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[Detail] Discovery of the Mississippi: By Ferdinand De Soto

Collection Overview

Parallel Histories: Spain, United States and the American Frontier is a collaborative project between the Library of Congress, the National Library of Spain and the Biblioteca Colombina y Capitular of Seville. This collection, which is presented in both English and Spanish, discusses the expansion of Spain into North America from Florida and Georgia into Louisiana, Texas, the Southwest and also into parts of Alaska. The presentation also discusses interactions between Spain and the United States and Spain’s eventual departure from the United States after the Spanish American war. This collection provides links to a number of American Memory collections including the papers of Jefferson and Washington, A Century of Lawmaking and our extensive online map collection.

Special Features

These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.

Historical Eras

These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection although they may not be all-encompassing.

  • Period of Exploration, 1492-1763
  • Global Expansion and Encounter, 1450-1770
  • Colonial Settlement, 1492-1763
  • The American Revolution, 1763-1783
  • An Age of Revolutions, 1750-1914
  • The New Nation, 1780-1815
  • Expansion and Reform, 1801-1861
  • Emergence of Modern America, 1890-1930

Related Collections and Exhibits

These collections and exhibits contain thematically-related primary and secondary sources. Also browse the Collection Finder for more related material on the American Memory Web site.

Other Resources

Recommended additional sources of information.

There are currently no other resources for this collection.

Search Tips

Specific guidance for searching this collection.

You may search the collection using the descriptive information for collection items, the interpretive text or the full texts of items found within the collection. All search options can be found at A site map of the collection can be found at


Parallel Histories: Spain, the United States, and the American Frontier explores the history of the Spanish presence in North America from the first voyage of Columbus in 1492 to the continued exploration and settlement of California and the American Southwest in the early 19th century. The bilingual collection includes rare books, maps, government reports, and other materials from the collections of the National Library of Spain, the Biblioteca Colombina y Capitular of Seville, and the Library of Congress. Most of the documents are from the 15th through early 19th centuries.

The collection includes a number of 16th- and 17th-century maps, royal decrees from the Spanish monarchs, maps of the Lewis and Clark and Zebulon Pike expeditions, U.S. military reconnaissance reports relating to the War with Mexico (1846), and nineteenth-century maps of railroads in the United States. Although the collection primarily features documents relating to North America, it also includes Spanish correspondence on South America. Most of the documents are in Spanish; however, explanatory notes preceding the documents are in English. Background information on various themes is presented in both Spanish and English (only Exploration and Early Settlement was available at the time this Collection Connection was written).

The site features five sets of links to related websites offering biographical and historical information and teaching activities for use in K-12 classrooms.

Parallel Histories is a valuable resource for teaching both world and U.S. history. Materials in the collection support the study of the origins and consequences of European overseas expansion, the encounters of Europeans and indigenous peoples, international rivalries among European nations in the Americas, the American Revolution, and the conflicts between Spain/Mexico and the United States over Florida and westward expansion.

Columbus and the Early Explorers

Spain’s relationship with North America began with the initial voyage of Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus), financed by Spain’s Queen Isabella. In 1492, Columbus set out to find a new route to India by sailing west across the Atlantic. In the spring of 1493, Columbus wrote a letter to the Spanish monarchs from Lisbon, dated “the day before the Ides of March”:

Having now accomplished the undertaking upon which I set out, I know that it will be agreeable to you to be informed of all that I have done and discovered in my voyage. On the thirty-third day after I had left Cádiz, I reached the Indian Ocean, where I found a great many islands peopled by innumerable inhabitants, of all which I took possession, without resistance, in the name of our most illustrious King, with public proclamation and hoisting our colours.

From “A letter of Christopher Columbus”

In the letter Columbus described the inhabitants of the islands and the prospects for Christianizing the indigenous people. He remarked that most of the natives he encountered were

…uncommonly simple and honest people, very liberal in bestowing whatever they possess. They never refuse a request; nay they themselves invited us to make demands of them. They have in truth a show of the greatest will to all: they give things of great value for what is of scarce any, and are indeed content with very little or almost nothing in exchange.

From “A letter of Christopher Columbus”

Read more of Columbus’s letter and answer the following questions:

  • What was the “undertaking” Columbus had set out on? Do you think he had accomplished that mission, as he claimed? Why or why not?
  • How did Columbus describe the peoples he encountered? How would you characterize Columbus’s attitude toward these peoples?
  • How did Columbus try to convince the Spanish monarchs to support future voyages? If you were the king or queen, would you give Columbus money for future exploration? Explain your decision using only the information from Columbus’s letter. You cannot use your own knowledge of where Columbus really was or of future events.

