Explorer provided early written account of Texas and the Southwest
SAN MARCOS — More than 400 years ago, lvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca left Cuba and eventually made a historic journey through Texas.
Used to be, all you had to do to read one of the earliest original accounts of his adventure was drive over to Texas State University-San Marcos.
Now, you don't even have to do that.
The Southwestern Writers Collection at Texas State's Albert B. Alkek Library has digitized and put online its 1555 edition of Cabeza de Vaca's “La Relacin y Comentarios,” the earliest written record of what is now Texas.
About 20 libraries in the world have copies of the 1555 volume, which is the rarest book in the Southwestern collection at Texas State.
“La Relacin” is Cabeza de Vaca's account of the 1527 Narváez expedition that left Cuba to seek riches in the New World. The 600-person force fell apart in Florida, and the remainder of the crew was shipwrecked off present-day Galveston Island.
One of four survivors, Cabeza de Vaca lived among the Native Americans for eight years. ”When he arrived, he basically was a greedy conquistador looking for gold,” said Steve Davis, the assistant curator of the writers collection. ”At the end of his journey, he was transformed into a passionate defender of Native American rights.”
He wrote “La Relacin” when he returned to Spain, and the first edition was published in 1542. The second edition was published in 1555, also in Spain, with minor changes.
Austin's Bill and Sally Wittliff, the founding donors of the Southwestern collection, along with an anonymous donor, purchased the volume for Texas State 15 years ago.
About a dozen scholars a year visit the school to study the book, Davis said.
A librarian, wearing gloves to protect the book's 108 pages from finger oils, holds the volume while visitors look through it.
A photo of each page is now posted on the Web site, as is an English translation. Visitors to the site also will find pages from other editions of the work, pictures of Cabeza de Vaca and teachers' guides.
“You kind of get not just the book, but the whole experience,” Davis said.
Scholarly articles about Cabeza de Vaca are posted on the site, including a 1997 paper written by a group of professors and students from Texas State. In it, they explain that a paper-thin pine nut that they found in Mexico matches a nut that Cabeza de Vaca describes in his account.
They argue that, instead of moving across Texas, as often thought, he traveled south from Galveston, through South Texas and down into Mexico.
“The fact that we had the book here was utterly crucial to the project,” said Don Olson, a Texas State physicist who led the research on the pine nuts.
Texas State is not the only Central Texas school making rare works available online. Last year, officials with the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas posted an online version of their rare Gutenberg Bible.