A treasure of American history;NEWLN:Indies Archives: Paper worth its weight in gold

By SARAH NICHOLSON   |   Jan. 21, 1986

SEVILLE, Spain -- Two hundred years ago, a mule train plodding the dusty highways of southern Spain gave birth to an archive which today is more than worth its weight in gold.

It has yet to reveal all of its priceless surprises. It has helped scholars unearth hidden facts and treasure hunters to track down underwater troves. In one recent instance a sunken treasure yielded emeralds and silver valued at more than $1 billion.

The clues lie hidden among the 43 million documents which comprise the General Archives of the Indies, the world's largest collection of manuscripts on the discovery and conquest of the New World.

'This is the first-hand history of the Americas from the 15th to the 19th century,' says Archives Director Rosario Parra. 'And it is all here.

'It is an inexhaustible mine, and you never know what might turn up,' says Florida historian Eugene Lyon, whose research at the archives yielded the key clue to locating Nuestra Senora de Atocha, the $ billion treasure wreck found in the depths off Key West in May.

Lyon was poring through archives documents 15 years ago when he came across a worm-eaten manuscript indicating the site of the galleon, which sank in a hurricane in 1622 bound for Spain with gold, silver, and emeralds.

'Without the archives, the Atocha would never have been found,' said Lyon. 'And there are a lot more Atochas to be uncovered.'

There are also surprise rarities, like a letter dated May 21, 1590.

On that day Spain's greatest writer, Miguel de Cervantes, wrote to King Felipe II, bemoaning that he had lost a hand in the Battle of Lepanto and was destitute, and asking for a job in the New World.

The King turned him down. Months later, Cervantes began his deathless 'Don Quixote,' a fierce satire on the folly of heroic deeds.

The Archives of the Indies, currently celebrating its 200th anniversary, gathers everything about American history from its high points to its trivia.

The earliest papers, dating from before Christopher Columbus' discovery voyage in 1492, include a decree signed by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella ordering wood sellers to charge 'reasonable prices' for the planks used to build the first caravels, or ships.

The letters and papers of the great explorers range from an IOU sent by Amerigo Vespucci to a creditor in Seville to Hernan Cortes' description of the conquest of Mexico.

To celebrate the archives' bicentennial, a six-month exhibit on Latin America in the days of King Carlos III opened in December.

Carlos III, incensed by English and French histories that attacked Spain's role in the New World, created the archives to put the facts straight.

He banned the foreign books and appointed a scholar to write a history based on first-hand records. To give him raw material, officials all over Spain were ordered to send documents on the discovery and colonization of Spanish territories to Seville, where the 16th century trading exchange was refurbished to house them.

A mule train -- escorted by cavalry troops to protect it from the bandits that infested Andalusia's highways -- arrived in Seville Oct. 14, 1785 with the first 253 cases of papers.

That began a flood of documents which continued into the 19th century, when Spain's last American colonies gained independence.

It took years merely to sort out the bundles. An inventory of the documents was completed only recently.

'Many of the manuscripts have never been touched since they were put away in the bundles centuries ago,' said Parra.

Cervantes' letter asking the king for work lay hidden for more than 300 years. An historian looking for lists of books banned in the Americas found it in a bundle of papers on the Spanish Inquisition.

'Every time a treasure is hauled up, I'm deluged with letters from Americans asking where to find a sunken ship,' said Parra, adding that treasure seekers are easily weeded out.

But hunting through the extraordinary mass of documents -- if laid side by side, they would stretch some 5,600 miles -- is a task that only specialists can handle.

Most of the 20,000 people who consult the archives each year are scholars who must be versed in paleography -- the study of ancient handwriting -- and Spanish.

'Cervantes said that only Satan could make out the writing on old documents, and he was right,' Parra said. 'Getting through one page written in 17th century script can take hours.'

'You never know what the papers may yield,' Parra said. He added the obvious; that there is no way to calculate the archives' worth.

'How can you put a price on a treasure that holds the history of an entire continent?' he said.