Within months of Columbus’s return from his first voyage, the Spanish monarchs urged Pope Alexander VI to issue a papal bull drawing a Line of Demarcation recognizing Spain’s exclusive right to all lands 100 leagues (a league is approximately 3 miles) west of the Cape Verde Islands not previously claimed by a Christian prince. The following year, Spain and Portugal signed the Treaty of Tordesillas moving the Line of Demarcation 270 leagues further west.

Following Ponce de Leon’s exploration of Florida in 1512, Pánfilo de Narváez set out in 1527 on an ill-fated exploration of Florida and the Southeast. Most of the members of the expedition were killed by bad weather and unfriendly Indians. However, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and three companions, including the African Spaniard Estebanico, survived and trekked across the American continent to the Bay of California. Cabeza de Vaca wrote a personal account of the expedition. Read Cabeza de Vaca’s account of the six-year trek (you may need to find a translation, such as the one available on the PBS Web site).

  • How did Cabeza de Vaca and his small party survive? What hardships did they face? What skills did they use in order to endure the long journey across the continent?
  • What were his views of the indigenous people he encountered during his journey? Compare Cabeza de Vaca’s descriptions with those of Columbus. In what ways did they see native peoples similarly? Differently?
  • Examine the timeline of early exploration and settlement. Which explorer(s) might have been influenced by Cabeza de Vaca’s stories of the American Southwest? How could you verify your answer?

In 1539 Hernando de Soto, governor of Cuba, began an exploration of the Southeast. His journey took him from what is now Tampa, Florida, through the Florida panhandle, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas. The Peruvian mestizo Garcilaso de la Vega, the son of a Spanish conquistador and an Inca princess, wrote a history of the de Soto expedition based on accounts by participants of the expedition. His work, The Florida of the Inca (La Florida del Inca), is a classic in the history of Spanish exploration of the American Southeast.

We are attempting to write about Hernando de Soto, governor and captain general of the provinces and domains of the great kingdom of Florida and the numerous other Spanish gentlemen and Indians who for the glory and honor of the Holy Trinity wished to extend the Holy Catholic Faith and the Spanish Crown… (11)

Translated from the title page of “La Florida del Inca” (The Florida of the Inca)

De la Vega’s work was completed some 60 years after the de Soto expedition and was first published in Lisbon in 1605. There have been numerous printings and translations of the book, which is still considered the best account of early explorations into Spanish Florida, although scholars recognize that de la Vega probably romanticized and fictionalized the events somewhat.

Treatment of Indians

The Spanish conducted slave-raiding expeditions along the east coast before the Naváez and de Soto expeditions to Florida, a practice that had become widespread throughout the Spanish new world since the Columbian voyages. Queen Isabella forbade the practice, but the Spanish monarchs agreed in 1503 to what was later called the encomienda system. Under this system, Spaniards would be granted an allotment of Indians who were to be protected and Christianized. In essence the natives became forced laborers who worked the land, labored in mines, and constructed public buildings.

In 1510, the Council of Castile issued the Requerimiento. This document stated that if the enemy agreed to accept the king of Spain as their monarch and Roman Catholicism as their religion, the Spaniards would not go to war against them. In many cases only the letter of the law was carried out as priests who accompanied expeditions read the requerimiento in Latin from the decks of ships before a battle. Warring Indians, once defeated and Christianized, were allotted to settlers through the encomienda system.

Use the search word encomienda to find documents relating to controversies resulting from royal decrees regarding instruction and care of Indians, such as King Charles I of Spain’s (Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) letter to Juan de Zumárraga, bishop of Mexico, and the opinions of the Cardinal archbishop of Toledo and the governor of the Council of the Indies addressed to the king. From the English “Notes” to these documents, a reader can begin to understand the conflicts arising over the encomienda system. The archbishop of Seville in a 1541 document addressed to the officials in the Indies ordered that “no one shall be allowed to keep such [free] Indians in his house against their wills, to take them to their mines or farms or anywhere else, or to transfer their ownership. The person who sells them shall be fined half of his goods…”

  • What can you infer about the government of Spain’s goals in terms of the Indians?
  • What conflicting interests did the King have to consider in making decisions about treatment of the Indians?
  • What arguments regarding rewards for Spanish settlers were made? Do you think these arguments are convincing? Why or why not?

