California, a Myth that Came True

Queen Calafia in all her gilded glory | photo from Mark Hopkins Hotel | post by Larry Clinton

California got its name when early explorers mistook it for a legendary island supposedly inhabited by female warriors under the rule of a queen named Calafia.

Thanks to historian Elenore Meherin, I’ve found what may be the source of that myth: a 16th Century novel by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo entitled Las Sergas de Esplandián (The Adventures of Esplandián).

As Ms. Meherin wrote in the April 27, 1944 issue of the Sausalito News:

Few lands are famed in story before they have even been discovered. Certainly, no other State in the Union ever had a best-seller detailing her wonders before she was yet on the map. It is the unique distinction of California. No white man had yet set eyes on her hills and streams. For all the civilized world knew, the Golden West was a sea of mysterious terrors. Yet, California was already the goal to which the poets and adventurers looked. For it chanced that Montalvo the Spanish novelist had a dream. It was in 1510, some three decades before this State was discovered. In this dream, California stood before him, the rich and beautiful being that she is. The sunset jewels were in her hair, apples of Hesperides in her arms and her feet sunk deep in golden sandals. The vision uplifted the poet. He sat down and wrote his fervid masterpiece.

He spoke of an island with purple hills and silver moons, with luscious fruits and flowers; he told of caverns in the earth paved with gold—the very storehouse of treasures that John Marshall stumbled across 340 years later.

Here’s an English translation of how Montalvo imagined this area and its inhabitants:

Know that to the right hand of the Indies was an island called California, very near to the region of the Terrestrial Paradise, which was populated by black women, without there being any men among them, that almost like the Amazons was their style of living. These were of vigorous bodies and strong and ardent hearts and of great strength; the island itself the strongest in steep rocks and great boulders that is found in the world; their arms were all of gold, and also the harnesses of the wild beasts on which, after having tamed them, they rode; that in all the island there was no other metal whatsoever. They dwelt in caves very well hewn; they had many ships in which they went out to other parts to make their forays, and the men they seized they took with them, giving them their deaths, as you will further hear. And some times when they had peace with their adversaries, they intermixed with all security one with another, and there were carnal unions from which many of them came out pregnant, and if they gave birth to a female they kept her, and if they gave birth to a male, then he was killed…

On this island, called California, there are many griffons… and in the time that they had young, these women would… take them to their caves, and there raise them. And… they fattened them on those men and the boys that they had borne…

Any male that entered the island was killed and eaten by them…

There ruled on that island of California, a queen great of body, very beautiful for her race, at a flourishing age, desirous in her thoughts of achieving great things, valiant in strength, cunning in her brave heart, more than any other who had ruled that kingdom before her…Queen Calafia.

The accompanying depiction of this formidable queen is from a mural on exhibit at San Francisco’s Mark Hopkins Hotel. The hotel’s murals are described in a company brochure titled A Walk Back in Time: “Of all the hotel’s artistic and architectural treasures, some of the finest are the nine murals depicting early California in the Room of the Dons, originally the room adjacent to the lobby. These seven-foot-high panels were painted by Maynard Dixon and Frank Van Sloun, two San Francisco artists who frequently depicted Western scenes in their intensely individualistic styles.

“‘For the very first time in the history of art in the world,’ enthused one San Franciscan at the December 4, 1926 grand opening, ‘two great artists have worked together and produced nine masterpieces which will live forever.’ Since then, these paintings have delighted generations of San Franciscans and guests at the Mark Hopkins Hotel.”

Spanish language editions of The Adventures of Esplandián (Las Sergas de Esplandián) may be purchased on, appropriately enough. The site also carries a selection of English language books about Queen Calafia.