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Choosing a Topic

Backing into Topic Selection:
Or, Don Juan de Oñate leads a 21st Century expedition to select a manageable National History Day topic.

Most historians select a topic for research from interesting information they have found while reading a secondary source, or from curiosity about some event or person. In essence, that could be called the “normal” way to begin a research project, whether it is for a National History Day entry or for a doctoral dissertation, because more people have access to secondary sources than to primary documentation. Even so, we should not dismiss the possibility that inspiration can come directly from primary sources. Since the American Journeys project consists exclusively of original documents, and since both teachers and students will have easy access to them through the Internet, it is fitting for us to examine some of the possibilities for selecting topics and doing research by working first in primary sources.

Using excerpts from some of the documents that relate to Don Juan de Oñate, AJ-010-015 and AJ-101 through AJ-105, to illustrate the process, we will follow the clues in the other direction to show how students can enter upon research from the original material as successfully as by working from the secondary sources toward manuscript collections and published primary sources.

The extensive reports of Oñate’s attempts to colonize the province of “New” Mexico between 1596 and 1605 provide an extensive early written history for parts of the southwestern United States. It is fairly well known that the oldest continuous settlement by Europeans in America was the Spanish fort at what is now St. Augustine in Florida, established in 1565. But establishing a town there was not the Spaniards’ original intent. St. Augustine was set up as a small military outpost, not a village of settlers who desired to create a community and remain. Such an effort did occur only 33 years later, in the harsh southwestern desert climate, more than a thousand miles from the Spanish seat of government in Mexico City, when a party of around 500 persons marched north from “Old” Mexico to stake claims on the land of the Pueblo Indians in what is the present-day state of New Mexico.

In their colonizing efforts, the Spanish, like the French in the northeast, did not expect to replicate their mother country in America. As one writer said, they “sought to populate [their] far-flung northern frontier. . . less by settling Spanish. . . people there than by transforming the indigenous population into Hispanicized and loyal subjects of the Spanish Crown.” While English colonies generally ousted or destroyed the native populace that occupied the lands they required, New Spain “sought to use the Catholic Church to evangelize the Indians and make them into gente de rasón (people of reason): Spanish-speaking, Catholic, peasant farmers who followed Euro-Christian practices . . .”

Juan de Oñate, leader of the expedition, was the son of Cristobál de Oñate, a wealthy miner, and Catalina de Salazar. He was born around 1550, probably in Zacatecas, Mexico. He married Isabel de Tolosa Cortés Moctezuma, a descendant of both Hernán Cortés and Aztec emperor Moctezuma. In 1595 Oñate was appointed governor of New Mexico and received a royal contract authorizing him to move with a large group of colonists into the area north of El Paso del Norte.

If one of your students is interested in studying an early Southwestern topic, he or she might well look at the Oñate adventure with view to doing further research for a National History Day project. Be warned however, it will probably become apparent rather quickly-if not to the student, certainly to you-that to do an entry on everything about Don Juan Oñate is simply not possible within the time and size limitations of the program. More than 100 pages from the two volume set edited by George P. Hammond have been made available in American Journeys. An additional seventy pages on Oñate’s adventures are available from Herbert Eugene Bolton’s work. If you are lucky enough to be able to lay hands on complete originals of the three books, your student could have access to nearly 1,500 pages of information in those volumes alone-not to mention other original and secondary sources that can be found. Not all the documents either in Hammond or in Bolton are available on the American Journeys site, but a quick look at what is there will reveal to you that most sixth through tweltfh grade students will have a bit of trouble digesting it all! To condense that into the length limits of a History Day entry would probably require the services of a professional editor if not a magician with magic sheers in place of the proverbial magic wand. So, what to do; how to do it?