In 1542 the king’s council (Junta of Valladolid) adopted the New Laws of the Indies, which prohibited new encomiendas and outlawed abuses of the Indians. Several priests had been instrumental in lobbying for the New Laws, among them the noted Bartolomé de las Casas. The adoption of the laws was not without opposition, as seen in the letter addressed to the king by the president of the Council of the Indies. This letter remarked on particular opposition in Peru, which King Charles I also mentioned in a letter to colonial leaders sent in the summer of 1545.

  • What prompted the enactment of the “New Laws”?
  • What is the attitude of the president of the Council of the Indies in his letter to the king? What seems to be his primary concern about the “New Laws”?
  • How did the king respond to the colonists’ reactions? Are you surprised by the king’s response? Explain your answer.

Bartolomé de las Casas was appointed bishop of Chiapas in 1543. In a petition to Emperor Charles V as bishop-elect, Las Casas requested the addition of provinces to his diocese where there were disturbances between settlers and Indians and made specific requests regarding the government of his diocese. After returning to Spain some years later, he entered into a “debate” with another priest, Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, over the proper treatment of the Indians. Philip II took up the case championed by las Casas and in 1578 addressed a cédula to the Viceroy of New Spain reminding him that the king had a primary interest in the welfare and conversion of the Indians.

Based on what you have read in the “Notes” on documents, write a brief essay to:

  • Describe the goals of the Spanish government with respect to the Indians.
  • Explain the interests of Spanish settlers in the New World, including religious leaders.
  • Evaluate the encomienda policy in terms of how well it met the interests of all the Spanish parties, as well as how well it served the interests of the Indians.

Rival Land Claims

England, France, and the Netherlands became early rivals of Spain in colonizing the North American continent. The collection includes letters, documents, and transcripts relating to Giovanni da Verrazano, the Florentine who explored from Chesapeake Bay to Maine for France (1523-24).

In the 1560s the French attempted to establish several colonies on the eastern seaboard of what is now the United States, lands Spain had claimed as Florida. The French Huguenot colony established in 1562 at Port Royal, South Carolina, failed. However, a more successful colony of Fort Caroline on the St. John’s River in Florida (1564) greatly alarmed the Spanish. Pedro Menéndez de Avilés destroyed the French colony and founded the settlement of St. Augustine near the site of the former French colony. The colonial conflict between France and Spain continued as Dominique de Gourgues led an unsuccessful reprisal attack on the Spanish in 1568. Pierre Vaquieux wrote a narrative of the de Gourgues’s Florida expedition.

  • In general, why would one empire want to eliminate settlements of another empire?
  • More specifically, why might the Spanish alarmed by the prospect of French Protestant settlements in Florida?
  • Can you see any similarities between the concerns of empires in Age of Exploration with the concerns of countries today?

Read the “Notes” preceding the royal letter of King Philip IV to the viceroy of New Spain relating to transportation of wealth on the galleons across the Atlantic. Also read the “Notes” accompanying the Manifiesto Chronologico de las Cruzadas, which provided a legal argument for the collection of special taxes originally granted to the Spanish monarchs during the campaign against the Moslems in Spain.

  • To what extent was Spain dependent on the wealth from the colonies?
  • What inferences can be drawn of the importance of shipping precious metals in convoys across the Atlantic?
  • How was the cruzada taxing system related to Spanish efforts in the New World? What does the continued use of the taxing system suggest about the economic policy of Spain?
  • How might the needs of the Spanish treasury have heightened concerns about settlement by other European empires?

Spain was concerned about the establishment of settlements that could be used as havens for pirates attacking Spanish galleons carrying treasure to Spain throughout the colonial period. Various recommendations were addressed to King Charles II on the fortification of coastal communities in the West Indies against pirates.

England’s early attempts to colonize began as bases to attack Spanish galleons. In the latter part of the 16th century, Juan de Oñate searched the Atlantic coastline for rumored English settlements and reported that England had not made inroads in Spanish Florida. In 1607, however, the Jamestown colony established an English foothold on the Chesapeake. By the 1660s, England had further extended into the Carolinas and in 1732 granted a charter for the establishment of the Georgia colony as a buffer to protect the Carolinas. Spain protested English encroachment in a 1742 document offering historical proof of Spanish title to Georgia.

