parían niño enbiábanlo a la isla de los hombres, y si niña, dexávanla consigo.

The Indians said that along that route one would find the island of Matinino, which they said was populated by women without men, of whom the admiral wanted very much to bring five or six to speak to the king and queen… but they said that it was certain that they (the women) had them (men) and that at a certain time of the year men came to [the women] of this island called Carib, which they said was ten or twelve leagues away, and if they gave birth to a son they sent it to the island of the men, and if a girl, they kept her with them.

The lure of an earthly paradise, as well as the search for the fabled Strait of Anián, helped motivate Hernán Cortés, following his conquest of Mexico, to send several expeditions in the late 1530s and early 1540s to the west coast of New Spain. The first expedition reached the Gulf of California and Baja California, and proved that California was in fact a peninsula. Nevertheless, the idea that California was an island persisted for well over a century and was included on many maps. The Spanish gave the name "California" to the peninsula and to the lands north, including both Baja California and Alta California, the region that became the present-day U.S. state.

The Californian coast was first explored by a Portuguese sailor at the service of the Castillan crown (1594/1595 when Portugal was under Castilan rule of Philip II of Spain (Philip I of Portugal). Roiz Soromenho (Sebastião Rodrigues Soromenho) was a native of Sesimbra, a fishing town 30 km south of Lisbon where there is a place (part of the Sesimbra sand beach) called California Beach.