How Did California Get Its Name? Origin and Meaning

Written by Shanti Ryle
Updated: July 8, 2023
Share on:


In the early 16th century, Cortez and his early Spanish explorers adventured into Baja California. The Spaniards slowly made up their way into Alta California to the north, led by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, to discover California’s coastline as far as what is Santa Barbara today. However, those curious about California’s history may wonder where, exactly, did the state’s unique name come from?

The answer lies in a popular piece of Spanish literature that was making waves in the 16th century. The novel Las Serges de Esplandian by the poet Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo tells the story of a mythical island filled with gold, and that was home to a tribe of mighty warrior women ruled by a queen named Califia. When Spanish explorers first arrived in Baja California, they believed it to be a giant island and named the region “California” in honor of Montalvo’s legendary place.

Read on to learn more about the origins of California’s name and meaning and other interesting parts of the Golden State’s historical roots.

Mavericks Surf Break near Half Moon Bay California

Early Spanish explorers originally thought Baja California was an island.

©Steve Mollin/

When Did California Get Its Name?

California was home to several indigenous Native American tribes for the last few millennia but first received early iterations of its current name when Spanish explorers arrived in 1562 in present-day Baja California. The name first appears in the 16th-century Spanish novel Las Serges de Esplandian, a fantasy piece that mentions an island of the same name populated by warrior women. 

In the story, Calafia is a warrior queen who rules over the women on the Isle of California, said to be off the coast of Asia. Muslim forces persuaded Queen Calafia to raise an army and join them in fighting against a Christian defense of Constantinople. She and her allies battle against Constantinople’s leaders, the king and his son, the knight Esplandián, but face defeat and imprisonment. In the end, Calafia marries a cousin of Esplandián and returns to California with the remnants of her army.

Colorful flowers and view of San Clemente State Beach from Calafia Park, in San Clemente, California.

Califia Park in San Clemente, CA, was named for the fictional Queen Califia.

©Jon Bilous/

Was Queen Califia a Real Person?

Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo created the fictional character of Queen Califia for his novel. The author based her description and that of her domain on the many stories of the Amazons. The Amazons were fierce women warriors who fought like men and lived on a faraway island paradise filled with riches. The myth of such a land of gold and beautiful women was well-known to Cortes and his conquistadors. They sought such places around every corner of the New World.

Former Names of California

The first depiction of California’s name on the map was an island figure of Baja California, which explorers incorrectly thought to be an island based on limited exploration and guesswork. Later, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo sailed further up California’s coast and named the area Alta California, or “Upper California.” 

Sir Francis Drake sailed further up the coast in 1579 and claimed the region for England, calling the new country New Albion. The names Baja California and Alta California remained for the following centuries, throughout Mexica earning its independence and the American Civil War. Alta California was finally named California when it joined the United States in 1850.

The gold rush in the mid-19th century helped bring California into the United States.


What Does California Mean?

Most historians trace the origins of California’s name to Montelvo’s romantic novel. Some scholars trace the word to the Spanish word calif, used to refer to the leader of a Muslim community. The word also potentially relates to the Arabic word khalifa, meaning leader or steward. This throughline shows how califa can easily shift into California or Calafia, meaning “land of the caliph” or “female caliph.”

California Name Origins

Other theories besides the novel have surfaced to explain the origins of California’s name. When Cabrillo first referred to the island, the term could’ve been derived from the Spanish Calit Fornay, a variation of the Latin phrase calida fornax, which means “hot furnace.” A 1650 map of the Island of California spells it as two separate words, “Cali Fornia,” supporting this idea. The place may have had hot weather, similar to a kiln in which craftspersons baked clay objects.

Another possibility derives California from the indigenous phrase kali forno, which in the local Baja tribal languages translated to “high mountains.” However, this theory is slightly less credible, as the name California existed in Montalvo’s novel before Conquistadors met with Native Americans.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Jon Bilous/

Share on:
About the Author

Shanti Ryle is a content marketer with nearly a decade's experience writing about science, real estate, business, and culture. Her work has been featured in Forbes, Wall Street Journal, Global Finance and Banking, Weedmaps News/, and other publications. Her favorite animal (by far) is the Pembroke Welsh Corgi!

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.