A good way to ferret out information that will lead to a manageable topic would be to consult the Background files on American Journeys. Those provide brief statements about each of the documents, giving enough information to let students preview to make the full document and decide whether it interests them. Another possibility is to refer to introductions or finding aids to collections held by libraries, historical societies, or manuscript collections. For anyone who finds the Oñate materials appealing, consult the introduction to Bolton’s book at your local library or through Interlibrary Loan. It provides a good example of how an editor’s introductory remarks can aid your students in topic selection. Perusal of just the first page will yield several other subjects for research. For example, in the first sentence Bolton mentions expeditions by “Rodríguez” and “Espejo,” presuming knowledge that most of us do not have about who they were. In the second paragraph he introduces Cristóbal Martín, who asked for permission to conquer and settle New Mexico at his own expense as early as 1583-another possible topic. And in the final paragraph on page one, we learn of Francisco Diaz de Vargas who also asked for the privilege of settling in the northern region, which is to us “the Southwest.” Since Bolton gives us no details, we might wonder about him as well. But the point is that there, in the space of a single page of a twelve-page introduction, are four subjects, Rodríguez, Espejo, Martín, and Diaz de Vargas, that might be worthy of further research, in addition to Oñate himself.

Lacking our own personal historian of the early southwest to fill in our knowledge gaps, we might well ask, “Who, then, were these guys?” A quick cyber-trip to the Background files on the American Journeys Web site will yield the facts that Rodríguez was Brother (Fray) Agustin Rodríguez (see also AJ-006, “Brief and True Account of the Exploration of New Mexico), that he led an expedition north beginning on June 5, 1581, from Santa Bárbara, that he was accompanied by soldiers Phelipe de Escalante (see also AJ-006) and Hernando Barrado (see also AJ-005, “Declaration of Hernando Barrado, 1582”), and that the commanding officer of the detachment of nine soldiers was Francisco Sanchez Chamuscado. Escalante and Barrado wrote about the trip, urging Spanish officials to begin colonies in the land they had explored, and including information about “interactions between the expedition party and Native Americans and the results of their assay of mine prospects.”

A similar search will yield comparable information about Antonio Espejo, (see also AJ-008, “Account of the Journey to the Provinces and Settlements of New Mexico, 1583”) a native of Cordoba, Spain, who came to Mexico in 1571 with his brother Pedro Munoz de Espejo, etc. Realizing that both men might be good topics for History Day entries, or that at the very least they could become characters in a group performance built around information in the Rodríguez document, AJ-005, your students could put them on a growing list of people for whom they will seek further information. That list at this point might include-in addition to Oñate-Rodríguez, Espejo, Martin, Diaz de Vargas, Escalante, Barrado and Sanchez Chamuscado. (Remember that we started with only one name, Oñate.)

To get them to take the next step, you might want to send your students once more to the Internet where Google searches for the men listed above will reveal a lot of additional information on Oñate from several reputable Web sites (and some from questionable ones as well), and a little information about Rodríguez and Sanchez Chamuscado. Martin, Diaz de Vargas, and Barrado, however, will probably get negative results-a fact that should not necessarily discount them as good research topics, but does mean that locating further sources will take a little more effort. Following the dusty cyber-trail behind Rodríguez and Sanchez Chamuscado will sooner or later take you to a rich source for generalized information on almost any topic that relates in some way to the history of the state of Texas, The Handbook of Texas Online. Carefully edited and published online by the Texas State Historical Association and the University of Texas, it can often provide substantial assistance at the beginning of a historical research project. There are probably similar handbooks and manuals for other states that can be consulted as well.

The Handbook entry that your students may find on Francisco Sanchez will tell them that he was born around 1512 and that he died in 1582. It supplies the fact that he was “a captain in the Spanish Army . . . was called Chamuscado because of his flaming red beard. . . was the military leader of the Rodríguez-Sanchez expedition [which] crossed the Rio Grande, probably at La Junta de los Rios and visited Jumano settlements at a site near that of present Presidio [Texas].” There is more, the most important part of which is a bibliography provided by the entry’s author, John G. Johnson. It lists four sources, two books, and two articles from scholarly journals. The books are Carlos E. Castenada’s, Our Catholic Heritage in Texas, a seven volume set published between 1936 and 1958, and reprinted in 1976, and George P. Hammond and Agapito Rey’s The Rediscovery of New Mexico, 1580-1594, published in 1966 by the University of New Mexico Press. The two articles are from the Southwestern Historical Quarterly. The one from volume 29, is by Fr. Zephyrin Englehardt, and is titled “El yllustre Senor Xamuscado.” The other from volume 26, is called “Supplementary Documents Relating to the Chamuscado-Rodríguez Expedition,” and was compiled by J. Lloyd Mecham. Following a similar trail toward Agustin Rodríguez will also yield similar results-he was an “explorer and leader of the Rodríguez-Sanchez expedition . . . engaged in missionary work. . . .” Again, the most important part of the entry is the bibliography which opens wide a door to further research in both secondary and primary sources.

