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American Beginnings: 1492-1690
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Toolbox Overview: American Beginnings: 1492-1690
Resource Menu: Contact
Text 1. First Impressions
Text 2. Europe's Response
Text 3. Illustrating the New World (Pt. I)
Text 4. Atlantic Coast
Text 5. Pacific Coast
Text 6. Indians' Accounts
Text 7. Spanish Conquest


Resource Menu

Lemoyve Athore

Topic Framing Questions
  •  How did Europeans interpret the "newe fonde londe" upon their first contacts?
  •  How did Indians respond to the Europeans?
  •  How did these initial encounters frame future Indian-European relationships?
  •  What did the "New World" signify to Europe in 1500? in 1550?

1.  First Impressions» Reading Guide

- Spanish: Letter on Columbus's first voyage, 1493
- English: Letters on the voyage of John Cabot, 1497
- Portuguese: Letter on the voyage of Gaspar Corte Real, 1501
- Maps:

1507: Universalis cosmographia (world)
1540: Die neuwe Islelen (western hemisphere, map #1)
1544: Charte Cosmographique (world, map #2)

First impressions are said to be lasting impressions, and indeed, it is remarkable how soon the New World "that was never before known to anyone" was viewed as a land of wealth, promise, and opportunity. So we begin with three of the earliest European explorers to North America (after the Norse whose settlements in Greenland died out in the 1300s) and the impressions conveyed to their monarchs, financiers, and soon, due to the printing press, the peoples of Europe:
  • CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS (Cristoforo Colombo), an Italian sailing for Spain, who explored the Caribbean islands in four voyages from 1492 to 1504, and who insisted to the end that he had landed in or near Asia
    [Columbus, Letter to Luis de Sant Angel, Treasurer of Aragon, 1493]

  • JOHN CABOT (Giovanni Caboto), an Italian sailing for England, who in 1497 explored the northeast coast of North America in the region of Newfoundland, and was certain he had reached northeast Asia
    [Letter from Lorenzo Pasqualigo to his brothers, August 1497; Raimondo di Soncino to the Duke of Milan, first and second despatches, 1497]

  • GASPAR CORTE REAL, a Portuguese sailing for Portugal, who explored the same region as Cabot in 1500 and 1501, failing to find a northwest passage and losing his life in the search.
    [Pietro Pasqualigo, Letter to his brothers, 1501]

All three expeditions were financed by European monarchs to find a westward route to Asia or, later, to find a route around the obtrusive land mass to reach Asia. All claimed land and future riches for their monarchs. All returned with artifacts of the new land, and two returned with captured Indians. For Columbus we have the explorer's first-hand reports, but for Cabot and Corte Real we rely on second-hand accounts, the only documentation that survives. The three maps reveal how the western hemisphere evolved visually in the European mind, reflecting fact and faith alike. Explore these documents for the Europeans' first impressions, and yours. (10 pages, excluding the maps that are best viewed online.)

2.  Europe's Literary Response» Reading Guide

- German/English: Alexander Barclay, The Ship of Fools, poem, 1509, selection
- English: Thomas More, Utopia, fictional narrative, 1516, excerpts
- English: John Rastell, Four Elements, play, 1519, selection
- German: Albrecht Dürer, journal entry, 1520
- French: Pierre de Ronsard, "The Fortunate Isles," poem, ca. 1560, excerpt

For Americans, history seems to pivot on the year 1492. The date inevitably points to the future. The Old World and its history fade as we contemplate the New World and its promise. Yet it is instructive to remember that 1492 fell in what historians consider the late Middle Ages. The people who first heard the news of Columbus's discoveries had more in common with the pilgrims who wended their way to Canterbury than with those who fled to Plymouth.

The texts we offer here suggest how Europeans responded to that news. Just two years after Columbus's first voyage, a German lawyer and poet, Sebastian Brandt, published an allegorical poem entitled Das Narrenschiff (The Ship of Fools) that satirized numerous "fools," including gluttons, drunkards, negligent fathers, and, in the excerpt offered here, explorers. Enormously popular in Germany and throughout Europe, Das Narrenschiff was widely translated. Our selection comes from Alexander Barclay's 1509 English version. In typical medieval fashion, Brandt's poem reminds us of human imperfection and its antidote, devotion to and trust in God. For him the desire to "measure and compass" "diverse countries and regions" is folly born of pride that diverts humanity from self-understanding.

