When California was an Island

Imagine your own island in the sun. What amenities might you enjoy? Tropical birds that sing sweetly and lull you to sleep? Luscious fruits that fall gently in a tropical breeze? Bugs that keep to themselves? Native inhabitants to care for your every whim? … wait … what? Now hold your horses (except that there weren’t any horses on California Island, or anywhere in North America–until after European expansion).

Who Said California’s an Island?

Enter Spain and Hernán Cortéz. He conquered the Aztecs, destroyed their civilization, took their wealth, their temples, their society, and their lives, yet those things were not enough. While his motivation may have been fame (mission accomplished) he might have been a Renaissance Workaholic.

Row Row Row Your Skiff

Well, maybe something bigger than a skiff. But never fear, swashbuckleer; we’ll clear the pier with a naval engineer. Hear-hear … okay, I’ll stop now.

Beautiful Black Women

King Carlos V ordered Cortéz to find a shipping strait through North America, so in 1532-33 the ship’s captain, Fortún Jiménez, sailed to a bay which he believed was an island (we now know he found the tip of Baja peninsula). So intriguing was this island, 16th Century author Garcia Ordoñez de Montoalvo published a romance novel about an island inhabited only by beautiful black women (and he didn’t even read the opening questions of this post).

Who Proved Jiménez Wrong?

After spending years as a captive, veteran conquistador Cabeza de Vaca was found alive and brought to Mexico City around 1536. His reappearance and reports aligned to substantiate rumors of wealth in the northern interior (places like Arizona and New Mexico). It piqued Cortéz’s interest. As unscrupulous as he was, his desire to head an expedition was thwarted by the first Viceroy of New Spain, Antonio de Mendoza. To stay in the game, Cortéz delegated Francisco de Ulloa to investigate the Pacific coastline, and it is this man who is credited for discovering that California is not an island but a land mass with a peninsula. However … apparently the idea of beautiful black women was more appealing, and the idea of California as an island stuck.

It Takes a Jesuit

Padre Eusebio Francisco Kino rode thousands of miles across the desert to build Missions for the Catholic church. He was one of the good guys. It is said Father Kino gave the natives all he had, and spent his time feeding, healing, and teaching as well as introducing them to new foods. In 1702, he climbed a mountain east of the Colorado River to admire the sunrise. From his lofty position, he saw that the sea ended at mainland. This was proof that Baja California was not an island, but a peninsula. From then on, the padre received his supplies from ships that crossed the river.

And as far as anyone can tell, California is still a part of the mainland.

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