Interview with Dr. Orellano Norris: “General Alonso de León’s Expeditions into Texas, 1686-1690”

You said your book took quite a long time to write, how long exactly?

Well, it started as a project in one of my classes. I was taking Colonial Spanish Paleography when I was doing my PhD and we were working on some texts from the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century—we wanted to see how the Spanish language had changed over time. Remember, I am a linguist, not a historian. We were analyzing the text from a linguistic point of view, looking at the way it was written in seventeenth century Spanish. I was given a fragment of Alonso de León’s 1689 expedition. I looked at secondary sources and found that there were some discrepancies. I started to ask myself why does it say one thing in the English translation and something completely different in the Spanish original text. That’s how it all started. It took several years to do the research and a few more to write the book.

You made quite a few corrections to previous translations of the 1689 and 1690 Alonso de León expeditions.

Those were the two English translations  that had the most errors in them, specifically that of the 89’ expedition. De León lead five expedition in search of the French in Texas. The 89’ expedition is the most important one because during this entrada they actually found La Salle’s Fort Saint-Louis and located Jean L’Archevêque and Jacques Grollet [two surviving colonists from Fort Saint-Louis]. That 89’ expedition diary is the most published one, yet it’s based on a faulty translation.

In 2005, when I finished the class I mentioned, I said to myself, I really want to look into Alonso de León’s expeditions further. My degree was supposed to be in Spanish Golden Age Literature, but it changed completely after that Colonial Spanish Paleography class. I talked to my professor and went into Historical Linguistics. He provided me with some initial manuscript copies, then I did some additional research, applied for research grants, traveled to different archives, and in the end, I located the sixteen manuscript copies I am analyzing in my book. The reason why the most published English translation of the 1689 manuscript had so many errors is, in part, because it was based on the least reliable manuscript copy  

West, the translator?

West. Elizabeth H. West. She published her English translation of the 1689 expedition journal in 1905. She got quite a few things wrong, but, to her credit, the Spanish document that she used had a lot of problems to begin with because it was a copy, of a copy, of a copy that was fashioned a hundred years after the actual expedition.

Don’t get me wrong, West included some of her own misreadings and mistranslations, but she also did not have the best document to work with. It is very challenging to work with handwritten documents. I think one of the reasons West used that particular manuscript is because it was the nicest in terms of handwriting. It is very clean, very neatly copied, and very legible. It is also possible that it was the only Spanish manuscript she had access to.

No big inkblots?

Right, it had a very nice handwriting and was much neater than the older manuscripts that were copied by amanuenses [scribes]. Those had some inkblots. The manuscript West used as source text for her translation did not have any of that, the text was neatly copied, but unfortunately it was full of scribal errors.

Yet, it is possible that West used this document because it was the only one that was available to her in 1905 when she fashioned her translation. The other copies of the 89’ diary that were at the archives in Spain or Mexico City may not have been known to her. And even if she knew of other copies of the same manuscript, why would she suspect that there were any differences?  When you have three or four copies of the same manuscript, you assume they all say the same thing, unless you look at each one of them with a fine-tooth comb.

So tedious…

Very tedious, I blame the loss of my eyesight on paleography *laughs.* Very tedious but also fun. It was kind of like detective work, which is very exciting, especially if you uncover something unexpected and even more so if you find evidence to confirm a hunch.

In another interview you said you enjoyed that detective work.

Yes, I did, I did. A lot.

So who, out of all these secondary sources, did you find to be the most accurate or helpful?

Herbert E. Bolton’s translation of the 1690 expedition diary in Spanish Exploration in the Southwest is very good. Unfortunately, he did not translate the 1689 diary for his book. He included West’s translation instead, which, as we have seen, was very problematic. Other secondary sources that are very good are Robert S. Weddle’s and William F. Foster’s various volumes.

Weddle and Foster are giants in our field.

I emailed Weddle when I was starting out. He was very gracious and forthcoming with information that helped me very much while I was doing my research. I never met him. But I met Foster at a Texas State Historical Association conference I attended. I met him by accident. I bought one of his books, Historic Native Peoples of Texas, and then I went to sit down to eat at the little restaurant.

