Definition and Significance of the Word California

From Governor Alvarado’s Memoirs
Translated by Phil Valdez, Jr.

The primitive name that the great conquistador, of Mexico, gave to the territory where el Real Presidio de Loreto, was established was Kali Forno and not California. It is believed
that he heard some Indians, who had perceived their landing yell at their companions, to runto California, the name of the giant sierra [Loma Alta] already known to them.

Some are of the opinion that Cortés was induced to christen his new discovery with the
name Kali Fornio, due to the fact that it was very warm and in order not to die of suffocation was forced to take his uniform off. While others state that California is the equivalent of terra-natal, native land, and they base their opinion and arguments on the narratives of two Indians, Manuel and Juachín, natives of Loreto, who as pages, accompanied his Excellency, Governor José Joaquín Arrillaga, to Monterey.

There are still others, that assure that the true meaning of the word California is Loma Alta, e.g., High Hill, basing their opinions on the data left by the Spanish soldier, Juan Bautista Valdez, who arrived at Monterey in 1769 in the company with the discoverer of San Diego, [Fernando de] Rivera y Moncada. This last opinion is the one that during my youth prevailed in the southern part of Alta California, where resided the Lugo, Carrillo, and Estudillo families, the founders that had known the soldier Valdez, who before serving with Captain Rivera y Moncada, had served the King at the Loreto presidio.

They would not even permit allusions to be made in their presence to the Latin derivation
that the Mission Fathers wanted to give to the name. The missionaries used to say that, the name Kali Forno had been transmitted to them, by Cortés himself, who one hundred and forty eight years before any mission was founded in Baja California, had made an annotation of it in his records, not using the name California but Kali Forno.

It is thought, that the, latter name may have been suppressed by the Castilian and Mexican settlers, because the word California is softer and easier to pronounce.  [Nonetheless] in the midst of so many accounts, each against the other, I prefer not to
declare any preference for this or that tradition, notwithstanding the fact that my parents
were decidedly in favor of the Valdez theory, because that soldier’s long residence in Baja
California more or less authorized him to discuss the origin of the name California with a
certain degree of authority.

Even admitting, however that the soldier Valdez might have been right, the origin of that
mysterious word would not be solved by that alone, since a problem still remains as to
whether Cortés heard the word from the Indians or the Indians heard it pronounced for the first time by Cortés. I do not think it strange that the two natives of Loreto who conversed with Valdez in 1757 should have given an Indian interpretation to a Castilian word.


Page from Governor Alvarado’s Memoirs