The Spain Among Us


The period from Columbus’s first landfall in 1492 to 1607, when the English made their settlement at Jamestown, has traditionally been a blank spot in American history books. Some texts state quite plainly that the history of the United States begins in 1607, making only the most cursory mention of the sixteenth century—the century when, in the words of the historian Bernard Bailyn, Spain created “the largest and most populous empire the western world had seen since the fall of Rome.” The historian Howard Mumford Jones also compared Spain’s sixteenth-century achievements to those of antiquity: “The Spaniards invented a system of colonial administration unparalleled since the days of ancient Rome; in religion they launched the most sweeping missionary movement since the Germanic tribes accepted Christianity. … As for culture, the Spaniards transplanted dynamic forms of Renaissance art, thought, and institutions to the Americas with amazing quickness.” The Spanish established a college for the sons of Indian chiefs, in Mexico in 1536, a university in Santo Domingo in 1538, the University of Mexico in 1553. Spaniards set up the first printing press in the New World in 1539, and, as Jones observed, “When in 1585 a forlorn little band of Englishmen were trying to stick it out on Roanoke Island, three hundred poets were competing for a prize in Mexico City.”

The earliest naturalist of the New World was probably Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, who first visited the Americas in 1514 and published a multivolume general and natural history between 1535 and 1557. Two centuries later Capt. Alejandro Malaspina led one of the most important West Coast explorations. In the early 1790s Malaspina’s ships made their first landfall in Mulgrave Sound in Alaska, where Malaspina and his staff studied a glacier that was later named for the captain, traded with the Tlingits for artifacts (the Spaniards carefully noted the Tlingit names for the objects they collected), and carried out experiments with a pendulum, seeking to measure the intensity of gravity at that latitude as a way of computing the exact size of the earth. Heading south, a member of the expedition became the first botanist to discover and describe the sequoia. The paintings of birds and landscapes made on this visit are today the oldest surviving works of art made in California.

In California Malaspina received valuable assistance from Father Fermín Francisco de Lasuén, the founder of nine missions, who provided native guides to take the scientists into the field. The first European settlement in California had been established in 1769 at San Diego by Caspar de Portolá, who blazed El Camino Real, today’s Highway 101; discovered the La Brea tar pits (the Indians had long used their pitch to caulk their boats); and experienced an earthquake that knocked his men from their feet. With Portolâ came Father Junípero Serra, who founded nine missions. Fathers Serra, Lasuén, and their successors established a total of twenty-one missions and baptized about 88,000 Indians in the course of nearly seven decades of evangelical work. The two great mission founders are buried at the jewel of the California missions, San Carlos Borromeo del Río Carmelo, in Carmel. The high architectural aspirations of the Franciscans there were carried out by Indian workers inexperienced at making such things as a Moorish dome. The result, with its irregular walls and heartfelt but misshapen dome, is a handmade frontier masterpiece of poignant beauty. When it was crumbling in the 187Os, Robert Louis Stevenson helped raise funds for a restoration with an angry article, saying, “The United States Mint can coin many millions more dollar pieces, but … when the Carmel church is in the dust, not all the wealth of the states and territories can replace what has been lost.”

While in 1585 a forlorn Little band of Englishmen was trying to stick it out on Roanoke Island, three hundred poets were competing for a prize in Mexico City.

The greatest Spanish landmark on the East Coast is at St. Augustine, Florida: the Castillo de San Marcos. This fortress is the oldest in the United States, begun in 1672. But even before that, nine previous Spanish fortresses, made of wood, had stood on the site; the first one was put up more than half a century before the Pilgrims landed. But the fortress is only the most visible evidence of Florida’s Spanish heritage. It is not widely known that Florida was once the site of a flourishing system of missions comparable to those in the Southwest and California. In the mid-1600s 70 Franciscans were ministering to 25,000 Indians at 38 missions in the Southeast.