The Oviedo Project @ Vassar College



Editors: Michael Aronna and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert

A digital project dedicated to Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo’s Historia General de las Indias, now in the early stages of development, which will include an annotated version of its fifty books in the original Spanish, and a full translation into English of the complete text (the first ever) as well as critical and interpretative material. The project will incorporate students as annotators and translators. The translation and annotation work will bring together the editors and Vassar students in collaborative scholarly work.




Image: Samer Kawar

Has the tomb of the first historian of the Americas been discovered?

A report by Enrique Bocanegra for El País. Here’s an excerpt:

The story dates back to 1992, when work was going on to transfer the pantheon where Christopher Columbus was buried from the cathedral of Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. The project was part of the many acts staged that year to commemorate the mariner’s arrival in the Americas five centuries earlier. But unexpectedly, another tomb was discovered.

A few meters below the Italian mariner’s mausoleum was the crypt with a damaged brick vaulted ceiling measuring 8.46 meters by 3.80 meters. Who was the undoubtedly illustrious person buried in such a prized spot?

Esteban Prieto Vicioso, head of conservation at the Basilica Cathedral of Santa María la Menor, to give the church its full name, says the evidence points to Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, a name as overlooked as it is important. He is attributed with writing the first account of the Americas, on the orders of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. Until his death in 1557 at the age of 80, Fernández de Oviedo wrote about Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas in 1492 and up to Pizarro’s rebellion in 1549, as well as detailing the geography, plants, animals and peoples of the continent.

“We know that up to the middle of the 16th century there was an altar dedicated to Santa Lucía built on Oviedo’s instructions, and that right underneath he ordered a vault to be constructed, where he was buried,” says Prieto Vicioso. “There is no documentary evidence that his body was ever moved from there.”

The restoration team at the cathedral – the first one built in the Americas – is trying to raise money to excavate the crypt, which they hope will allow them to identify Oviedo. They believe they will find an iron key in the tomb to the fortress of Santo Domingo, of which Oviedo was governor for the last 25 years of his life. A final detail they believe will definitively establish that the tomb is Oviedo’s would be damage to the skull, which was the result of a knife fight with another Spaniard that took place in the Darién Gap, in what is today Panama.


America’s First Mass

A report by John B. Buescher in the Catholic World.

Here are some excerpts:

When and where was the first Mass offered in America? No one living today knows the answer to this intriguing question. But we can summarize what we do know about the first Masses in various parts of the New World.

. . .

The first American Mass for which a record exists took place during the second voyage of Columbus, on the feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 1494, at a temporary shelter that would serve as a church at La Isabela, 30 miles west of what is now Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic. Five priests accompanied the expedition: Benedictine Father Buil, Jeronymite Father Ramone Pane, and three Franciscan missionary priests. Fr. Buil celebrated the Mass. The settlers built a church on the site, the foundation of which has been excavated (another church building is now at La Isabela). The original settlement was abandoned by 1498 and its settlers moved to the newly established Santo Domingo on the south side of the island.

. . .

In March 1509, Juan Ponce de León, with a group of colonists, including priests, landed in Puerto Rico at “Caparra” (now Pueblo Viejo in Guaynabo) and established a settlement there (the ruins remain and are a U.S. National Historic Landmark). That group’s first Mass would have been the first Mass we can say was offered on what is now U.S. territory.


. . .

A priest named González accompanied the expedition of Juan de Grijalva in 1518 that landed briefly at Yucatan and further along the coast of Mexico, as described by Bernal Diaz del Castillo, who did not, however, record that Mass was offered there. Indeed, the priest appears in the narrative only to have assisted in helping the expedition locate and collect gold images of native deities that were then carried away.

. . .

In early 1522, Ponce de León attempted, from Puerto Rico, to establish a settlement near Charlotte Harbor, on the west coast of Florida. But he was unable to do so, owing to the hostility of natives, who attacked and drove away the Spaniards, fatally wounding Ponce in the battle. The disaster occurred almost immediately upon their landing, but the brief account of the expedition by Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, in his Historia general y natural de las Indias suggests that some days elapsed between their landing and the attack, during which time the priests accompanying the expedition tried to preach to the natives and come to terms with them, but to no avail. If the priests were indeed onshore for a few days, as Oviedo suggests, before being driven away, they may well have offered Mass there, at Charlotte Harbor, which would have been the first Mass offered on what would become the continental U.S. But if they did so, it was not noted in the spotty records that remain of the expedition.

In June 1526, two Dominican priests, Antonio Montesino and Anthony de Cervantes, accompanied several hundred colonists under the leadership of Lucas Vasques de Ayllón from San Domingo and attempted a settlement upon the Atlantic coast of the mainland north of Florida. They first made land at Cape Fear (near present-day Wilmington, North Carolina) but chose to sail on, looking for a more salubrious spot, which they found and established the small settlement of San Miguel de Guandape (or Gualdape) where, during the summer and fall of 1526, they certainly did offer Mass. After the death of Ayllón in October, the colony abandoned the country and returned to San Domingo. But the problem is locating where the settlement was. The original Spanish sources are conflicting about which direction the expedition took after it decided not to land at Cape Fear. One of the sources says that the settlers sailed north and located the settlement in precisely the same spot in Virginia that the English would later establish Jamestown. However, another source has them going south, which would locate Miguel de Guandape settlement perhaps around Georgetown, South Carolina, or even Sapelo Island, Georgia.

Panfilo de Navaez (including Alvar Nuñez Caveza De Vaca) put ashore at present day Stump Pass near Englewood on the Gulf Coast of Florida on Good Friday, April 10, 1528, and the landing party was resting at an evacuated Indian village there on Easter Sunday, where Franciscan priest Juan Suarez would almost certainly have celebrated Mass.



Oviedo: “Ponce De León Never Searched for the Fountain of Youth,” the Smithsonian magazine reports


A report by Matthew Shaer for the Smithsonian Magazine. Here’s an excerpt:

J. Michael Francis, a historian at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg who has spent decades studying the Spanish colonies in the Americas , says no mention of a Fountain of Youth occurs in any known documents from Ponce’s lifetime, including contracts and other official correspondence with the Crown. In fact, Ponce’s name did not become connected with the Fountain of Youth until many years after his death, and then only thanks to a Spanish court chronicler out to discredit him.

Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés disliked Ponce, contending that he was gullible, egocentric and dull-witted. The animosity probably had something to do with court politics: Oviedo aligned himself with Diego Columbus, who was the son of Christopher and the man who helped push Ponce out of Puerto Rico.

In Historia general y natural de las Indias, Oviedo’s account of the Spanish settling of the Americas, he relates a tale in which Ponce, deceived by Indians, goes tromping off on a futile hunt for the Fountain of Youth. It’s all a literary device intended to make Ponce appear foolish. Although visits to spas and mineral baths were common in the 16th century, actually believing water could reverse aging was apparently considered pretty silly.

Oviedo’s satiric version of Ponce’s travels stuck. “You’ve got this incredible story that started out as an invention,” Francis says, “and by the 17th century, it has become history.” (For what it’s worth, Ponce died at age 47 after being wounded by an arrow in a fight with an Indian tribe in Florida.)