  • What does the map above show? How would this map bolster Spain’s claims to Georgia?
  • If Spain argued that its claims extended from what is now Florida to the Chesapeake Bay, why were the English and French able to establish settlements in these areas? How might Spain have prevented such settlements?

While European powers clashed over conflicting land claims on the Atlantic coast of North America and the islands of the Caribbean, the inland frontiers of New Spain were unchallenged by European rivals. Under Juan de Oñate, Spain explored an area from the Colorado River to Kansas. In 1610 Pedro de Peralta, the new governor of the territory, established a settlement at Santa Fe. In the next century Spain had established settlements in Texas and New Galicia.

Spain sent expeditions to explore the Pacific coast of California as early as 1542. Later in the century, Spain sought to establish settlements in California as safe harbors for the Manila galleons returning with wealth from the Philippines. By 1668 Spain had sent several expeditions to California without establishing settlements. The Jesuit Eusebio Kino set out to establish missions in California, but the Jesuits were expelled from Spain and Spanish America in 1767. José de Gálvez, visitor general to New Spain, aroused by Russian encroachments in Northern California, sent Gaspar de Portolá and the Franciscan Father Junípero Serra to establish settlements in California. A chain of missions and presidios stretched north from San Diego, assuring Spanish control over California.

Examine maps showing the routes of explorers from various European nations. The collection includes a map of the United States showing routes of principal explorers, from 1501 to 1844, and the 1694 French map below, which shows European land claims in North America.

  • According to the maps, which empire held the most land in North America in 1694?
  • Compare the two maps. Can you find any anomalies regarding explorers and land claims? That is, were any areas first explored by representatives of one European empire but claimed by another in 1694?

Spain, Mexico, and the United States

Spain’s support of the Anglo-American colonies during the American Revolution did not produce lasting cordial relations. The United States was interested in securing free navigation of the Mississippi River, and the right to deposit goods at New Orleans before shipment abroad, as well as establishing the Florida border; these issues were resolved in the 1795 Treaty of San Lorenzo. Within a short time the agreement became null and void when Spain returned Louisiana to the French. Upon purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the region, whose boundaries had not been well established in the treaty. Examine the maps of the Lewis and Clark expedition, as well as the map of Zebulon Pike’s later expedition into New Spain.

Conflicts over the Florida boundary of the Louisiana Territory persisted, and Spain and the United States entered into discussions to resolve the conflicts. Spain, preoccupied with revolutions in Latin America and U.S. military excursions into west Florida, agreed to the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819, but withheld ratification until 1821. The treaty, often referred to as the Transcontinental Treaty, turned Florida over to the United States and established the boundary of the Louisiana Territory.

  • What were the issues between Spain and the United States that ruptured diplomatic relations following the American Revolution? Where these conflicts inevitable? If not, what could have been done to prevent them?
  • When Zebulon Pike mapped the interior provinces of New Spain, he was exploring Spanish territory on behalf of the U.S. government. Why do you think he was sent on this expedition? How do you think Spain reacted to Zebulon Pike’s expedition into the interior provinces of New Spain? Do research to confirm or disprove your hypotheses about the reasons for Pike’s expedition and the Spanish reaction.
  • Looking at maps from 1694 to the early 1800s, what general statement can you make about Spain’s land holdings in North America?

After Mexico gained independence from Spain, confrontations between Mexico and the United States continued on the frontier. The United States declared war on Mexico in May 1846; within a month, instructions were sent for a military reconnaissance from Fort Leavenworth to San Diego:

…You will repair, without delay, to Fort Leavenworth, and report yourself and party to Colonel Kearny, 1st dragoons, as field and topographical engineers of his command.

…Anticipating that the route of Colonel Kearny's command would be through unexplored regions, your suggestions required, that in all cases where it did not interfere with other and more immediate military demands of the service, the attention of myself, and the officers assigned to duty with me, should be employed in collecting data which would give the government some idea of the regions traversed.

The column commanded by Colonel Kearny, to which we were attached, styled “The Army of the West,” to march from Fort Leavenworth, was destined to strike a blow at the northern provinces of Mexico, more especially New Mexico and California.

From “Notes of a Military Reconnoissance, from Fort Leavenworth, in Missouri, to San Diego, in California”

  • Why was the Corps of Engineers sent to accompany General Kearny’s Army of the West?
  • Why was the U.S. government interested in the collection of data about the southwestern frontier?
  • How did this exploratory expedition compare to the previous Lewis and Clark and Pike expeditions?

