Sunday, May 3, 2020

The Island of California

While California has only been an American state since 1850, California has been known as a place of sunshine, gold, and riches since the early 16th literature, at any rate. 
Map of California, 1650, Johannes Vingboos. Public Domain. The compass rose is pointing to the approximate location of modern day San Diego.
Back in 1510, a Castilian author named Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo wrote a chivalric romance called Las Sergas de Esplandián (which is cited in Don Quixote). The fictional island of California is mentioned, ruled by Queen Calafia, and it's a pretty amazing-sounding place. The land is rugged, but it's inhabited by women only, and there's gold for the taking.

Renaissance-era Europeans were entranced, and believed the account must be true. In 1533, explorer Fortún Ximénez discovered the southern portion of what is now Baja California--a peninsula that was often mistaken for an island for quite some time. He died, but two years later, Hernán Cortés arrived at the bay, attempting to start a colony there. Even though the native population (which included men) weren't dripping with gold jewelry, the idea that this must be the fabled California stuck.
Retrato de Hernán Cortés.jpg
Conquistador Hernán Cortés by Paolo Giovio. Public Domain.
In 1539, however, Cortés sent Francisco de Ulloa northward along the Gulf and Pacific coasts. At the head of the Gulf, Ulloa reached the mouth of the Colorado River, so 16th century maps began to show Baja California as a peninsula. 
Satellite view of Baja California. Public Domain.
Within several years, however, European maps returned to depicting California as an island. The 1602 journal kept by one Father Antonio de la Ascension, sailing up the coast with Sebastian Vizcaino, insisted California was separated from the rest of North America by the "Mediterranean Sea of California." This seemed to be enough evidence for European mapmakers.

It wasn't until almost a hundred years later that a Jesuit missionary and cartographer, Father Eusebius Francisco Kino, set off to find new people and eventually came to the Colorado River, near what is now Yuma, Arizona. He proved California was fixed to the rest of the continent, but the matter was not entirely put to rest until the time of the American Revolutionary War, around 1775, when Juan Bautista de Anza explored the area between Sonora and California coast.
Juan Bautista de Anza, photographic reproduction of an oil painting by Fray Orsi, 1774. Public Domain.
The lure of the California myth was strong, and while it was no longer regarded as an island, myths of California remain. The promise of gold, sunshine, and plenty has drawn millions--and it should be noted that two thirds of all fruits produced in America, and one third of its vegetables, are grown in California. (Click here.)


California native Susanne Dietze is a RITA-nominated author who's seen her books on the ECPA and Publisher's Weekly Bestseller lists for inspirational fiction. Her latest novel is The Blizzard Bride. Learn more about her on her website,


  1. Thanks for the post! It reminds me of the cartoon where three blind men are touching an elephant and try to describe it by what they feel!!! Knowledge is important! I can't believe the myth of California as an island lasted so long.

    1. Hi Connie! I, too, was surprised by the legend...and that it lasted for so long, even after an expedition to the Colorado River disproved the idea that it was an island.

      It's a fascinating story to explain the name!

  2. Fascinating indeed. I never thought of California as an island. Actually, I never thought of that stretch of land at all until I discovered through family history research that a distant cousin of hubby's had lived there. Thanks for the great post.

    1. Years ago, I'd heard California was named for a mythical island. Much later, I learned California was believed to be that mythical island, even though it wasn't really an island!

      Where did his distant cousin live?

      Thanks, Anita Mae!

    2. This is nothing to brag about, but his Draft registration card shows he lived at a hotel in Calexico and worked at a Mexicali.

    3. Oh! Wow! Genealogy is so fascinating--we learn so much about how people lived. Thank you for sharing!

  3. This is so interesting. It does prove that those early map-makers only mapped what they saw and how they influenced others enough to make the legend go on for so long. Baja has alwas fascinated me at how it juts out and does look like it could be an island without the big picture.

    1. Thanks, Martha! I'm always amazed and impressed by the work of early map-makers. Some centuries old maps are incredibly accurate! Others? Not so much! I can definitely see why they thought Baja could be an island, however, especially since they were influenced by the legend.

      Thanks for saying hi!