This attitude contrasts sharply with those of John Rastell, Thomas More, and Albrecht Dürer. Rastell—a London lawyer, playwright, and trader—organized an aborted voyage to Newfoundland in 1517. Soon after his return he wrote the play Four Elements (partly to vent his frustration at failing to reach the New World). High school teachers should be able to identify with this play. In it the characters Studious Desire and Experience struggle to educate Humanity while Sensual Appetite and Ignorance try to lure him to the nearest party. The play is at once a moral allegory and something of a National Geographic in verse, for it instructs its audience on the new picture of the world that is emerging from the voyages of discovery. In the excerpted selection we see a dawning empiricism as Studious Desire embraces Experience as a fit tutor for humankind.

In the works of More and Dürer we see how early images of the New World reflected European thought and desire. In More's fictional narrative Utopia ("no place"), the narrator Raphael Hythloday, a Portuguese sailor who claims to have voyaged with Amerigo Vespucci, describes an ideal community he has visited. In fact, More may have drawn the details of his utopia from Vespucci's accounts of his voyages to South America. Whatever his sources, he portrays Utopia as such a yielding and congenial place that new, wealthy cities can almost be legislated into existence on "waste and unoccupied ground." That is, of course, if the inhabitants of the "unoccupied" ground can agree on "one fashion of living" with those who want to build the city. Otherwise, the newcomers have every right to dispossess or even kill the natives. If New World riches led More to make a case for war, Mexica (Aztec) treasure led German artist Albrecht Dürer to imagine a place of wonder. In 1521 King Charles of Spain displayed Aztec gold and silver sent him by the conquistador Hernan Cortés in an exhibit that traveled throughout Europe. When Dürer saw it in Brussels, it filled his heart with joy and moved him to marvel "at the subtle Ingenia of men in foreign lands" where even humble bedding was the stuff of fairy tales.

In the spirit of fairy tales and fables, we conclude with the poem "Les Îles Fortunées" ("The Fortunate Isles") by the sixteenth-century French poet Pierre de Ronsard. In ancient mythology the "Fortunate Islands" were the paradise of the gods, located somewhere in the west beyond the ocean. Later the name was given to the Canary and Madeira Islands as they were discovered by European explorers—and then to points farther west as the discoveries enchanted the European imagination. (17 pages total.)

3.  Illustrating the New World (Pt. I)» Reading Guide

- English: John White, paintings of the Algonquian Indians (North Carolina), 1585
- English/French: Author unknown, The Natural History of the [West] Indies (Caribbean), ca. 1586, selection of drawings
- French: Louis Nicolas, Unique Aspects of the [West] Indies (Canada), 1670s, selection of drawings

The most familiar European illustrations of the New World come from a man who never left Europe himself—Theodore de Bry, the Flemish publisher and engraver who adapted others' first-hand illustrations for his multi-volume Grands Voyages, which sold widely across Europe. But what of those first-hand drawings and watercolors? Some were created by trained artists sent along on expeditions to document their discoveries. Others were created by amateur artists whose drawings remained in private collections for centuries before being published. It is these original illustrations we highlight here, leaving the adapted de Bry engravings for the next section.
  • In 1585 John White served as the official artist for the English expedition to Roanoke Island on the Outer Banks of present-day North Carolina. Most of his initial drawings were lost when the colonists left Roanoke in 1586, but he later produced sixty-three watercolors that survived in private collections. Not until 1964 were they published as a whole. On the Virtual Jamestown website you will see nineteen of White's watercolors of the Algonquian Indians, paired with the de Bry engravings based on them and published in 1590. There may be no better example of the metamorphosis of popular imagery than these White/de Bry pairings.

  • The Natural History of the [West] Indies (Histoire Naturelle des Indes) is a unique volume of 199 watercolors of the plants, animals, and Indians of the Caribbean, including enslaved Indians working in Spanish mining ventures. Their origin is unknown, but they may have been created in the 1580s by a French Huguenot sailor (or two) on one of Francis Drake's voyages to the West Indies. (One artist may depict himself as the European being warned of the devil lurking in the forest.) The watercolors remained in personal collections for over four hundred years and in 1983 were given to the Pierpont Morgan Library, which produced a facsimile volume in 1993. Fifteen drawings are included here with the accompanying text (no less fascinating than the drawings themselves).

  • Unique Aspects of the [West] Indies (Les Raretés des Indes) is another intriguing collection of amateur drawings, in this case of the plants, animals, and Indians of New France (Canada) in the 1670s. Not only were they kept in private collections for three centuries, they were also ascribed to the wrong person until the late 20th century when an archival discovery led to Louis Nicolas, a French Jesuit who served in New France from 1664 to 1675. His 188 drawings were finally published in Paris in 1930; the originals reside in the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Ten pages of his engrossing drawings and handwritten commentary are included here.

