The Spanish Borderlands

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The Spanish Borderlands

Many precontact cultures in Latin America had concepts of space and methods for representing that space visually. The Europeans who came to the region brought with them new techniques.

Spanning the 300-year colonial era, European mapping of the Spanish Borderlands began with efforts to understand the discovery of the New World, advanced with attempts to define competing claims, and culminated in surveys to determine international boundaries.

The first cartographic efforts, accomplished with early technology, sometimes militated against accuracy. Latitude determination, with astrolabe or cross-staff, was imprecise; there was no dependable means of computing longitude. However crude, the work was significant and influential. As data accrued from the early discoveries, King Ferdinand designated the Casa De Contratación in Seville as the repository for geographical data. Cosmographers there kept a master chart, called the padrón real. As reports came in, cartographers drafted the data into finished maps. Crown policy kept this knowledge from other nations, and each copy of the padrón real was destroyed when superseded. Hence, mapmakers of other nations, using whatever Spanish data were at their disposal, shaped Europeans' concepts of the Spanish discoveries.

Following Juan Ponce De León's discovery of Florida in 1513, Spanish North America was mapped in three chronological stages: (1) the Gulf coast, (2) the Atlantic coast from Florida northward, and (3) the Pacific coast.

From a 1519 voyage dispatched by Francisco de Garay, governor of Jamaica, came the first crude map sketch of the Gulf of Mexico. This expedition, commanded by Alonso Álvarez De Pineda, explored the coast from Ponce's Florida landing to Hernán Cortés's new settlement of Villa Rica on the Veracruz coast. It discovered the mouth of the Mississippi River (named Río del Espíritu Santo) and proved there was no strait linking the Gulf with the Pacific. The "Pineda sketch," preserved in the Archivo General de Indias in Seville, was a cartographic cornerstone. It was the first European map to portray the Gulf based on actual exploration. Its Gulf configuration, with data from Atlantic coast explorations north of Florida by Lucas Vázquez De Ayllón's pilots in 1520–1521 and by Estevão Gomes in 1525, enabled cosmographers to present a portion of the continent in recognizable outline. It aided especially the 1529 world maps by Diogo Ribeiro, chief cosmographer in the Casa de Contratación, which became prototypes.

Not until the coastlines were roughly established did maps begin to show significant interior detail. The so-called De Soto map, found among the papers of the cosmographer Alonso de Santa Cruz about 1572, was the first to supply information on rivers and native towns. Although most of the information was derived from Hernando de Soto's expedition (1539–1543), the map also drew from other explorers: Ponce de León and Vasquez de Ayllón in the East and Alvar Núñez Cabeza De Vaca and Francisco Vázquez de Coronado in the Southwest. It influenced Borderlands cartography for half a century.

Influenced by Coronado's march onto the Great Plains, voyages around 1540, including those of Francisco de Ulloa, Hernando de Alarcón, and Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, focused on the Pacific Coast. Domingo del Castillo, a pilot with both Ulloa and Alarcón, drew a map showing the results of these two voyages, which traced 2,000 miles of coastline, proved California was not an island, and discovered the Colorado River. By 1570 Abraham Ortelius, with his landmark Americae sive novi orbis nova descriptio, was able to portray North America to its far limits, using the Mercator projection introduced the previous year.

Maps of the seventeenth century reflected little new knowledge of the Borderlands. Spanish secrecy continued to deny the most accurate data to cartographic centers in other European countries. The French explorer René-Robert La Salle, in descending the Mississippi River from Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico in 1682, had no reliable map to guide him. The lack of geographical data and faulty cartography have been blamed for his subsequent landing in Texas while seeking the mouth of the Mississippi from the Gulf.

The Spaniards' three-year search for La Salle's Gulf Coast colony constituted a rebirth of exploration. The pilot Juan Enríquez Barroto, on a 1686–1687 search voyage that circumnavigated the Gulf, mapped the shoreline and named its features. Although his maps have been lost, his diary survives, revealing the source of many place names appearing on a host of non-Spanish maps, including those of the French geographer Guillaume Delisle.

Delisle and his father, Claude, brought to the mapping of America a level of scholarship not previously attained, as is evident in the 1703 carte du Mexique et de la Floride. This joint effort utilized sources from Pánfilo de Narváez and Cabeza de Vaca to Louisiana founder Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville. Delisle's 1718 Carte de la Louisiane et du cours du Mississippi utilized information from explorers such as Louis Juchereau de Saint-Denis and small-area maps like those of François Le Maire.

In the Far West, Jesuit Father Eusebio Kino settled, with his 1702 map, confusion that since Ulloa's time had made California an island. Later in the eighteenth century, military inspections of New Spain's interior provinces brought a new dimension to Borderlands cartography, notably the series of six maps by Francisco Álvarez Barreiro, engineer with Pedro de Rivera's inspection team (1724–1727), and the 1771 map by Nicolás de Lafora, engineer with the Marqués de Rubí's visit of 1766–1768. Both these examples extended from the Gulf of California to Louisiana.

With the end of the Seven Years' War in 1763, both England and Spain faced the need to explore and map their new territories. Thus came into play the work of cartographers in English service such as George Gauld, Philip Pittman, and Bernard Romans along the Gulf coast and the Mississippi.

A lack of accurate coastal mapping was recognized by Bernardo de Gálvez, campaigning against the British on the Gulf Coast during the American Revolution. Having reclaimed the Floridas, Gálvez sent José de Evía to explore and map the Gulf coast from Florida to Tampico, in 1785–1786. Evía's work served as the basis for subsequent maps by the Spanish Hydrographic Service and contributed to José Antonio Pichardo's 1811 map of New Mexico and adjacent regions, meant to be used in the settlement of the Louisiana-Texas boundary dispute. The Hydrographic Office charts, in turn, provided the Gulf of Mexico configuration for Alexander von Humboldt's map of New Spain (1811). Zebulon M. Pike's A Map of the Internal Provinces of New Spain, based in part on his own military reconnaissance, and Aaron Arrowsmith's A New Map of Mexico, both showing the western Borderlands, drew on Humboldt's data.

Philadelphia publisher John Melish facilitated the eventual division of lands between the United States and Mexico under the 1819 Adams-Onís Treaty with his 1816 Map of the United States. In its six sheets this map epitomized the state of cartographic knowledge as Florida passed to the United States, and Spain, in 1821, yielded the rest of the Borderlands to independent Mexico.

Anglo-American colonization of Mexican Texas brought forth maps by Stephen F. Austin (1830) and David H. Burr (1833), showing Texas and adjacent Mexican states, north to the Arkansas River. Pertinent to the question of annexation of Texas to the United States, after it gained independence from Mexico, was William H. Emory's 1844 Map of Texas and the Countries Adjacent, which embraced the territory west to the Pacific Ocean.

Texas was annexed in 1845, and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending the Mexican-American War, also gave the United States title to the present states of Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah. The map used in the treaty negotiations was John Disturnell's Mapa de los Estados Unidos de Méjico (1847). Following the treaty, jointly appointed commissions from Mexico and U.S. conducted surveys that yielded new maps and corrected Disturnell's errors. Together, the commissions significantly expanded geographic knowledge of the borderlands region and influenced future cooperation on bilateral boundary issues, from the Gadsen Treaty of 1853 into the twenty-first century.

See alsoAmerica; Cartography: Overview; Garay, Francisco de; Mayan Epigraphy; Ponce de León, Juan.


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                                   Robert S. Weddle

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The Spanish Borderlands

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