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

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.