  • You may wish to include the Spanish illustrations of Mexica and Tlaxcala Indians included in #7:SPANISH CONQUEST, presented in the web gallery Vistas: Visual Culture in Spanish America, 1520-1580.
These illustrations are essential "texts" for your discussion of the Europeans' first impressions of the New World. In addition, some of these images will re-appear throughout the Toolbox, often in revealing transformations. (27 pages, excluding the John White paintings, to be viewed online.)

4.  Atlantic Coast» Reading Guide

- Norse: Account of meeting the "Skrælingar" of Vinland, ca. 1005
- French: Verrazzano, Report to King Francis I, 1524, excerpts

After the peopling of North America at least 11,000 years ago, the continent was probably "discovered" by numerous explorers before Columbus. But who? Did the Chinese monk Hwui Shan reach the west coast of North America around A.D. 500? Did Japanese sailors follow the Northwest Pacific Current down the west coast before A.D. 1000? What about adventurers who sailed west from Europe and Africa and were never heard from again, such as Ugolino and Vadino Vivaldi from Genoa (1291) and a king whose flotilla left Mali in 1311? Intriguing grounds for speculation.

For our purposes, though, we'll study the earliest documented accounts of exploration on the North American mainland, those along the Atlantic coast. We've read of John Cabot's and Gaspar Corte Real's voyages to Newfoundland and the Grand Banks (#1:FIRST IMPRESSIONS), but we have no accounts of these expeditions. For Thorvald Erikson and Giovanni da Verrazzano, however, we do.
  • THORVALD ERIKSON, brother of the Norseman Leif Erikson, sailed from a Viking settlement in Greenland about A.D. 1000 to explore the region his brother had named "Vinland" on the North American mainland. There he and his men encountered the native inhabitants, probably the Beothuk people. They attacked the Beothuk and in the skirmish Erikson himself was mortally wounded. This account derives from the Norse manuscript Greenlander's Saga written almost four hundred years later. Although the account predates Columbus and the start date for this Toolbox, it would misrepresent the continent's history to omit it, especially since the Vinland camp on Newfoundland is now archaeologically confirmed to be the first European settlement on the North American mainland (discovered so far).
    [Greenlander's Saga (Grælendinga Saga) in the Flat-Island Book (Flateyjarbók), ca. 1387]

  • GIOVANNI DA VERRAZZANO, an Italian sailing for France, explored the Atlantic coast of North America in 1524, sailing from the Outer Banks to Nova Scotia, going ashore to explore the natural surroundings and meet the inhabitants. The encounters of the Indians and Europeans range from welcoming to guarded to disdainful. Verrazzano's report to the king of France is the earliest first-hand account of European exploration of the North American mainland—a major document in your study.
    [Giovanni da Verrazzano, Letter to King Francis I of France, 1524]
Be sure to compare these first-encounter narratives with others in the Toolbox—a revealing mini-seminar in itself. (12 pages.)

5.  Pacific Coast» Reading Guide

- English: Account of Drake's landing in California in 1579, excerpts
- Russian: Account of Bering's landing in Alaska in 1741, excerpts
- Maps:

Drake voyage: Vera totius expeditionis nauticæ, ca. 1595
Bering voyage: The Russian discoveries, 1775

Not until the 1700s does the west coast of North America appear with any accuracy on a European map—with Baja California as a peninsula and not an island, with Asia and America as separate continents, and with no depiction of a straight water route in the far north. Europeans had given up on the west coast. The earliest Spanish expeditions returned with discouraging reports: no gold, no riches, no suitable sites for colonies = no value to the empire. Francis Drake delivered the same news to England after his coastal visit in 1579, and his voyage rated a ho-hum response from Spain at the time for, after all, the land was useless.

What spurred the Spanish to hightail it north again was Russia's expansion into western Asia and voyages to the far northwest of North America. Explorer Mikhail Gwosdev sailed east from Kamchatka in 1732 and sighted a "bolshya zemlya" ("new land"). Soon Vitus Bering was sent to explore this land, and, although he did not set foot on North America himself and died of scurvy with many of his crewmen on the return voyage, his expedition claimed the region for Russia whose fur-traders and missionaries defined the European presence there through the 1800s. Although the Russian arrival in North America places us beyond the chronological span of this Toolbox, we are reminded by historian Alan Taylor, when explaining his inclusion of Russian America in his American Colonies: The Settling of North America (2001) that "process, as much as place, defines the subject" of North American settlement (italics in original). It would be useful to keep this distinction in mind as you work your way through this Toolbox.