This brief account only scratches the surface of research possibilities in the Oñate documents. Of the twelve items there that deal directly with various phases of Oñate’s adventures, half are from Herbert Eugene Bolton’s classic Spanish Exploration in the Southwest, 1542-1706 and the other half is reproduced from George Hammond and Agapito Rey’s Don Juan de Oñate, Colonizer of New Mexico, 1595-1628. Here are some of the ways they can be mined.

Long before the beginning of the journey, Oñate had negotiated for a royal contract authorizing him to undertake the expedition and setting out inducements and rewards for the proposed colonization. When the charter was finally awarded, it specified that for undertaking the venture, the title of governor and captain general was to be given to him and his family for two generations. When he took possession of the land he was to become adelantado. The king was to give him “three fieldpieces, thirty quintals of powder, one hundred [quintals] of lead.” He was also to receive “a dozen coats of mail,” but for that he was expected to pay the king, an apparent indication that armor was in shorter supply than gunpowder and shot and the cannons to fire them. As soon as he received the official document, he proceeded immediately to recruit for the journey, but there were delays. King Philip put off giving him the final go-ahead, then ordered him to wait for further orders, and then someone recommended that another person should have the charter-delays, delays. Finally in the summer of 1597 word came that the trip could begin, but not before the viceroy has made an inspection to see if the terms of the contract had been met.

One of the American Journeys documents AJ-101, is “The Salazar Inspection, 1597-98.” It is the minutely detailed record of how royal officials in Mexico City sought to insure that Oñate held up his end of the bargain. It begins, “At the river of San Gerónimo, where the expedition to New Mexico is encamped, on December 22, 1597, Juan de Frías Salazar. . . began the inspection in the following manner:” For sixteen days thereafter, Salazar and his helpers checked and recorded information, documenting for posterity much more than he realized. Not only did he list each item by quantity and value, equally significant and without recognizing it, he told us what was important to the enterprise as a whole and what the colonists valued as individuals. In many instances Oñate’s supplies fell short. For example, on the day that Salazar began the assessment, his notary wrote, “Wheat: On this same day the governor declared 152 fanegas of wheat, which were measured in the presence of the commissary general and me, the notary. According to the price fixed, this amounts to 380 pesos, leaving a shortage of 125 pesos in the amount required in the contract.” In other words, Oñate had only about three-quarters as much wheat as he was supposed to have. He had 846 goats and should have had 1000. Instead of the requisite 3,000 sheep, he had only 2,517. But he had exactly the right number of oxen to pull the carts-198! And the list goes on.

The facts and figures enable us to judge whether Oñate had fulfilled his contract, but the list itself provides extensive information on the lives of these people and shows us much about their daily life. Passages like the one regarding “short nails” also paint a picture of their system of weights and measures: “On this day the governor declared 13,500 short nails, which were weighed before the commissary general and me. The manner of weighing was to count 1,000 nails and place them in one dish of a balance, while in the other were added the exact weights. This was how it was established that there were 13,500 nails.” Why so many nails, your students might ask. Remind them that the Indians of the southwestern desert had no nails and Oñate’s people expected to build houses.

The inspection record also has an extensive list of medicinal items, some of which we recognize, like sarsaparilla, sulphur, vinegar, balsam, and alum. But, it also lists items with names like polvos reales, jeziaco ointment, incarnative ointment, green ointment, and white ointment. A student interested in early medicine might use such an inventory as a starting point for studying practices of the period.