In 1848, the war ended, with Mexico ceding some 500,000 square miles to the United States. Interested in acquiring still more land for a southern railroad route across the continent, the United States adjusted the boundary with Mexico in 1853 by the Gadsden Purchase. The following year Secretary of War Jefferson Davis ordered a map to accompany reports on a proposed railroad route. It was not until after the Civil War that the United States constructed a railroad along the Mexican border to California.

In 1898 the United States went to war with Spain. The collection includes a strategic map of the war showing the troops and naval vessels available to the United States and to Spain.

  • How did the War Map Publishing Company, which produced the map, characterize the war? If the map had been produced in Spain, how might the war have been characterized?
  • According to the directions, how was the map to be used? Do you know of any similar maps today, provided to track events in the War on Iraq, for example?
  • Why is the Philippines shown on the map? What does its inclusion show about how the role of the United States in world affairs changed in the second half of the 19th century?


Critical Thinking

Chronological Thinking: Constructing a Timeline

Timelines—graphics in which events are shown in the order in which they happened—are useful tools for organizing historical information. Timelines can cover many years, like the timeline of exploration and early settlement provided in the collection. Timelines can also cover much shorter periods of time, like a day, week, month, or span of several months. Constructing a timeline requires careful thinking—not just placing events in the correct order but also selecting the events to be shown on the timeline.

During Mexico’s fight for independence from Spain, Juan Ruiz de Apodaca, the Spanish Viceroy (governor) of New Spain, wrote a series of reports to the Spanish secretary of state and secretary of the Department of War. Six of these reports are included in the Parallel Histories collection. Locate the six reports. You can locate the reports by conducting a search using the name Juan Ruiz de Apodaca as your search term or by browsing the “Hans P. Kraus” Collection for the title “Report to the Secretary of State and of the Department of War.”

When was the first of the reports available written? What was the last report available in the collection written? Create a timeline that spans the period between the first and last reports. Using the reports or “Notes” introducing them, select events covered in the reports that you think help explain the relationship between the United States and Spain on the eve of Mexican independence. Based on your timeline, what inferences can be made regarding the relations between the United States and Spain?

Historical Comprehension: Using Data from Historical Maps

Historical maps are a unique data source. They show what people knew about an area at the time the map was created. View the 16th-century Portolan Atlas. Write a caption for each image in the atlas. Then analyze images four and five, depicting North America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Ocean.

How accurate are these early maps of North America? Find several areas of the maps that are fairly accurate. Find several that are very inaccurate. What conclusions can you draw about Europeans’ (particularly Spaniards’) knowledge of the world in 1544, when the atlas was published? Where do you think exploration most likely occurred in the second half of the 1500s?

Next, examine the mid-17th century map showing California as an island. Research the voyages of exploration of the California coast in the first half of the 16th century and the later establishment of settlements towards the end of the 17th century.

  • What might have led explorers to believe that California was an island?
  • To what extent did the mistaken belief that California was an island affect the settlement of the region?
  • What other factors contributed to the delay in settling California?
  • What prompted the Spanish to establish settlements in California in the second half of the 18th century?

Examine the 1854 map showing proposed routes of the Pacific Railroad and its branches in connection with the various systems of existing and unfinished railroads.

  • What does the map reveal about transcontinental travel?
  • How did the massive migration to California during the Gold Rush stimulate a desire for a quicker route across the continent?
  • Note the line for a proposed railway across Mexico, in a location called the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Why would that be a good location for a railway? What issues might arise in building such a railway, given that the map of proposed railways was made by an office of the U.S. government? Try to find out if this railway was ever built and, if so, who built it.

Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Assessing Sources

Fragmentary sources—sources from which parts are missing—pose special challenges for historians. Historians must analyze clues in the document and in related documents to answer questions about the source and its authenticity.

One fragmentary source in the Parallel Histories collection was written by Amerigo Vespucci. Between Columbus’s third and fourth voyages, Amerigo Vespucci, sailing for Spain, explored the coast of South America. On his second voyage, 1501-1502, Vespucci sailed along the coast of Brazil under the flag of Portugal. The collection includes Vespucci’s “fragmentary letter,” in which he remarked on a number of subjects including his having reached the far southern latitudes along the coast of the new continent. Read the “Notes” introducing the document and answer the following questions:

  • What part of the letter is missing? What challenges does this pose for the historian analyzing the letter?
  • What clues have scholars used in addressing the challenges posed by the loss of part of the letter? Have the challenges been answered definitively?
  • The “Notes” mention tone as a clue that one scholar has used in making an argument about the letter’s recipient. Find several letters written by the same person. For example, the George Washington Papers and the Thomas Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress include many letters written by these two presidents. Read letters to at least three different people; it will be helpful to include at least one letter written to a family member or friend and another to a business acquaintance. Can you detect differences in tone? Are these differences found in the language, the sentence structure, or some other aspect of the writing? Are the differences obvious enough that you could identify to whom the letter was written if part of the letter was missing?

