By: Gabriela Pérez, GLO Summer Intern, Archives and Records
This summer I’m working in the Archives and Records of the Texas General Land Office transcribing and translating documents in the Spanish Collection related to attempts by various Indian tribes to obtain land in Texas in the 1820s and 1830s.
These documents are described in the GLO’s Catalogue of the Spanish Collection, Part II, and they form part of a larger trove of records that were added to the GLO Archives after 1841, when the historic records of San Antonio de Béxar were sent to Austin for safekeeping amidst rumors of an attempt by Mexico to reclaim its lost territory in Texas. In 1846, GLO Spanish Clerk George Fisher selected from the records “all the land titles and papers having reference to Lands, Colonization, Missions, Empresario Contracts…” Fisher sent most of the documents back to Bexar County that year, including most of the documentation regarding Indian relations. What he kept was specifically a subset related to land claims made by the Shawnee, Choctaw, Alabama, Coushatta, Cherokee, and — to a lesser extent — the Caddo.
Sometimes called immigrant tribes and/or agricultural tribes, the Shawnee, Choctaw, Alabama, Coushatta, and Cherokee are notable in that they came into present-day Texas from the United States, displaced by American policies of Indian removal and looking to establish new pioneer settlements. The documents are incredibly rich — containing information regarding the location, numbers, material wealth, and lifeways of the tribes — while also revealing the way different actors in the Mexican government thought about and treated these groups. But before I could find any of that out I had to read the documents.
I’ll never forget the crazy experience of sitting down in front of words in a language I know and not being able to read it — my eyes lost focus, my heart beat faster, and yes, there may even have been some nervous sweat. My first days as an intern at the GLO started with what was for me the most difficult task of the entire summer: transcription.
I came to this internship as a University of Texas-Austin doctoral candidate in Latin American Literatures and Cultures with a research focus on contemporary literature from the Caribbean diaspora. It was probably the first time I’d ever had to face nineteenth-century paleography with any rigor. Dr. Brian Stauffer, Translator and Curator of the Spanish Collection, was invaluable in walking me out of my panic, turning on my desk lamp and handing me a magnifying glass. He also taught me about common abbreviations and reference material for researching nineteenth-century legal and juridical concepts as well as “Mexicanisms” of the period.
Sure enough, it got much easier as the days progressed. I learned the lexicon of the collection and got used to the irregular spellings and other quirks that are characteristic of early-nineteenth-century Mexican land administration. The satisfaction of being able to point to a concrete new skill, something you cannot do and then a week later you can, is something we don’t get enough of as adults, and it was so good to have.
Next came the process of translating. This was the part I was most comfortable with. However, this is usually an activity done in isolation. Being able to dialogue with another translator, Dr. Stauffer, as linguistic issues arose made for a fascinating and stimulating exercise. I was also dialoguing to some extent with the existing translations of some of these documents, some of which were from 1848, others from the 1950s, and others much more recent. While I’ve done many formal and informal translation projects in the past, never have I come across such a rich textual fabric as I experienced in this project. As last year’s intern, Christina Villarreal, commented, organizing the project in such a way that it is possible to look at transcription, translation, and digitized original documents side by side provides a variety of benefits to potential patrons whether they are working on their transcription skills, translation skills, or linguistic or historical research.
The final step in my internship was drafting an introduction to the documents. This was also for me a rewarding process with huge learning leaps. Not only did I become versed in the historiography of indigenous peoples in East Texas at the turn of the nineteenth century, but I also gained practice tracking down, researching from, and citing archival documents. Once again, I was carefully supported in this exercise. Dr. Stauffer gave me invaluable practical tools and advice on how to do research in this field; Mark Lambert, Deputy Director of Archives and Records, who is enormously knowledgeable and enthusiastic about Texas history, provided countless resources and reference material; and James Harkins, Public Services Director, arranged for visits to other institutions which enriched not only my essay but my broader sense of the field of Texas history.
In all, my time at the GLO was a tremendously educational experience where I was challenged and taken out of my comfort zone, but also very well supported and empowered to succeed. I learned a lot and hope I contributed even modestly to making this fascinating collection more accessible to scholars and the public.
About Gabriela Pérez: Gabriela Pérez is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research investigates the nexus of queer sexualities and imagined communities in diasporic Caribbean literature from the past half-century. This summer she interned at the Texas General Land Office, where she worked to translate the documents related to indigenous peoples in Mexican Texas.
 Galen Greaser, Catalogue of the Spanish Collection, Part I (Austin: Texas General Land Office, 2013?), xvi-xvii.