San Felipe, Baja, Mexico

Some people don't know it but at one time Mexican California extended from Cabo all the way to the Oregon border. This changed during James K. Polk's Presidency. When Mexico rejected an offer by Polk of 25 million dollars for California (mostly because of the recent annexation of Texas by the US), Polk manufactured a war by sending General Zachary Taylor ("Old Rough and Ready") into a disputed area where a clash ensued with US troops. Sixteen men were killed by Mexican soldiers and Polk sent a angered message to Congress which declared war on Mexico.

The US tried to ensure a quick and bloodless resolve by contacting Santa Anna (then in Cuban exile) and conspiring with him to take Mexico in a coup d'etat after which he would make peace with the US and deal with them with regard to California. But after his arrival in Mexico, Santa Anna raised an army and marched against the US.

Captain John C. Fremont had been dispatched to California even before the outbreak of war, and as soon as hostilities erupted, he was there to insite the Americans in California to rebel against the Mexican government. This rebellion resulted in the short-lived Bear Flag Republic of 1846.

Gen. Zachary Taylor's efforts in the Mexican desert earned him a reputation. At the Battle of Buena Vista (Feb. 22-23, 1847) his 5,000 men repulsed a force of 10,000 under Santa Anna, but could not deliver a decisive victory. Later American forces under General Winfield Scott ("Old Fuss and Feathers") landed at Vera Cruz in early 1847 and battled its way toward the Mexican capital, which was reached by Sept. 1847.

The war ended with the February, 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo . The treaty surrendered territory totaling about 1/2 of Mexico to the US. This included what became known as Upper California. Lower California, or Baja, remained with Mexico due to its hostile environment, wonderfully inhospitable to settlers.

For years the origin of the name California was a mystery. Then in 1862 scholars discovered a novel written in 1521 by Garcia Ordonez de Montalvo. The book, called The Exploits of the Very Powerful Cavalier Esplandian, Son of the Excellent King Amadis of Gaul, described an exotic place:

"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

The Warrior Queen Calafia.
Painting by James Gayles

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...

"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."

With such fantastic images planted in the European imagination, it's little wonder Cortés and his crew attached the name California to their territorial claims from Baja California north to Alaska.

Twelve years after the appearance of this novel, Baja California was discovered. During the early 1530s Cortés dispatched three ships under a kinsman, Francisco de Ullo to search for a sea opening to the land of Cíbola (the fabled Seven Cities of Gold). Finding himself locked in a gulf, Ulloa retreated along the eastern edge of the 800-mile-long peninsula that we call Baja California, rounded its tip and continued north to within 130 miles or so of the present U.S.-Mexico border. No inlets. His ships battered by adverse winds and his men wracked by scurvy, he returned to Mexico.

Believing Baja to be an island was an understandable mistake, given the titillating details and attractions of Montalvo's tale. This misinterpretation of the Baja California peninsula was faithfully recorded in maps of the subsequent two centuries characteristically displaying an “Isle of California” west of the North American continent, notwithstanding practical confirmation of Baja’s peninsular status as early as 1539, and required the official statement of the Spanish government as late as 1747 that “California is not an island.”

The myth of Calafia seems to have a strong grip on the modern psyche. It appears in company names, brand names, hotel names, wines, political bodies and numberless other titles. Recently a rock group called the Lassie Foundation wrote a tribute to the mythical beauty. Here are the lyrics:

she's my true connection
she's singin' from afar
she's my Calafia croonin', but she's long gone

i've got no momentum
i'm dreamin' from a bar
she's my Calafia tarrying, but i'm gone

she's long gone
she's the coming sun
holdin' the hands of the Pacific Ocean
long gone
she's the one

she's the monument on
on my resurrection
she's my Calafia believin', but i'm long gone



Whatever the future holds for the Baja Peninsula, the warrior queen Calafia seems destined to be along for the ride.