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The First Letter from New Spain

The First Letter from New Spain
The Lost Petition of Cortes and His Company, June 20, 1519

Presenting an authoritative translation and analysis of the only surviving original document from the first months of the Spanish conquest, this book brings to life a decisive moment in the history of Mexico and offers an enlarged understanding of the conquerors’ motivations.

Series: Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowment in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture

May 2014
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316 pages | 6 x 9 |

The founding of la Villa Rica de la Veracruz (the rich town of the True Cross) is prominently mentioned in histories of the conquest of Mexico, but scant primary documentation of the provocative act exists. During a research session at the Spanish archives, when John Schwaller discovered an early-sixteenth-century letter from Veracruz signed by the members of Cortés’s company, he knew he had found a trove of historical details. Providing an accessible, accurate translation of this pivotal correspondence, along with in-depth examinations of its context and significance, The First Letter from New Spain gives all readers access to the first document written from the mainland of North America by any European, and the only surviving original document from the first months of the conquest.

The timing of Cortés’s Good Friday landing, immediately before the initial assault on the Aztec Empire, enhances the significance of this work. Though the expedition was conducted under the authority of Diego Velázquez, governor of Cuba, the letter reflects an attempt to break ties with Velázquez and form a strategic alliance with Carlos V, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain. Brimming with details about the events surrounding Veracruz’s inception and accompanied by mini-biographies of 318 signers of the document—socially competitive men who risked charges of treason by renouncing Velázquez—The First Letter from New Spain gives evidence of entrepreneurship and other overlooked traits that fueled the conquest.



Chapter 1. Introduction

John F. Schwaller

Chapter 2. A Synopsis of the Conquest of Mexico

John F. Schwaller and Helen Nader

Chapter 3. The Veracruz Petition in Historiographical Context

John F. Schwaller

Chapter 4. Description of the Veracruz Petition

Helen Nader and John F. Schwaller

Chapter 5. Facsimile, Transcription, and Translation of the Veracruz Petition

Helen Nader and John F. Schwaller

Chapter 6. The Members of the Company: A Prosopographical Essay

John F. Schwaller

Chapter 7. Biographies of the Signatories of the Veracruz Petition

John F. Schwaller

Chapter 8. Conclusions

John F. Schwaller

Appendix. Signatories of the 1520 Segura de la Frontera Letter





John F. Schwaller is a distinguished historian of colonial Latin America. He has served as Director of the Academy of American Franciscan History at the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, California; Associate Provost and Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of Montana, Missoula; Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Dean at the University of Minnesota, Morris; and President of SUNY Potsdam. His previous books include The History of the Catholic Church in Latin America: From Conquest to Revolution and Beyond.

Helen Nader was Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Arizona. She was the author of numerous books, including Power and Gender in Renaissance Spain: Eight Women of the Mendoza Family, 1450–1650 and Liberty in Absolutist Spain: The Habsburg Sale of Towns, 1516–1700.


Chapter 1


John F. Schwaller

On Good Friday of April 1519, Hernando Cortés and his company of supporters landed on a beach in what is now Mexico. On that beach, he and his companions resolved to found a town, named La Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz (the rich town of the True Cross), in commemoration of their landing on that holy day. This event provides an important signpost in the conquest of Mexico, a dividing point from the prior activities of the Spaniards in the New World. Cortés had sailed from Cuba with some five hundred men under the auspices of and with a license from Diego Velázquez, governor of Cuba. That license, however, allowed Cortés only to conduct trade and to explore the coasts of what would become Mexico.

In resolving to establish a town, Cortés and his men symbolically broke away from the supervision of Velázquez and sought to place themselves under the direct control of the Spanish king. That act and its legality have generated much debate ever since it occurred. The event became famous in legend and history, and is mentioned prominently in all histories of the conquest. Yet other than a description by Cortés, by Bernal Díaz del Castillo (a member of the company), and in subsequent documents, the original record of this dramatic event—the actual petition to the Crown requesting royal recognition-.remained unknown and undiscovered. The absence of this document from the historical record represents a large and important lacuna in our knowledge of the conquest of Mexico.