So think process as you read these two accounts of European-Native American encounters that are remarkably similar despite their separation of 162 years.
  • FRANCES DRAKE led the second circumnavigation of the world (1577-1580), financed by wealthy Englishmen who profited mightily from his success. After sailing around South America through the Straits of Magellan, Drake headed up the west coast, plundering Spanish sites along the way and reaching the California coast in spring 1579. He searched fruitlessly for the long-sought "Strait of Anian"—a waterway east through the northern part of the continent back to the Atlantic. The most famous account of the voyage, The World Encompassed by Sir Francis Drake, was compiled almost fifty years later by Drake's nephew from the journals of the ship's chaplain and others. (Drake's own journal disappeared after he presented it to Queen Elizabeth I.)
    In this selection we read of Drake's six-week stop in northern California, perhaps near San Francisco Bay, to resupply and repair his ship before sailing west across the Pacific. The men trade and communicate with the friendly Miwok Indians who assume they are gods and become upset when the newcomers refuse their sacrifices and claim only human status. Before departing, Drake claims the land for England as Nova Albion ("New England" in Latin) and records the Miwoks' "free giving up of the province and kingdom . . . into her Majesty's hands."
    [Francis Drake, nephew of Sir Francis Drake, The World Encompassed by Sir Francis Drake, 1628]

  • VITUS BERING, a Danish sailor, led Russia's "Great Northern Expedition" to northwest North America in 1741, primarily to determine if Asia and America were joined by land. Bering was unable to resolve the question on this journey, but he sailed along the Alaskan coast and landed men on several of the inhabited Aleutian islands. In this account from the journal of the ship's German physician and natural scientist, George Wilhelm Steller, the Russians meet the Aleuts of Bird Island and exchange gifts and welcoming words, but soon terrify them with cannon fire aimed high to stop them from pulling the Russians' small boat toward the rocky shore. After a few interchanges over two days, the Russians request one of the Aleuts' hats as an ethnographic artifact and leave the island.
    [Georg Wilhelm Steller, Second Kamchatka Expedition undertaken upon His Imperial Majesty’s Command, or Description of the Voyage of the late Captain-Commander Bering for the exploration of the lands northeast of Kamchatka . . . , 1743]
The two maps were drawn to record these specific expeditions: (1) the 1581 French map of Drake's voyage, the first to use dotted lines to trace a route (note "Nova Albio" on both maps), and (2) the 1775 American map based on the earlier Russian map of Bering's very jagged route, with intriguing notations in English (be sure to explore the California coast on this map as well as the areas explored by Bering). Both maps reward detailed inspection. (10 pages, excluding the maps.)

6.  Indians' Accounts» Reading Guide

- Mexica & Tlaxcala: Accounts of the Spanish arrival in Mexico, 1500s
- Maya: Account of the Spanish arrival in the Yucatan, 1520s
- Ho-Chunk: Account of the French arrival near Lake Michigan, 1634
- Micmac: Statement to a French missionary in Canada, ca. 1680

What did the native inhabitants think of these sudden arrivals? How did they respond to the Europeans and their culture? And how did they later describe the experience? The written accounts available to us are primarily from two sources—Indians' oral histories as recorded by non-Indians for publication, and statements to Europeans who recorded them later. The selections here represent both modes of transmission:
  • MEXICA (Aztec) & TLAXCALA: first-hand accounts compiled by Spanish missionaries in the 1500s
    [Selections from the Codex Florentino, ca. 1555; Cronica Mexicana, ca. 1578; and Historia de Tlaxcala, 1585]

  • MAYA: oral narrative in the Chilam Balam, sacred texts translated in the 19th and 20th centuries
    [Chilam Balam of (the town of) Chumayel]

  • HO-CHUNK (Winnebago): traditional family account as told to a 20th-century American anthropologist
    [Account of Paul Radin published in Thirty-Seventh Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1915-1916, 1923]

  • MICMAC: statement to a French missionary in 1680 as published in his account a decade later
    [Chrestian LeClerq, Nouvelle Relation de la Gaspésie (New Relation of Gaspesia), 1691]
These accounts can be grouped for various perspectives: (1) the "first encounter" narratives of the Mexica and the Ho-Chunk; (2) the conquest histories of the Mexica, Tlaxcala, and Maya; (3) the response to French "superiority" of the Ho-Chunk and the Micmac; (4) the resistance to the "oppressors" of the Maya and the Micmac. In addition, you can compare the accounts by their source, from eyewitness accounts to oral traditions transcribed centuries later, and by their recorder, from a 16th-century Spanish priest to a 20th-century American anthropologist. These readings merit a dominant place in your seminar. (16 pages.)

