Science and Silence — Spanish Cartographic Secrets in the New World

Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas, Descripción de las Indias Occidentales, Amsterdam, 1622, Map #94850, Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

At first glance, Antonio Herrera y Tordesillas’s map of North America inflicts the viewer with a kind of temporal vertigo — somehow it seems both too ancient and too modern to have been published when it was, in 1622. On the one hand, its almost complete lack of topographical, political, or ethnographic detail seems to suggest that the cartographer knew little about the territory. The map’s political geography is limited to the Audiencias (viceregal courts) of New Spain [Mexico City], Nueva Galicia [Guadalajara], and Guatemala; and only a handful of other landform toponyms are included (Florida, Yucatán, Cuba, Venezuela). A scant few rivers are shown cutting into the Atlantic seaboard and Gulf Coast, but no other natural features — the Sierra Madre mountains, say — merited inclusion. It’s almost as if the entire northern half of the subcontinent still constituted a “great space of land unknown,” in the words of an eighteenth-century English cartographer attempting to describe the American plains.

Thomas Kitchin, Mexico or New Spain in which the Motions of Cortes may be traced, [detail], 1795, Map #93650, Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

On the other hand, the map’s highly accurate representation of the general outline of North America stands in marked contrast with other European maps of the era. Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European mapmakers sometimes depicted Florida as a cluster of islands, after all. Others declined to attach California to the continent or otherwise distorted the size and shape of the American landmass. Herrera y Tordesillas’s map suffers none of these defects, and it displays a careful attention to the nuances of the North American coastlines. But if the cartographer had such intimate geographic knowledge, why didn’t he display it on the map?

Gaps in European understandings of the geography of North America. Left: Nicholas Sanson, Amerique Septentrionale, Paris, 1650, Map #93684, Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX. Right: [Henry Briggs], The North Part of America, [London], [1625], Map #93815, Holcomb Digital Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

The answer lies in the way the Spanish viewed mapping itself: as a practical and secret activity of empire, not a commercial endeavor. By the early seventeenth century, cartography had become increasingly commercialized in Western Europe, and maps purporting to show the vast, strange, and tantalizingly rich dominions of the Spanish monarchs in America were a particularly hot item in places like London, Amsterdam, and Frankfurt. Information about Spain’s American possessions was of particular interest to the rulers of France and England, who had their own imperial ambitions for America. But the maps also satisfied the curiosities of a broader educated population in Europe, for whom the American continent was still shrouded in mystery, rumor, and innuendo. Were the Americas full of fantastic beasts or exotic peoples with “strange” customs? European map-makers like Jodocus Hondius and Abraham Ortelius were only too happy to speculate, feeding the publishing houses new maps whose purposes were part commercial, part scientific, and part political.

For the Spanish monarchs, by contrast, maps were practical tools to be used internally for the governance of a vast overseas empire. Created at the behest of the Council of the Indies or the Casa de Contratación (trade office) and used primarily by pilots and royal bureaucrats, Spanish maps were not designed for publication. Not only were Spanish mapmakers not interested in joining the broader European conversation about what was in the Americas, they were prohibited from doing so. After all, the diffusion of information about Spanish riches and defenses might aid Spain’s imperial rivals.[1]

Spanish cosmographers combined the sciences of astronomy, geography, natural history, and ethnography. Navigation and cartography were particularly important subfields. This plate demonstrates the use of a cross-staff to measure the altitude of stars. Illustration from Pedro de Medina’s Regimento de Navegación (Seville, 1552), Wikimedia Commons.

In short, the Spanish empire treated maps as state secrets, and as a result very few Spanish maps were published for a wider audience in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Yet this does not mean that the Spanish did not make significant contributions to the study of the Americas. In fact, as historians have recently argued, Spain innovated new techniques in the field of cosmography (a Renaissance discipline combining astronomy, geography, natural history, and ethnography) and pioneered early forms of scientific empiricism through the gathering of direct observations by explorers, bureaucrats, and local officials across its vast domains.[2]

Herrera y Tordesillas’s accurate rendering of the gulf rested on reams of Spanish documentation produced by pilots, explorers, cosmographers, and bureaucrats.

The simple continental outline featured on Descripción de las Yndias del Norte actually rested on a vast trove of information collected by Spanish explorers and cosmographers over the preceding century. It was based on the manuscript charts of Royal Cosmographer Juan López de Velasco, who in the 1570s and 1580s had spent years compiling information about the New World for internal use. Velasco knew the shape of the Gulf, for example, from the accounts of Hernán Cortes and Alonso Álvarez de Pineda, but also from the astronomical observations of Alonso de Santa Cruz and the manuscript maps of Jerónimo Cháves.[3] Herrera y Tordesilla’s simple, unadorned map of North America, then, rested on a solid empirical foundation.

Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas, King Phillip’s first royal chronicler. Wikimedia Commons.

Yet it is important to remember that this map’s primary purpose was literary, not cartographical. Its creator, Antonio Herrera y Tordesillas, served as King Phillip’s first royal chronicler, and the map was made to accompany his four-part history of Spanish activities in the New World, originally published in 1601. Along with the other 13 maps included in the book, the map of North America was meant simply to set the scene for the action he described in the text of his history, the Décadas, rather than to advance cartographic knowledge of the region. This helps to explain its unique character as well as its relatively wide diffusion. Herrera y Tordesillas’s book received the license of the Spanish King; and, after its initial publication in Madrid, it was reprinted and translated several times. It is one of the few printed Spanish maps of the Americas from the period.[4]

Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas’s major work, Historia general de los hechos de los castellanos en las Islas i Tierra Firme del Mar Océano (known as the Décadas for short). Wikimedia Commons.

The GLO’s map comes from a 1622 edition of the Décadas published in Amsterdam, where it must have helped pique further interest in Spanish American possessions. Just a few decades later, in fact, the imperial scramble for the American Southwest would begin in earnest, when French explorers under the Sieur de la Salle famously landed on Matagorda Bay, igniting a new era of coastal mapping by both the encroaching French and the defensive Spanish empires. Spain’s “secret science” would become more and more difficult to keep secret.

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[1] María M. Portuondo, Secret Science: Spanish Cosmography and the New World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

[2] Portuondo, Secret Science; Antonio Barrera-Osorio, Experiencing Nature: The Spanish American Empire and the Early Scientific Revolution (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006).

[3] Portuondo, Secret Science, 206; Handbook of Texas Online, Robert S. Weddle, “SPANISH MAPPING OF TEXAS,” accessed January 11, 2019,

[4] Portuondo, Secret Science, 295–296; James C. Martin and Robert S. Martin, Maps of Texas and the Southwest (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1999), 18, 76–77; Phillip D. Burden, The Mapping of North America: A List of Printed Maps (Rickmansworth: Raleigh Publications, 1996), 169.

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