In spite of efforts by historians over the past five centuries to find it, the petition was hiding in plain sight, in the Archives of the Indies, in Seville, in a bundle of other documents, letters, and petitions directed to the king from cities and towns in New Spain. The petition of the Veracruz town council (AGI, Mexico, 95, Carta del cabildo de Veracruz [1519]), signed by all the members of the company, provides the ultimate legal justification for the actions of Cortés and his expedition. This petition is one of the first documents written from the mainland of North America by any European. It is the only original document from the conquest: other reports and letters have survived only in incomplete sixteenth-century copies. It is unique in that it provides details about the dramatic events related to the founding of Veracruz and illuminates our understanding of the chronology of the early phases of the conquest of Mexico. But what is most impressive is that the document was meant to carry the signatures of all the members of the company who participated in this historic event.

Lamentably, the letter has suffered damage over the last five hundred years, and as much as one-third of the bottom part of several pages is missing. Conservators have stopped further damage and replaced the paper of those pages, but the information those lost shreds held is irretrievably gone. Nevertheless, what does remain provides an invaluable glimpse into what is unquestionably one of the most stirring and exciting moments of the conquest.

The book presented here reproduces the Veracruz petition, along with other materials, in order to place this unique document in its historical context, clarify the chronology of the event, describe how that moment figured in the conquest of Mexico, and shed light on the lives of the men who participated in it.

James Lockhart's landmark study of events in Peru, The Men of Cajamarca, provided a solid basis upon which to proceed. Just as Lockhart was able to use the roster from the distribution of booty at Cajamarca both to identify the members of the Pizarro expedition and to give us thumbnail biographies of the participants, so this document can provide us with the names of the members of the Cortés company at a point within a matter of weeks of their departure from Cuba. Yet not only does the petition of the town of Veracruz provide the names of the participants, but it is also an important document essential to an understanding of the legal bases of the expedition itself.

The petition demonstrates quite clearly that the expeditions of conquest were true companies: that is, organizations in which participants pooled their resources to achieve a common end, the benefits of which were then distributed share-wise to the members of the company. Although Díaz del Castillo refers to his colleagues as "soldiers" (soldados), they were not soldiers in the strict sense of the word, since they did not receive a salary (sueldum). They were not employed by a government nor even by Cortés, their leader. Rather, they were more like investors. Each man invested his own equipment and materiel in return for a portion of whatever treasure the company might gain. Similarly, each man had a voice in the direction of the expedition, while also recognizing that there was an established command structure, with Cortés at the top. Cortés was also the major investor, risking his own fortune in the purchase of ships, food, and supplies for the company. As a result he also expected a larger portion of whatever treasure they might acquire.

Along the same lines as James Lockhart's work, this study further reinforces what we know about the social composition of the early Spanish expeditions. It illuminates the role the conquest played in the lives of the men involved, following them through the period of the conquest and into their lives afterward. The men who took part in the conquest of Mexico were somewhat different from the participants in the conquest of Peru. Far more men on horseback fought in South America, as compared to the Cortés expedition, for example.

The petition of the Veracruz town council and residents is not the only document of its kind generated by the Cortés company. Just over a year later, when the expedition regrouped in the town of Tepeaca—renamed Segura de la Frontera by the Spanish—a second letter was sent to the Crown, and it too was signed by the members of the company, some 420 men (see the appendix for a list of the signatories). While that document has been known for some time, the original has been lost. Since the late nineteenth century scholars have had to rely on a contemporary transcription. Unfortunately, it seems that the colonial secretary who transcribed the signatures was faced with the same problem as modern scholars: the names are devilishly hard to decipher. To compound matters, when the transcription was published, additional errors entered in, as the nineteenth-century scholars had difficulty reading the sixteenth-century scribal hand. This later document has assisted many historians in trying to identify the members of the company, and has served as a useful guide in this study as well.

This present study fits into a broad category of works characterized as the "New Conquest History" by Matthew Restall. In his analysis of the historiography of the conquest, Restall sees a watershed in the late years of the twentieth century, when scholars began to ask new questions of old sources, to discover unknown sources, and to focus on individuals and groups of individuals who had been excluded from earlier studies of the conquests of the Americas. He recognizes that each generation will return to the traditional primary sources and probe them with new questions in mind. At the same time, improved archival and paleographic capabilities have allowed researchers both to discover new sources and to mine unexpected sources for important details to round out our understanding of the conquest. Since Lockhart, many historians have begun to look at the other conquerors, not just the famous men, like Cortés and Pizarro, or even their captains, but the rank-and-file members of their expeditions, and at people who were largely overlooked even at the time, such as women and servants. Lastly, whole groups of people, such as the native auxiliaries, were traditionally consigned to a few words, or even a footnote, but now are the protagonists of new histories of the conquest. It is in this vein that this book continues.