7.  Spanish Conquest» Reading Guide

- Council of Castille, Requerimiento to be read to the Indians, 1510
- Cortés, Letter to King Charles I of Spain, 1521, excerpt
- Indian accounts of the Spanish conquest in Mexico, 1500s
- Bartolomé de las Casas, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, 1542, excerpts
- Spanish illustrations of the Indians, 1500s

- Aztec juggler
- Feather-working scenes
- Burning of "idols"

Many factors conditioned the ways Europeans responded to Native Americans and the ways Native Americans responded to Europeans. Motivations, expectations, political and social structures, religious beliefs, concepts of civilization, and perceptions of wealth and power all played a role. Perhaps nowhere is the complex mingling of such forces more evident than in Hernan Cortés's encounter with the Mexica (Aztecs). Cortés landed at what is now Veracruz in Mexico on Good Friday, April 22, 1519. He set sail from the flourishing Spanish colony of Cuba. His troops included many men who had arrived on the island too late to grab their own estates. Thus when they came to Mexico, their greed was alloyed with a desperate resolve to capitalize upon a second shot at riches. To illustrate their mindset, we offer the "Requerimiento," a proclamation in which the Spanish spelled out, quite bluntly, the deal they had in mind for the natives of the Americas: Convert to Christianity or be attacked.

The traditional story of the Aztec relationship with the Spanish, rooted in the Spanish perspective, describes how a "handful" of soldiers overwhelmed the Aztecs and wiped out their civilization. Much of that story comes from a series of letters Cortés sent to his royal sponsor King Charles I, and here we read an excerpt from his second letter, in which he expresses his awe at the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán (modern Mexico City).

For over four hundred years the Indians' accounts of Mexico's conquest were not easily accessible, but in 1959 Mexican anthropologist Miguel Léon-Portilla published Visión de los Vencidos (Vision of the Vanquished, published in English as The Broken Spears). It weaves together selections from a variety of sixteenth-century indigenous accounts, some as early as 1528, into a narrative that describes among other things, Cortés's landing, the battles he fought and alliances he made on his march to Tenochtitlán, the Aztecs' defensive maneuvers, their almost successful retaliation, and finally their fall. An engaging read translated from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, it reveals a world of omens, splendor, intrigue, diplomacy, and treachery (included also in #6:INDIANS' ACCOUNTS).

Not only did Indians recount the cruelty of the Spanish conquest, so did a Spanish priest in Mexico, Bartolomé de las Casas. A human rights activist in today's terms, he compiled his eyewitness accounts of Spanish atrocities with others' from across the Caribbean and Central America, and presented them in 1542 to the Spanish king, imploring him to "extirpate the causes of so many evils." The king responded as las Casas hoped, issuing "New Laws" to moderate the treatment of the Indians, but they saw little enforcement in the New World. Las Casas titled his compilation A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies; we present his introductory and concluding statements here, which you will find sufficient to absorb his horror and moral anguish.

Finally, the three images by European artists illuminate the post-conquest fate of the Mexican Indians. The picture of the juggler lying on his back balancing a log dates from about 1529, just a few years after the Aztec conquest in 1521. It was painted by Christoph Weiditz, a German artist who saw Aztec acrobats perform in Madrid at the court of Emperor Charles V (of the Holy Roman Empire; also King Charles I of Spain). The scenes depicting the making of feather art come from the Florentine Codex, a twelve-volume encyclopedia of Aztec culture compiled in the late sixteenth century under the direction of the Franciscan priest Bernardino de Sahagún. The unknown artist was probably trained by Franciscans in their effort to create a utopian Christian community among the Indians. Finally, the painting depicting the burning of Aztec idols dates from the early 1580s. It is the work of Diego Muñoz Camargo, a mestizo from an elite family in Tlaxcala, a city that allied itself with Cortés as he marched to Tenochtitlán. (28 pages, including the illustrations and their descriptions.)

Image: Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, "Athore shows Laudonnière the Marker Column set up by Ribault" [during the 1562 French expedition to the Florida Atlantic coast]. Watercolors and bodycolors with touches of gold on vellum, and traces of black chalk outlines; mounted within a gold border; pictorial surface 180 x 260 mm; 7 x 10¼ in. New York Public Library. Reproduced by permission.

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