Did you know that most of the western states were named by Spanish explorers? Find out the meanings of our state names in Spanish.
After Columbus came across the island of Hispañola (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti) in 1492, Spanish kings sent several more explorers to check out what was further west and south of the Caribbean islands. Eventually, they started to explore the U.S.'s East Coast.
Mostly exploring the southern East Coast in the mid-16th century, the Spanish explorers explored present-day South Carolina to Florida. They followed the Florida coastline to the Gulf of Mexico, continued to Texas, and then eventually made their way to California where later Spanish missionaries founded missions from Baja California Sur up to Alta California in the 1700s.
Some Spanish explorers led explorations of the interior of the U.S. Naturally, they mapped the areas and named regions they came across.
In 1821, Mexico gained its independence from Spain. Later in 1848, the U.S. defeated Mexico. The areas that the Spanish explorers named later became states, keeping their Spanish names.
How the explorers named these regions, later U.S. territories then states, is altogether fascinating.
Arizona may have been named for exactly what it feels like, hot and dry. It may come from the Spanish term, árida zona, dry region.
The state name California comes from an adventure book written around 1510 called Las Sergas de Esplandián by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo. The author describes a mythical isla de California west of the Indies where the native peoples live like Amazons. Spanish explorers orginally believed Baja California to be an island rather than a peninsula.
While it looks like the English word for colored, Colorado actually means red or ruddy, which is how the Spanish explorers described the Colorado River.
The only state name east of the Mississippi, Florida comes from the Spanish term Pascua Florida, an Easter feast of flowers.
In Spanish, Indiana means the land of Indians. You could use it as a phrase like tierra indiana, Indian land.
Montana is almost exactly as it's spelled in Spanish, montaña, the word for mountain.
Nevada means snow-capped or snowy. It is the most mountainous state in the U.S., as Spanish explorers figured out trying to cross it.
While we say this state name in English, New Mexico was originally called Nuevo Mexico. The Aztecs called themselves the Mexica, where the word Mexico comes from.
If you're interested in U.S. history as told from the perspective of Spanish explorers, I highly recommend an autobiographical account called The Journey of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca.
After exploring much of the Southeastern U.S., Cabeza de Vaca became shipwrecked off the coast of present-day Texas. Later he was kidnapped by Native Americans. A few years later he just happened upon three other explorers a few years later who had also been shipwrecked and then kidnapped by Native Americans. They planned their escape while during prickly pear season, which tribes would fight over since there were few food resources in the desert, and then somehow crossed over much of the U.S. until finally they ran into other Spanish explorers in California.
And that's just the simple version! It's quite adventurous reading and completely true. His Wikipedia entry is pretty neat, you could really get lost in a Wikipedia rabbit hole reading it.
History makes up a part of learning a new language like Spanish. When you know more about why things and places are called what they are, you remember the words for things and places better.
If you're looking for more entertaining stories about Spanish, look no further than Spanish classes with me at Amidon Studios. I'm available in person at my Eastlake, Chula Vista studio or via video chat. Contact me directly for more info or visit my TakeLessons page.