Historians over time have invested considerable time in studying the various conquests of the New World. As part of the New Conquest History, new meta-analyses are beginning to emerge; these examine the studies done in previous eras in order to extract new meaning and new conclusions from them. Excellent examples of these involve the various expeditions into what is now Colombia. In 1995, José Ignacio Avellaneda Navas investigated the studies of the conquest of New Granada. Once he had extracted the essential data concerning the social composition of the conquering bands, he then compared them closely to the findings of Lockhart for nearby Peru. In 2007, Michael Francis returned to the original accounts of the conquests of Colombia, extracted the essential data regarding the conquerors, and then analyzed it in light of the many studies which had been conducted prior to his, including that of Avellaneda Navas.

In keeping with this aspect of the New Conquest History, this book takes a new look at the traditional sources: the accounts of conquerors such as Díaz del Castillo and of Cortés himself. It also draws heavily from several important collective biographies of the conquerors of Mexico: works by Hugh Thomas, Bernard Grunberg, Victor Alvarez, and Robert Himmerich y Valencia. Through the utilization of the earlier studies of the conquest, it continues a tradition of nearly five hundred years, and extracts the most significant findings from those studies both to better illuminate the moment in which the Cortés expedition legally severed its ties to Velázquez, and to produce detailed biographies of the conquerors themselves.

The second aspect of the New Conquest History is the discovery of new sources, or the utilization of previously underused materials, to inform our understanding of the period. In the case of New Spain, access to native documents, both pictorial manuscripts and texts written in native languages using European characters, has provided new insights into the conquest. Stephanie Wood, for instance, worked with both pictorial and textual manuscripts to discern the Nahua view of the conquest. Drawing on a similar corpus of materials, but looking more at the impact on the psyche of native peoples, José Rabasa has also provided a reinterpretation, specifically analyzing the effects of the conquest and colonization. Looking at the use of Nahua auxiliaries in the conquest of Guatemala, Florine Asselbergs drew heavily on a well-known pictorial manuscript to document that episode of the conquest. A small contribution, which seeks clearer understanding of a particular text, is a new look at the iconic phrase "broken spears," which was attributed to a native observer of the conquest. To one looking closely at the original Nahuatl, it seems that the phrase was actually "broken bones."

This book furthers this aspect of the New Conquest History through the use of a completely unknown manuscript as its central contribution to the literature. Scores of unknown manuscripts housed in Spanish and Mexican archives are waiting to be discovered by historians and so to add new data to our understanding of these events. One of the significant contributions made by Bernard Grunberg in his collection of biographies of the conquerors is the use of the many relaciones de méritos drawn up by conquerors and their heirs to document their participation in episodes of conquest. Prior to his work they had largely been unexplored, except for the occasional scholar who was focused on one or another conqueror and so consulted the account of his services as documented in the colonial archives.

Flowing from this reexamination of new sources of documentation is the prioritizing of the study of participants in the conquest whom historians previously ignored. In particular, the contributions of native auxiliaries, who played a crucial role in the Spanish success, are now being studied, as in the case of Asselbergs's book, mentioned above. Laura Matthew and Michel Oudijk edited an important collection of essays which looks at the contributions of native auxiliaries, and exemplifies this aspect of the New Conquest History. Others, such as the native translator doña Marina, also known as La Malinche, are now the subject of significant scholarship. Our study of the Veracruz petition also conforms to this feature of the New Conquest History in that it opens a window into the lives of the "foot soldiers" of the conquest, the unheralded men who fought alongside the better-known captains of the expedition. Unfortunately, the political reality of the moment in which the petition was created left women and natives excluded, and so even in this revision of the story they are relegated, yet again, to the background.

The focus of this work is one particular moment in time-.June 20, 1519—and an event which was to prove to be crucial in the time line of the conquest of Mexico. As with Cajamarca in Peru, the happenings in Veracruz have the potential to draw attention from the long processes of history in which many individuals act on a daily basis to bring about change. This reification of a particular event is an unfortunate by-product of our focus on this unique document. Nonetheless, by looking at this particular long-lost text, gaining an understanding of the broader context within which it was created, and analyzing the lives of the men who participated in the actions it describes, we are faithful to the New Conquest History. The goal is to return our focus to the members of the company and the long-term processes at work, as evidenced in the document, not to concentrate on the actions of the leaders and the impact of big, brash actions.