Historical Research Capabilities: Framing Questions for Research

Asking questions is an important step in conducting historical research. Historian David Hackett Fischer has called questions “the engines of intellect, the cerebral machines which convert energy to motion, and curiosity to controlled inquiry” (Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought, New York: Harper and Rowe, 1970). Historians derive their questions in a number of ways, including reading secondary accounts to assess what is known about a topic or event.

Choose an essay from one of the themes listed on the opening page of Parallel Histories. For example, you might pick the essay on “The California Missions”. In this essay, you would read information about the missions, including the following:

During the 1760s and 1770s, the Spanish concentrated on finding overland routes from Arizona to California and founding missions and settlements there. Gaspar de Portolá (1723-1784), a Spanish military officer, and Father Junípero Serra (1713-1784), a Franciscan friar, founded the first of nine Franciscan missions in present-day San Diego in 1769. Portolá also established a fort at Monterey in 1770. Father Serra founded Misión San Gabriel on the Pacific coast in 1771, which came to be used frequently as a stopping off point for Spanish soldiers and settlers on their way to other locations. Juan Bautista de Anza and his group, for example, rested there briefly on their way to the presidio in Tubac, Arizona, on their return from their first march to Monterey in 1774.

Under Serra’s direction, the Franciscans provided religious instruction and taught European agricultural techniques to the local Native Americans. Indigenous tribes often celebrated religious worship and special occasions through dance, with or without masks. European clergy frequently misunderstood such rituals as demonic and banned them from mission life. This presented difficulties for Indians who came to the missions looking for a steady source of food, but who found the loss of their culture too hard to bear. Some, such as the Cochimí Indian Sebastián Tarabal (fl. 1770s), escaped from the San Gabriel mission and walked to the Spanish presidio of Tubac, Arizona. Tarabal was instrumental in helping Juan Bautista de Anza and this group find a land route from Tubac to Monterey, California.

From “The California Missions/Las Misiones de California”

The illustration and text might raise such questions as:

  • Why was it important for the Spanish to find overland routes between Arizona and California?
  • What did dance and masks signify in the religion of the Native Americans?
  • How did the Spanish communicate with Native Americans to teach them about agriculture and religion? Why did they not use the same methods of communication to learn about the religious ceremonies of the Native Americans?
  • What had Native Americans eaten before the arrival of the Spanish? Why were they experiencing food shortages in the 1700s?
  • Who and what are at the feet of Father Serra in the illustration? What is their significance?

Choose another essay and examine it and the accompanying illustrations. What questions do you have about the information presented in the essay? If time allows, look for answers to your questions in the Parallel Histories collection and other sources.

Historical Research Capabilities: The Debate on the Treatment of Indians

Following their conquest of large areas of the Americas, the Spanish disagreed about whether the Native Americans they encountered were rational human beings and whether attempts should be made to convert them to Christianity, either forcibly or through persuasion. The debate peaked in 1550, when King Charles V convened a junta, a group of jurists and theologians, to hear arguments regarding the Christianization of Native Americans. Research the conflicting arguments made by Bartolomé de las Casas and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda regarding the treatment of Indians in colonial Spanish America that were “debated” in Valladolid in 1550.

  • What arguments were put forth by las Casas and Ginés de Sepúlveda? In your opinion, which arguments are most compelling? Why?
  • What position did Emperor Charles V adopt following the “debate”?
  • To what extent did the official policy adopted by Charles V change settlers’ relations with the Indians in New Spain?

Historical Issues-Analysis and Decision-Making: Issues in Colonial Administration

In 1582, King Phillip II lamented the mistreatment of Indians in a cédula (decree) to the archbishop of Mexico. Read the recorded “Notes” that introduce the document, which include the following account of the problem:

The King has been informed of the decline in the Indian population through mistreatment by their encomenderos. In some places they have decreased by a third, but they still have to bear the full burden of taxation. The encomenderos treat them worse than slaves…. Many hang themselves or starve themselves to death, or take poisonous herbs. There are some women who kill their children at birth to save them from the burdens of work. As a result the Indians hate the name of Christians, consider the Spaniards deceivers, and do not believe what they are taught, so that everything has to be done by force…. The King, having made many attempts to bring about good treatment of the Indians, believed his ministers were carrying out his desires; he was saddened to hear otherwise….