I was perusing the book when he walked up to me and said, “I wrote that book.” Foster sat down next to me and we talked, and talked, and talked, and I asked if he would  sign the book for me, and he said, “Oh, of course I will.” And we talked some more, and he forgot to sign the book. We had the most exciting conversation about the early Spanish expeditions into Texas. He was very encouraging and incredibly knowledgeable. It was fantastic.

I wanted to ask you about the archives you visited. What are they like? You have been to so many different archives. Can you tell me about the AGI in Spain?

Visiting the archives is a wonderful experience and absolutely necessary for those who interpret the past. Nowadays, most archives are digitizing their holdings, and some of the search indexes or even the documents themselves are available online. But when I began this research twelve or thirteen years ago, they were just starting digitalization, so traveling to the archives was a must. However, you had to do a lot of preliminary work before actually setting foot in the archives. I didn’t just show up there and say, okay let me start looking for this and that. A great deal of preliminary research had to be done. I read many books beforehand and noted where past scholars said they found certain primary sources. But what happens is that sometimes, over time, especially at smaller archives, manuscripts get misplaced, reorganized, even sold and bought, so you cannot go one hundred percent by those secondary sources, especially if they were published one hundred years ago, as was the case with Bolton’s, whose book is from 1908.

Traveling to the archives can also be expensive. I applied to many grants and was fortunate to receive two of them that allowed me to travel to archives in Spain, Mexico, and the U.S. I am immensely grateful for the financial support I received from the Department of Hispanic Studies at Texas A&M University and from the Hispanic History of Texas Project, part of the Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage research project at the University of Houston.

But you asked about the AGI. Well, if you want to do research at the AGI in Seville, Spain, you need an official letter from your university stating that you are a researcher. Once you arrive at the AGI, you have to register, and you receive an ID, which you have to show every time you enter the building and the research room. You must leave your bag in a locker. The first time I went to the AGI, they didn’t allow anything in the room except for a piece of paper and a pencil. They wanted to prevent any damage or markings to the documents. Now, researchers can bring their laptops.

At the AGI, they have a search engine, an internal search engine, that lets you search for dates, people, locations; it wasn’t very user friendly back then, so I wasted a lot of time learning how to use it. That was in 2008, I am sure, at least I hope, there have been improvements since then. Once you locate the document you are looking for, you write the number on a piece of paper and request it. And then they plunk these huge legajos [bundles] in front of you that contain the original manuscripts.

Can you touch them?

You can touch them. You can leaf through them. You can work with them.You are only allowed two bundles at a time. If they are very old and fragile you have to wear special gloves and a mask. In the AGI in Seville I didn’t have to because my documents, although three hundred years old, were in good shape, but at the AGN in Mexico City, I was required to use gloves and a mask while handling the manuscripts.

Wait you said three hundred years old? And these documents were in good shape?

They were in remarkably good shape; they were legible, the ink had not faded, and the paper was very well preserved. I don’t know how they have survived all these years, I mean before they were placed in climate-controlled archives.

About that surviving, how did the process go? In Mexico City they would make a copy of these documents and then send them to Spain?

Typically, several handwritten copies were made of important documents to send to the respective authorities. For example, Alonso de León probably wrote down the original record of the expedition himself or had Juan Bautista Chapa, his secretary, write it for him. Then as soon as the expedition returned to New Spain, that journal was copied and sent to Mexico City, to the Viceroy. Sometimes the original journal was sent. In Mexico City the first copy was perhaps copied again once, twice, or three times, and then sent on to Seville, to the Consejo de Indias and possibly other authorities.

The copyists were typically professional scribes. In some cases, you can recognize their individual hands, their marks. You can actually tell who copied what. And sometimes the diaries from two separate expeditions were copied at the same time but placed in the wrong order or are filed in the wrong order and occasionally a page is lost, which can cause problems when trying to identify manuscripts and also during the transcription process.

It seems like you can see the personality of the scribes.

Definitely. Sometimes a document is copied by two different hands, and it is very obvious where one ends and the other begins. Each one had his own little quirks. Back then, there were no spelling rules. The same words could appear written in different ways in the same document, on the same page, even in the same line. Of course, this doesn’t have any effect on the history, but from the linguistic point of view it is very interesting and in some cases it can explain certain transcription errors.

