Adios Cortes

After the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the early 16th century, there was much fanciful speculation about a golden island beyond Mexico's western coast. That island was California, named - even before it was explored -after a mythical island queen in a Spanish novel, Las Sergas de Esplandián (The Adventures of Esplandián). The precise etymology and meaning of the name 'California' have never been convincingly established, but there is wide consensus that it is a derivation of 'Calafia,' the book's heroine queen, who ruled a race of gold-rich black Amazons.

Of course, rumors of gold and women have a way of making conquistadors fidgety. Not content with his spoils on mainland Mexico, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés dispatched a series of expeditions to find the island. The first set out in 1532. Rather than babes in bracelets, however, the explorers found men with sharp objects who killed many of the intruders and forced the survivors back to the mainland. A second expedition was equally unsuccessful.

Determined to get his hands on more gold, Cortés finally joined a third expedition in 1535 and went ashore at present-day Bahía Pichilingue, near La Paz (p189), where he founded the colony of Santa Cruz. He also found pearls, but the harsh desert, disease, hostile indigenous people and several food and water shortages forced the colonists, once again, to beat it back to Mexico.

Still, Cortés wouldn't give up. In 1539 he sent out a fourth expedition under Francisco de Ulloa, who would be the first to discover that Baja was a peninsula, not an island. After Ulloa's ship disappeared near Bahía Magdalena (p184), Cortés finally threw in the towel. He returned to Spain in 1541, leaving the 'golden land' to other adventurers.

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