From “Notes” introducing “Royal cedula to [Pedro Moya de Contreras], archbishop of Mexico”

  • What was the problem facing King Phillip II?
  • How might a vigorous enforcement of the policy have been regarded by encomenderos (conquistadors who were granted control of towns they conquered) bent on exploiting Indian labor?
  • What can be inferred about the degree of control over the colonies from the failure to carry out royal orders protecting the Indians?
  • What decision is the king announcing or confirming in the cedula? What were the practical considerations supporting his decision? The ethical considerations? Based on what you know, what do you think happened as a result of the cedula?

Locate other cedulas by browsing the Hans P. Kraus Collection within Parallel Histories. What kinds of problems did the Spanish face in governing their colonies in the Americas? Do you think these problems are inevitable in ruling colonies? Explain your answer, using knowledge of colonial experiences around the globe.


Arts & Humanities

The Literature of Cross-Cultural Contact

Garcilaso de la Vega was a 16th-century writer, the son of a conquistador captain and an Incan princess. Although Garcilaso de la Vega never traveled to Florida, his most noted work is La Florida del Inca, which relates numerous stories of the Hernando de Soto expedition and the Spanish and Indians who accompanied de Soto. The work is based on writings and oral narratives of de Soto and such others as Alvar Nunez Cabez de Vaca, a survivor of the Panfilo de Narvaez expedition who spent several years exploring what is now the American Southwest. Garcilaso de la Vega also gathered information from his mother’s family and friends in Peru. Scholars regard the book as a valuable resource, albeit somewhat romanticized and fictionalized.

Several chapters in Book II of La Florida del Inca relate the experiences of Juan Ortiz, a young man on the Naváez expedition, who had been captured and held as a slave before being freed by one of the daughters of his captor. The dramatic story describes the torturous captivity and his escape with the help of the daughter of Cacique Hirrihigua (a leader of the Native people), who had held him in captivity. If you read Spanish, read Chapters 1-4 of Book Two, which recounts the story of Juan Ortiz or ask a friend who reads Spanish to read it with you. As an alternative, search the Web for a translation of La Florida del Inca.

  • Describe the treatment Ortiz received at the hands of the cacique. Why did the cacique treat Ortiz in such a brutal manner?
  • What adjectives would you use to describe Juan Ortiz? Why do you think the cacique’s daughter intervened on his behalf?
  • How does the author use the story of Juan Ortiz to comment on Christianity and morality?
  • What are the similarities of the Ortiz story to that of the popular legend of Pocahontas and John Smith in the English Chesapeake colony some years later? What might account for the existence of two such similar stories?

In an online course titled American Passages: A Literary Survey, developed by a team of scholars working with Annenberg Media/Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the authors of a unit on “Exploring Borderlands” say:

. . . the contact zone between present-day Mexico and the southwestern United States evolved into a hybrid border region that continues to be influenced by the legacies of the different groups who first struggled there for dominance in the sixteenth century. After hundreds of years of war, intermarriage, trade, slavery, and religious struggles, a complex, syncretic culture has flourished in the space that marks the current U.S./Mexico border. As conquerors and conquered merged, a new mestizo identity (a blending of Indian, European, and African heritage) was created and continues to find expression in the work of contemporary Chicano and Chicana writers of the “borderland” region.

From “Exploring Borderlands: Instructor Overview,” American Passages: A Literary Survey, Annenberg/CPB. Retrieved October 7, 2005, from

In what ways could Garcilaso de la Vega be seen as the first writer in the “new mestizo identity”? How does his work reflect such themes identified in “Exploring Borderlands” as (1) gender’s role in power relations in cross-cultural contact and (2) the “metaphors of romance and eroticism that are common to conquest narratives”? Find more recent examples of literature that represent the “new mestizo identity.” How do themes from Garcilaso de la Vega’s work reemerge in these pieces of literature?