I think going to the archives now is probably easier because you can access a great deal of the information on their websites, and they have search engines that allow you to do much of the preliminary research before you travel. Still, I think it’s very important to visit the archives, to see the original documents. When I traveled to Seville, I had a list of documents I was supposed to look for at the AGI, and, while looking through a bundle, I found other manuscripts. For example, I discovered two copies of the 1688 manuscript whose original I had analyzed at the Benson in Austin [University of Texas’s library].

You discovered that?

Yes, I discovered that. I already knew that the original existed, but then, by coincidence, I found these  two copies of the 1688 manuscript at the AGI in Spain. I had no idea they existed. They had not been mentioned in any secondary sources.

How did you acquire the 1686a and 1687a manuscripts? [The “a” (the sigla) in 1686a marks the chronological age of a document. Thus 1686a is an older version than 1686b, and so on. I asked this question because the 1686 and 1687 manuscripts are not well reproduced and hard to find in English.]

Actually, William Foster sent me copies of those manuscripts. My linguistics professor [Brian Imhoff] had also provided me with a copy. The 87a is only a narrative summary, we don’t have a full manuscript journal for that expedition. The 1690d, 1686a, and 1687a manuscripts were apparently in the same bundle at the Beinecke [Yale’s library], but they were in the incorrect order. Foster mentioned to me that he had written to the archive and told them the documents were filed incorrectly. When I tried to order copies from the Beinecke, they said that they did not have them. Foster sent me duplicates of his own copies.

What a great guy!

I know, he was fantastic. Truly awesome.

So, I didn’t get to visit the Beinecke, but I went to several archives in Mexico. However, I did not find anything beyond the manuscripts I located at the Archivo General de la Nación (AGN), and the Biblioteca Nacional de México (BNMx), the two archives I visited in Mexico City. I also went to archives in Monterrey, Saltillo, and Monclova but didn’t find any expeditions diaries from Alonso de León’s journeys. I think the Monclova archive at one time owned the 1688a manuscript but, I believe, the archive sold it to the Benson. I am not one hundred percent sure about this, but that’s my theory.

In your book you speak about this search and the difficulty of acquiring new versions, why do you think that is?

I don’t know if Alonso de León’s autograph manuscripts still exist, if they are in private possession, or if maybe a collector has them, or whether they are held at other archives under different titles or descriptions. I don’t know. For example, I was unable to locate a couple of manuscripts that were mentioned in one secondary source by Israel Cavazos.

It’s surprising to me—I never thought that important documents could be lost.

Yes. I think it is possible that these particular type of documents got lost over time. Also, when the Corn Riots occurred in 1692 in Mexico City it is believed that some of the archives burned down. Perhaps some of the documents were destroyed in the burning. We really don’t know because we don’t have an index of what was there at the time. We don’t know what, if anything was lost.


In translation, what are some obstacles you face that many people would not expect? For example, I was looking at the handwriting in the picture provided in your book and I couldn’t make out a single word. How did you?

It’s training. Paleography is a skill that you can acquire, something that you learn. What makes reading old manuscripts easier now are the big computer screens that can enlarge a document. That was not available before. You had to work with a magnifying glass. I use the enlargement tool on my computer a lot.

Sometimes you just spend hours or days trying to figure out what a particular word means or what letter is represented by a certain scribble, and you go back and forth, “does this makes sense, does that make sense.” Sometimes you can’t find an answer, so you have to take a guess and write a footnote.

Because I had different contemporaneous copies of the manuscripts, if something was very illegible in one, I could go to the other. That helped. If you have one manuscript and nothing to back it up, things become far more difficult. Having several manuscripts also helped in deciphering the more challenging handwriting. A very precise transcription of the Spanish source text, of course, must precede the English translation. But that is not all, one must also be familiar with seventeenth-century Spanish. The meaning of some words and expressions has changed over time and if one is not knowledgeable to those changes, the translation may not be accurate.

There is one thing in particular I wanted to touch on, you mentioned in your book how you decided to stick with manuscript 90b over 90a because the first fourteen entries of 90a were missing. Your justification for doing so was that you considered 90a to be an incomplete document (pg 40). Why not use the first fourteen entries of b and then stick with a, the older document?

That is exactly what Bolton did in Spanish Exploration in the Southwest. I thought about it and then decided to use 90b as basis for my English translation because it was a complete manuscript. I preferred to stick to one document and annotate the discrepancies than to go back and forth between manuscripts. Of course, I transcribed all sixteen manuscripts in Spanish and was hoping that all the transcriptions could be added as appendices to my book, but in the end it was not practical and the idea was abandoned.

