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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · May 11, 2015

Why getting on a plane is sometimes best

WMQ 6 min read

WMQ author Joseph Hall shares this post with us about the research that went into his article for the April 2015 edition.

In many respects, I am sorry to be done with Gerónimo de la Cruz. I have never had so much fun piecing together a story. What started with puzzling over a curious document about a Spanish expedition in search of Roanoke became an effort to understand the life and travels of the document’s author. Researching both sets of questions has been especially gratifying because it has showed for me the joys and limits of research in an electronic age. Strangers can become email collaborators and vast amounts of archival information can appear digitally on my office computer. But it was a chance encounter with an actual person in a particular archive that made all the difference.

In some respects it is not particularly noteworthy for a scholar in one corner of Maine to write about a man who voyages from Spain to Mexico, Havana, and Roanoke. One of my historical heroes, Inga Clendinnen, wrote Ambivalent Conquests, her magnificent study of the Spanish conquest of the Mayas in the Yucatan, solely from sources she consulted in Australia. Colonial historians of North America can pursue a great deal of research with the help of a good Interlibrary Loan staff. The digital age multiplies these opportunities. When I wondered whether Cruz could have actually seen Indians on the northern ends of the Chesapeake Bay draped in copper, archaeologist Sharon White confirmed for me what her dissertation on the pre-colonial Susquehannah Valley had already suggested: no, he could not. When I had questions about whether anyone named Gerónimo de la Cruz lived in Havana at the time of the expedition in 1588, Alejandro de la Fuente, historian of the colonial port city, told me of a carpenter by that name who appeared in his database of Cuban records. When I wondered whether a different Cruz from Puebla, Mexico, might have appeared in Puebla’s municipal records, Linda Arnold consulted her databases of Puebla’s archives and found no mention of anyone by that name. I for myself found him in church records thanks to digitized copies of parish records now available through the Church of Latter Day Saints. I have traveled far, virtually.

But thank goodness I boarded a plane, too. I went to Seville, Spain, to see if I could find records of Cruz’s voyage in the Spanish imperial records. It might have been on the first day of work in Seville that a mutual friend introduced me to Ida Altman. She was very nice, but I could not help feeling mildly embarrassed (the way only academics can) that I did not know the work of this senior scholar. That afternoon at the library I checked out one of her books, Transatlantic Ties in the Spanish Empire, a history of Spanish migrants to Puebla, Mexico. I decided on a lark to see if Cruz might be in the index. He was! The index referred me to a footnote that led me to a court document (not then digitized or available on the web) that suggested very strongly that Gerónimo de la Cruz, voyager to Roanoke, was a Spanish migrant from Puebla who joined a militia expedition to Havana in 1587. From that pleasant introduction and that fortunate footnote came many of the other questions, questions that I could ask from the comfort of my own internet connection. But they were questions that I would have never dreamed of asking had it not been for an old-fashioned archive and the community of scholars that it fostered.

Coincidence can be a marvelous thing, and historians have long pondered its significance for shaping both the course of events and how we chart them. There is no doubt that search engines and discussion lists increase the chances for our chance encounters (and for our intentional ones). My history of Cruz has been such a pleasure in part because it has been an extended homage to the many people who made my research possible without ever even speaking to me. It has also been a long thank-you-note to those like Ida Altman whom I did have a chance to meet and whose conversations, intentionally or not, made my journeys meaningful.


[…] has made large scale research projects easier, but sometimes, Joseph Hall argues, “you just have to get on a […]
The Week in Early American History « The Junto  •  May 17, 2015

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