Ornamentation and Maps as Art

Historic maps were often ornamented with elaborate borders, as well as drawings that conveyed additional information about the subject of the map. Coats of arms were sometimes included, as were drawings of what the map-maker guessed might be found in areas about which little was known. Above is a detail from a 1562 map of America by Diego Gutierrez. Study the map in detail, and read the essay about the map written by Dr. John R. Hebert, chief of the Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

  • Find the three coats of arms mentioned in the essay on the map. Why do you think the cartographer chose to show these coats of arms rather than simply using the country names? How, if at all, do the coats of arms affect your response to the map? How might they have affected the response from a viewer of the map in the 16th century?
  • Find several drawings in the oceans or on land. To what degree do these pictures accurately represent things found on land and sea? How, if at all, do these pictures affect your response to the map? How might they have affected the response from a viewer of the map in the 16th century?
  • Identify other ways in which the map was ornamented or decorated. How do these techniques add to or distract from the map’s appearance? The way in which it conveys information?
  • Is this map a work of art? Provide a definition of the term art and explain why the map does or does not fall under your definition.

Place Names and the Language of Empire

Analyzing place names provides clues to the imperial powers that explored and claimed various sections of the Americas. Examine a contemporary map of North America and the Caribbean, looking particularly at place names. Identify place names that you think come from English, Spanish, and French. Using any patterns you discern, identify on a blank map of North and South America the areas that you think were explored and claimed by the British, Spanish, and French. Check your map against one of the maps in the collection that shows land claims by the European nations.

Research the meaning of state and city names such as: California, Colorado, Florida, Nevada, Cape Canaveral, Las Cruces, Santa Fe. Explain how and why the names were chosen. Investigate names in your local community that are of Spanish origin.

Many place names also reflect the language of an area’s original inhabitants, in this case, Native Americans. Look at the map in the areas claimed by the British, French, and Spanish for places named using Native American words.

Imagine that you have been asked to propose three names for a new city in your area. One name should represent the indigenous people of the area, one the European power that claimed the area in the Age of Exploration, and one the people who currently live in the area. Select three names and write a paragraph explaining the significance of each.

Descriptive Writing

After Mexico gained independence from Spain, confrontations between Mexico and the United States continued on the frontier. The United States declared war on Mexico in May 1846; within a month, instructions were sent for a military reconnaissance from Fort Leavenworth to San Diego. A reconnaissance is an exploration of an area with the express purpose of gathering information.

W. H. Emory, the head of the Corps of Topographical Engineers reconnaissance team, made detailed written observations of the area they traversed, particularly the last third of the journey, which covered land not well known by the U.S. military. The following is an excerpt from Emory’s description of the confluence of the Colorado and Gila Rivers:

…The day was stormy, the wind blowing fiercely from the north. We mounted a butte of feldspathic granite, and, looking 25° east of north, the course of the Colorado was tracked by clouds of flying sand. The Gila comes into it nearly at right angles, and the point of junction, strangely chosen, is the hard butte through which, with their united forces they cut a canon, and then flow off due magnetic west, in a direction the resultant due to the relative strength of the rivers.

The walks of the canon are vertical and about 50 feet high, and 1,000 feet long. Almost before entering the canon, in descending the Gila, its sea-green waters are lost in the chrome colored hue of the Colorado. For a distance of three or four miles below the junction, the river is perfectly straight, and about 600 feet wide; and up at least to this point, there is little doubt that the Colorado is always navigable for steamboats. Above, the Colorado is full of shifting sandbars, but is, no doubt, to a great extent susceptible of navigation.

From “Notes of a military reconnoissance, from Fort Leavenworth, in Missouri, to San Diego, in California,” page 95

Read the remainder of Emory’s description of the junction of the Colorado and Gila Rivers. Then answer the questions that follow:

  • Which words do you find most descriptive; that is, which make it easiest for you to imagine the place or object being described?
  • Which words suggest the writer’s engineering or military background?
  • What, if any, information in the excerpt might be especially helpful to the military?
  • Find the junction of the Colorado and Gila Rivers on a map of the United States. Find other descriptions of this area (you may want to search the Internet using the name of the nearest city). Do the authors of these descriptions use any of the same descriptive terms as Emory? What has remained the same about the area? What has changed over time?

Select a month between August and December 1846. Use Emory’s journal entries for that month to trace the path of the reconnaissance mission. Along their route, enter some of the most descriptive words, phrases, or longer passages you find in Emory’s report. Sketch a route that you travel frequently and add descriptive words, phrases, or sentences to your sketch map to convey what you see, hear, smell, and feel as you travel the route.