In one of your interviews you talked about how you consider yourself a slow writer, how long did it take you to write a chapter or even just the introduction of this book?

Let me tell you why I am a slow writer. English is not my first language, not my second language, not my third language; I am a German speaker. I grew up in Switzerland speaking Swiss-German and writing High German, but we spoke Spanish at home, well, actually Valenciano. I did all my studying and schooling, including obtaining my first college degree, in Switzerland. I grew up multilingual. English was my seventh language. I learned French and Italian before English.

I came to the U.S. when I was twenty-five. I am fluent in English now and my language skills are much better than when I first arrived, but I am still not a native speaker. I often think in Spanish or German. English is one of my working languages, and I believe that I’m doing a good job of it, but my English does not come as natural as a native speaker’s would. I am very aware of it. Thus, I have to rewrite things constantly. I write and rewrite and edit, and because I am a perfectionist, I’m never quite satisfied with it.

I thought you did a wonderful job in General Alonso de León’s Expeditions into Texas. Your introduction made a confusing sequence of events so clear.

Thank you, I really appreciate that. Writing is a long process for me, not just this book, any writing. I am very well aware that my English is not as idiomatic as it could be. I rewrite a great deal to get it just right, and of course it takes longer for me.

On page 29 you have a picture of La Salle’s monument, have you been there? Isn’t it interesting?

Yes! In the middle of nowhere *laughs.*

The monument is so well crafted, but don’t you find it odd that we are venerating a man who started a war with the local First People and jump-started the Spanish incursion into Texas?

You know, La Salle is a person who I am kind of conflicted about. When we look at history we invariably admire people who were intrepid and became explorers; but on the other hand, by doing so, these explorers often destroyed something that was already there, the indigenous people’s culture and way of life. There are positive and negative aspects to exploration. We have to try to understand them from a historical point of view as well as from a human point of view. I think that La Salle was a flawed individual, but his exploration of the Great Lakes area, parts of Canada, and the Mississippi is really quite an amazing feat.

Let me ask you, do you think that La Salle was lost or do you think he overshot the Mississippi on purpose when he landed on the Texas coast? [in referring to La Salle’s 1685 expedition to establish Fort Saint Louis]. Some historians think it might have been on purpose because the Spaniards had found silver and established silver mines in the Chihuahua region. The argument has been made that La Salle wanted to be as close to those mines as possible and that was the reason he landed in Texas. I think he was actually lost and overshot the Mississippi River [I concurred]. This is why he left Fort Saint Louis several times and went on long expeditions to find the Mississippi.

Personally, I don’t think La Salle was a very good leader during his last expedition that brought him to Texas. People became disenchanted with him. What he promised didn’t really happen. It was tough for the colonists at Fort Saint Louis, and he was—from the descriptions I have read—quite arrogant and disdainful and didn’t really see other people’s suffering. He made a lot of enemies among his own settlers, which is why he ultimately ended up dead, killed by his own people.

What do you think of Alonso de León as a person? How did he handle these expeditions? Do you think he fared well?

Based on the expedition diaries, I think he was a military officer who did what was expected of him without showing much emotion. I believe he was a capable leader who followed the orders given to him by his superiors, but he was also an outstanding pathfinder. His diaries do not show personal feelings or worry or concern for the people he met on his expeditions. Mostly, he describes what he sees and explains the events that occur. Nevertheless, it becomes quite clear that he did not trust the French intruders and that, on the other hand, he is very impressed with the Hasinai Indians he meets.

He was a military man and his journals were an official military record, so it is difficult to see the person behind the uniform. However, when the Spaniards recovered the French children [the Talon children abducted from Fort Saint Louis], you could tell that he was moved, that it affected him, not as an officer, but as a human being.

I don’t necessarily have a bad impression of him. He had been involved in other exploratory journeys and military campaigns in New Spain. Thus, he fought against Indians in the region who were defending their lands. We need to remember that there was a constant state of war with the natives in northern New Spain at the end of the 17th century. He was a pioneer, that’s for sure.

His father too, right?

Right. His father, also named Alonso de León, was a pioneer and an important chronicler of the history of Nuevo León, México. To avoid confusión, the younger Alonso de León is often appended “El mozo.”  

