California existed in the imagination before it existed on the map. Some would say it’s still a fantasy, a figment, more a state of mind than a state of the Union. But this has always been so. Tucked snugly into their beds at night, the children of Europe were dreaming of California years before they ever set eyes on its shores.
The earliest possible reference to California –as “Califerne”- appears in the 11th-century Song of Roland, verse CCIX. Following the death of his nephew, Charlemagne cries out:
Roland, my friend, fair youth that bar’st the bell,
When I arrive at Aix, in my Chapelle,
Men coming there will ask what news I tell;
I’ll say to them: `Marvellous news and fell.
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…
Though the other peoples and places mentioned in these lines are generally familiar, “Califerne” has never been identified. This ambiguity provided a literary opening for others to exploit.
Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo (d.1504) was the true inventor of “California.” Its name first graced the page in his chivalric romance, The Exploits of Esplandian. This was Montalvo’s sequel to Amadis of Gaul which, you may recall, was a sort of second Holy Writ for a well-beloved knight of La Mancha.
Know that on the right hand of the Indies is an island called California, very close to the terrestrial paradise
wrote Montalvo. He described a land of magnificent natural defenses, rich in gold and inhabited solely by a tribe of beautiful, deadly Amazon warriors, with not a male in sight. Most beautiful and deadly of them all was the Queen, Califia. In the Exploits, Montalvo’s hero, Esplandian, joins the defense of Constantinople against the Turks when the pagan Queen Califia rather decisively comes to the aid of the infidel with her lady-warriors and an army of griffins.
In the 16th century, Montalvo’s tales of Amadis and Esplandian held such sway over the imagination that conquistadors by their evening campfires on the Sea of Cortez convinced themselves the mysterious island to the west (Baja California) was none other than Queen Califia’s territory, just bursting with Amazon women and mountains of gold. The martial Spaniards had been fed on the story since childhood and apparently couldn’t accept that it was a fiction.
Cortes himself was not immune. In a 1524 letter to the King of Spain, Cortes mentions reports from mainland natives that the westward isle (“rich in pearls and gold”) is, in fact, governed and inhabited by women of a remarkably fierce disposition. Cortes mounts an expedition and becomes the first European to set foot in California. But he encounters no Queen Califia, discovers no gold, and finds the place largely inhospitable. His attempt to plant a colony along the desert shore near La Paz fails miserably.
In 1539, Cortes commissioned Francisco de Ulloa to more extensively explore the coast in pursuit of another fiction of history and geography, the Straits of Anian. A variation on the Northwest Passage, the Straits of Anian were supposed to connect the Pacific to Canada’s Gulf of St Lawrence or Hudson’s Bay. In the process of his doomed reconnaissance, Ulloa discovered that (Baja) California is not an island at all, but a peninsula. Despite this, California continues to appear as an island on maps well into the 17th century.
Building on the knowledge gained by Ulloa, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo –who as a young man soldiered for Cortes in the conquest of Mexico- made a 1542 voyage up the coast. We don’t know what sort of place he imagined it to be, but in addition to unmasking California Cabrillo also hoped to discover the Straits of Anian or, alternately, a short-cut to China.
Cabrillo soon passed Ulloa’s northernmost point on the western shore of Baja and moved into the uncharted waters off Alta California (today’s American state). He was the first to explore what is now San Diego Bay, Santa Catalina Island, and Santa Monica Bay. Farther north, he set anchor in Monterey Bay and continued past the Golden Gate, possibly reaching as far north as the Russian River before autumn storms forced him south again. Cabrillo had set anchor at Santa Catalina for the winter when some of his crew were ambushed by natives, who, as it happened, were not Amazon warriors. Cabrillo came ashore on a relief mission, stumbled on some jagged rocks and badly injured his legs. The wounds became gangrenous and he died ingloriously in January 1543.
Cabrillo’s dispirited crew returned to Navidad (Acapulco) in the spring. They were sure they had come “very near” to China. But they had failed to locate the Straits of Anian, had lost their captain, and had learned that whatever California was, it wasn’t the demi-paradise Montalvo described. If Queen Califia had ever reigned there, she was long gone. After Cabrillo’s misadventure, serious Spanish exploration and settlement of California would be put on hold for over two-hundred years.