You may be able to gauge the potential for projects from other documents by the following titles and brief descriptions, but you should also check the American Journeys Web site for more detail:

  • The “Record of the Marches by the Army, New Spain to New Mexico, 1596-1598,” AJ-102, provides a chronology of the journey. With access to the maps and other geographical documents it could be used to plot the course of the journey.
  • “Trial of the Indians of Ácoma, 1598,” AJ-104, is one of relatively few early documents that includes a story from the Indian point of view although you may want to remind your students that it was neither recorded nor transcribed by the Indian in question. A portion of the document provides the Spanish testimony and the remainder is Indian testimony.
  • “Account by an Indian of the Flight of Umana and Leyba from New Mexico, 1593,” #AJ-103, is another story told by an Indian about Spaniards in the Southwest. Jusepe was a servant of Humaña and lived to tell his story to Oñate. Antonio Gutiérrez de Humaña and Francisco de Leyva Bonilla made an unauthorized expedition into New Mexico and on the way got into a disagreement that resulted in Humaña’s killing Leyva. Later almost all other members of the expedition were killed by Indians. Officials in Mexico did not know that the group had been killed, so Oñate had been given instructions to search for them and “bring them to justice.”
  • “Letter Written by Don Juan Oñate from New Mexico, 1599,” AJ-010, is Oñate’s report to the viceroy about the progress of his venture thus far. He tells of a rebellion mounted by several of his own troops, complaining that they rebelled “. . .under protest of not finding immediately whole plates of silver lying on the ground, and offended because I would not permit them to maltreat these natives, either in their persons or in their goods, became disgusted with the country, or to be more exact, with me, and endeavored to form a gang in order to flee. . . although judging from what has since come to light their intention was directed more to stealing slaves and clothing and to other acts of affrontery not permitted. . . .”
  • “Account of the Discovery of the Buffalo, 1599,” #AJ-011, was obviously written from a location farther east, somewhere on the Great Plains. It reports not only on the obvious, their attempts to capture buffalo to in order to send them back to Mexico, but also on the existence of native fruits, especially plums, the construction of Plains Indian tents and the high quality of the tanned hides used to cover them. It also includes a good description of the Indians’ use of “medium-sized shaggy dog[s]” to pull loads on travois.
  • “Account of the Journey to the Salines, the Xumanas, and the Sea, 1599,” #AJ-012, is something of a travel log from a lengthy trip around the country. There are many points of interest, particularly the information about Alonzo, one of the two sons of Gaspar, an Indian who had been with Coronado. This is also mentioned in the Espejo document.
  • “Account of the Discovery of the Mines, 1599,” #AJ-013, would today be called a debriefing. Oñate had sent Farfan de los Godos and eight other men in search of rich mines rumored to exist. When Farfan returned, Oñate officially questioned him on many points about his discoveries and observations. In separate sessions he also had other members of the party swear to the accuracy of the report by Farfan. This record of the journey makes very interesting reading.
  • “True Account of the Expedition of Oñate Toward the East, 1601,” #AJ-014, is the recounting of Oñate’s exploration beyond Quivira-Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas-approximately over the route Humaña and Leyva took. Oñate describes meetings with various groups of Indians, particularly a battle between his party and a large group of Escanjaques on the return trip to New Mexico.
  • “Investigation of Conditions in New Mexico, 1601,” #AJ-105, indicates that by 1601 Oñate was a stressed and perhaps angry man. His people were misbehaving and the Indians were giving him trouble-the latter should come as no surprise to us! Several of his men had returned to Mexico City and apparently discussed their problems with others. Rumors of the situation reached the viceroy who empowered Don Francisco de Valverde to “call together the men now in this city and question them fully, under oath, in regard to [the situation in New Mexico].” This document is more than a catalog of grievances. It is filled with details of the lives of both the Spaniards and the Indians.
  • “Journey of Oñate to California by Land, 1604 [Written by Gerónimo Zárate-Salmeron in 1626], ” #AJ-015, is the account of Oñate’s 1604-05 trip to the “South Sea,” [the Gulf of California] a venture he had planned to make since arriving in New Mexico in 1598.
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