This book begins with a general synopsis of the conquest of Mexico. It outlines the major events of the conquest, in order to better place the foundation of the town of Veracruz in its historical context. Moreover, the events described in this chapter provide the signposts for understanding the accomplishments of the men who signed the letter. After the conquest, many men had an opportunity to recall their participation, and they tended to best remember the major events when they themselves had been present. In this way the synopsis can also help one understand the trajectory of the stories of the individual conquerors.

The third chapter considers the historiography of the Veracruz petition itself. The founding of Veracruz figures prominently in nearly every history of the conquest of Mexico. This section of our book will compare the histories of the conquest with the understanding of events as gleaned from the Veracruz petition, to enable a discussion of the value of primary sources and corroboration for historians. Specifically, the previously known narrative of the town (erroneously known as the "First Letter of Cortés") and the account of Díaz del Castillo will be analyzed, along with other major histories. This chapter will look at the chronologies of the conquest surrounding the foundation of Veracruz, since the date of the Veracruz petition provides a crucial new data point. Moreover, the chapter will consider the different perspectives of authors with regard to the true leadership structure of the expedition. Some writers have seen the Cortés company as a fairly egalitarian group, exercising broad consultation on issues of importance. Others see it as being firmly under the control of Cortés himself at all times. The petition of the town helps to illuminate this debate.

The next two chapters (chapters 4 and 5) include a detailed description of the document itself, along with a transcription and translation, and a facsimile reproduction of the original.

One of the truly unique features of the Veracruz petition is that it preserves the names of more than three hundred members of the Cortés expedition. Contemporary documents indicate that as many as five hundred persons participated in the Veracruz landing. Consequently this document provides a rare insight into the composition of the company that engaged in the conquest of Mexico. For historians it has all of the importance of the Cajamarca roster, which outlined the membership of the expedition to Peru led by Pizarro. Chapter 6 consists of the collective biography of the men who signed the letter: their origins and what happened to them during and after the conquest, as gleaned from numerous and varied sources. Many men do not appear in the historical record after this event, and so it is assumed that they died in the conquest or shortly thereafter. Most of the men have been identified, and some biographical information does exist for them, providing insight into their social status, occupations, and places of origin. This chapter also looks at what the Veracruz petition can illuminate about the internal structure of the company and relationships among the men who fought alongside Cortés. Many comparisons are made to the findings of studies which have focused on the conquests of Panama, Colombia, Peru, and Chile.

Chapter 7 contains thumbnail biographies of all the men who signed the letter. For several centuries now, scholars have attempted to identify the participants in the conquest. Even in the decades immediately following the conquest some authors took great pains to recall who those men were. Díaz del Castillo, a participant himself, devoted several chapters of his history to describing his fellow conquerors. By the nineteenth century, more and more historians were focused on recovering the names and biographies of the members of the Cortés company. Just within the last twenty-five years, two scholars, Hugh Thomas and Bernard Grunberg, have published what seek to be definitive collections of the biographies of the conquerors. These men spent many years combing through all of the accounts of the conquest, and through scores of other histories, to compile a list of names and biographies. These works, and others, have greatly assisted in the writing of our thumbnail biographies.

In this book we have opted to use the common form of the conqueror Cortés's name—Hernán Cortés. In reality the name he used was variously Fernando or Hernando. At some point this was abbreviated to Hernán, and has remained as such ever since. Rather than continually refer to "La Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz," we have opted to use the simpler form "Veracruz." The ruler of the Mexica (Aztecs) is commonly known in English as "Montezuma," and "Moctezuma" in Spanish. His true name was closer to "Moteuczoma," the spelling preferred here.




“From the moment that I opened The First Letter fromNew Spain to its conclusion, I found myself ridiculously excited about the material. . . . Schwaller does a good job in his effort to place the founding of the town within the context of the events surrounding it. Further, by organizing the book in the way that they do and focusing on all known signatories, Schwaller and Nader lessen the exceptionalism of the top conquistadores and demonstrate the very real plight and dangers that awaited the conquistadores at the bottom ranks of the group. At the end of the monograph, and this review, I find myself just as excited about it as when I started. I believe that the book will appeal to scholars, students, and the general public alike.”
Hispanic American Historical Review

“An excellent piece of historical research. . . . The authors have taken a long-overlooked manuscript source that despite certain paleographic problems and physical damage still enables them to reconstruct the names of those men who were with Cortés at the very start of the conquest of Mexico. . . . The result is a fascinating example of historical reconstruction . . . and an important contribution.”
Stuart Schwartz, George Burton Adams Professor of History, Yale University


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