Spanish Sea: The Gulf of Mexico in North American Discovery, 1500-1685

Spanish Sea: The Gulf of Mexico in North American Discovery, 1500-1685

Spanish Sea: The Gulf of Mexico in North American Discovery, 1500-1685

Spanish Sea: The Gulf of Mexico in North American Discovery, 1500-1685

Synopsis

Almost five hundred years ago an obscure Spanish sailor aboard the Pinta spotted the outlines of an unknown land rising above the western horizon. From that moment Spain embarked upon an age of discovery, exploration, and conquest of the New World virtually unchallenged until the coming of the French in 1685. Not until sixteen years after the discovery of the fringe islands of North America did an explorer find the crucial passage into the Gulf of Mexico, or Spanish Sea, which then served as a vital conduit to the discovery of North America and was the theater for the earliest and most determined efforts to conquer the natives and explore and settle the continent’s interior.

Despite this dramatic role, the Gulf has been grossly neglected—and misunderstood—by historians. In Spanish Sea Robert S. Weddle challenges long-standing assumptions based on generalities or misinterpretation of medieval maps and navigational data. He disputes, for example, the claim that Alvarez de Pineda sailed up either the Rio Grande or the Mississippi River, and he denies the identification of the Rio Grande with the Rio de las Palmas of colonial times. He offers new conclusions on the Florida Landing places of Juan Ponce de Leon and Hernando de Soto and on the transcontinental route of Cabeza de Vaca. He suggests new motivations for some of the early explorers, such as Francisco de Garay, who may have been driven by debts to the venal Genoese merchant-bankers in Spain. Weddle further offers new perspectives on the contest between Cortes and his rivals; Tristan de Luna’s attempt to raise a Florida colony from the ashes of Soto’s; the continuing effort by virtually all of the explorers to link Florida with Mexico; and the multinational pirate host of the late seventeenth century.

Weddle’s findings, interpretations, and insights into the interrelatedness of events grow out of three years’ research, supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, in major archives of the Gulf states and in six major archives of Spain. The highly readable result is the first comprehensive treatment of discovery and exploration around the Gulf and an invitation to a more focused, less episodic approach to the study of North American discovery.

Excerpt

Early in the twentieth century, New World discovery and exploration ceased to be popular subjects for historical study. The reasons are a bit obscure, for the task was not nearly complete. Many of the works most relied upon are marked by confused facts, unclear focus, and uncertain conclusions. The vital conduit for the first real European access to the North American mainland--the Gulf of Mexico--has been grossly neglected, never having been treated as the distinct entity that it is.

Following Columbus's initial discovery of the fringe islands, the Andalusian voyagers groped their way through the maze, seeking a continent. Running uphill, as it were, they found Central and South America. Not for sixteen years did the first navigator find the crucial passage into the Gulf of Mexico. Another decade passed before the discoverers realized that a second continent lay beyond the Gulf. Only then could the actual discovery of mainland North America begin. Through this "Spanish Sea"--which the Gulf remained for almost two centuries after the first known European entry--the discoverers and explorers advanced onto the continent. The Gulf and its environs were the theater for the earliest and most determined efforts to conquer the natives and explore and settle the interior.

In the present volume, I have knowingly attempted to serve two masters. The general reader--if my intention has been translated successfully--will find in the successive accounts of the various discovery episodes a lively series of related adventures, unencumbered by scholarly documentation until he comes to the "Sources and Notes" at the end of each chapter. He may skip over these if he finds them tedious. The specialist, on the other hand, will perceive from these bibliographical essays the depth of research supporting the challenge here offered to some longstanding concepts. If so inclined, he may pursue the sources himself.

It is not my purpose to dispute previous interpretations merely for the sake of being different or to justify my work by offering a spu-

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