There are descendents of the Alonso de León family in Mexico and Texas, and even in Laredo. I met somebody who descends from the elder Alonso de León; he actually wanted me to help him verify whether a signature in a document was Alonso de León’s—it was. Yes, there are still descendants of that family in Mexico and Texas. I don’t know, I don’t have an opinion on Alonso de León, whether he was a good guy or a bad guy, but then nothing is ever really black or white. He seems to have been an honorable man and a good military leader.

That’s a hard question, whether he is a good or bad person. I think in terms of success, his expeditions were the most efficient and productive. Alonso de León died after he got passed over for the next expedition, right?

Yes, he certainly must be recognized as a successful explorer of Texas. Thanks to his diaries we know so much about the region and the indigenous people of Texas at the end of the 17th century. And no, he did not participate in the 1691 expedition. He died before the expedition even got underway. But he had not been chosen to lead it. He did get passed over due to a disagreement with Father Damian Massanet, one of the friars who had accompanied him on the 1689 and 1690 expeditions. Massanet’s letter to Carlos Sigüenza y Góngora probably affected the authorities’ decision on who was to lead the next expedition.

De León wanted to establish a presidio [fort] in the general area where the ruins of the French fort had been found because he believed that the French would come back to Fort Saint Louis and try to settle the region again. He also wanted to leave a large contingent of soldiers at the San Francisco de los Tejas Mission that was established in 1690 on Hasinai land. He suggested that Spain build fortifications and establish a military presence to prevent further incursions from the French. But Father Massanet said, “No, no, no, absolutely not, military presence is not necessary, we don’t need a presidio. All we need to do is to Christianize the Indians and do missionary work.” We know now that this did not turn out well, but back then he swayed the council. In his letter Massanet also made certain accusations against De León, criticizing his leadership skills. Thus, Domingo Terán de los Ríos, who had absolutely no experience, was chosen as the leader of the 1691 expedition.

Do you know if there are any primary sources coming from the priests that Massanet left with the Hasanai prior to the Teran de Rios 1691 expedition?

I don’t know of any. That would be very interesting. They lived among the Hasinai for one year before Massanet returned with Terán in 1691. The mission only stood for another two years after Terán’s expedition. In the end, the Hasinai expelled the missionaries. The friars returned to New Spain on foot, tail between their legs. If any of the missionaries wrote about their experiences in those early days, that would be an amazing historical record, but I have not heard of anything.

In looking ahead, what are your plans for the future?

The project that I am currently working on doesn’t have anything to do with Alonso de León. However, long term, I am contemplating a continuation of the research I did on the expeditions. I am still doing preliminary work, but I want to write about the survivors of the La Salle expedition: the Talon children, Pierre Meunier, Jean L’Archevêque, and Jacques Grollet. There is so much more to tell.

Those are about all the questions I had for you, thank you so much!

Thank you!

This interview is condensed and edited.


To purchase General Alonso de León’s Expeditions into Texas, 1686-1690 visit Texas A&M University Press.

2 thoughts on “Interview with Dr. Orellano Norris: “General Alonso de León’s Expeditions into Texas, 1686-1690”

  1. Great work here, Tim! Dr. Orellano Norris sure provides interesting information about her important research, too. Two of her comments particularly stood out to me.

    “Visiting the archives…is absolutely necessary for those who interpret the past.”
    I’d suggest this statement needs explicit qualifiers. This especially stands out to me as someone who uses cultural artifacts to interpret the past. Not everything important is housed in an archive and not everything stands the test of time. The archive itself is a form of “historical memory” because people with power have made decisions about what to save, what to discard, what to group with what, etc. Traditional archives privilege those “of the right” sex/gender, race, class, location, etc. Archives often erase the lives completely of those without power. Derrida and Foucault have important thoughts on this, too.

    “Sometimes you can’t find an answer, so you have to take a guess and write a footnote.”
    YES! Historians sometimes joke that historical writing is 90% “fact” (whatever a “fact” is) and 10% fiction. We DO often have to make educated “guesses” where gaps need to be closed. Acknowledge the process that results in the construction of historical narratives (History vs history) is vital.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Dr. Pegoda, for your comments. Your criticism is well taken. While archives provide a picture of the past, it is not the complete picture.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s