Compelling Narratives

By Matthew J. Barbour, Regional Manager




While the Jemez and Coronado Historic Sites are focused primarily on the preservation and interpretation of ancestral Pueblo villages, the staff is also tasked with providing information on all aspects of Spanish history. Specifically, the Historic Sites focus on the impacts of Spanish conquest and colonialism on the Native American peoples.

Written texts, especially primary sources, can inform upon the Spanish discovery, conquest, and colonization of the New World. A primary source is a letter, diary, manuscript, autobiography, or a recording that was created at the time under study. Often these primary sources are a subjective look at the events that took place through the author’s eyes. They reveal a great deal not just about a particular event, but about the background, motivations, and mindset of the individual writing the account.

Here are five primary sources readily available to the public which provide a great deal of insight into the history of Spanish America and the impact conquistadors and colonists had on the indigenous populations:

The Four Voyages

The Four Voyages, written by Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), are a collection of journal entries and dispatches produced during Spain’s first contact and exploration of the Americas.  In it, Columbus details much of the Caribbean and Atlantic Coast of Central America. He is convinced that he has reached the far eastern shores of Asia and is unable to come to terms with his discovery. Yet, Columbus’s devout piety, aptitude to violence (against both Native and Spaniard), and lust for gold set the stage for all future Spanish interactions in the Americas.


Letters from Mexico

Letters from Mexico, written by Hernan Cortes (1485-1547), is a compilation of five letters written between 1519 and 1525. In the letters, Cortes documents the establishment of Veracruz, the conquest of the Aztecs, and his expeditions further south into Central America. It describes who did what, the obstacles encountered, and the gains made by the conquistadors as perceived at the time of conquest. Cortes’s success in Mexico was unprecedented and inspired all Spanish discoveries, conquests, and colonial ventures that came afterwards. Reading Letters from Mexico is an excellent opportunity not only to explore Cortes, but many of his generals which also went on to be notable conquistadors in their own right, such as notorious Pedro de Alvarado.


La Relacion

La Relacion, or The Account, was written by Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca (1488-1560) in 1537. It details the disastrous Navarez Expedition in northern Florida and the eight year journey back to civilization (1528-36), including time spent among natives in what is today the Southeast and Southwest United States. Vaca is often viewed by scholars today as a proto-anthropologist for his detailed accounts these peoples and their cultures. Most ventures conducted by the Spanish ended in failure and La Relacion is a first-hand account of how things can and do go wrong. However, the narrative sparked great interest among future conquistadors leading to the Coronado (1540-2) and De Soto (1539-43) Expeditions –both of which also failed.


A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies

A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies was written for Prince Philip of Spain in 1542 by the Dominican Friar Bartolome de las Casas (1484-1566). It surveys the European conquest of the New World up to 1540 vividly detailing the atrocities committed by- and under- the Spanish, including accounts of torture, genocide and cannibalism. Las Casas actively championed indigenous rights and published the book for public consumption in 1552. It is clear that many Spaniards understood the immorality and consequences of the colonial endeavor.  Dutch, English, and other Protestant peoples also widely read the account and used it as a justification for their own resistance to Catholic Spain.


The Memorial of Fray Alonso de Benavides

The Memorial of Fray Alsonso de Benavides (1578-1635) was translated by Baker Morrow and published as The Harvest of Reluctant Souls. The narrative is the first attempt at a comprehensive ethnographic study of Native Americans in New Mexico detailing not only who they were, but how they lived. While Benavides focuses on missionary success, the text cannot avoid discussing native unrest and rebellion. It in many ways foreshadows the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and directly mentions both the Pueblos of Kuaua (Tiguex-Coronado Historic Site) and Giusewa (San Jose-Jemez Historic Site).


These five selections are a representative sample of a much larger pool of resources available to historians, ethnologists, and archaeologists. Collectively, they provide a broad base of knowledge and insight into Spain’s discovery, conquest, and colonization of the New World with the last focusing on the colony of New Mexico. They are relatively easy reads with modern versions being well annotated with detailed foot and end notes.

From here, the possibilities are endless. Those focusing on Coronado may find it useful to read Castaneda’s account of the journey or if the subsequent conquest of New Mexico following the Pueblo Revolt is of interest, one can peruse Diego de Vargas’s letters and journals. There are also numerous accounts of conquests elsewhere which can provide valuable insights towards understanding impacts of Spanish conquest and colonialism on the Native American peoples. Get out there and read about this valuable period in New Mexico’s history!

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