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Home » Public Programs » Online Exhibits » American Encounters: Native American History at the Clements Library » Case 1: Early Encounters – Before 1600

Case 1: Early Encounters – Before 1600

Early encounters between Native Americans and European explorers marked the start of a long and troubled history of contact between these cultures.  Nearly all of the primary sources for this history come from documents produced by Europeans, for a European audience.  William L. Clements, like other collectors of early Americana in his day, considered these printed accounts of discovery and exploration to be a prime focus of his book collection.

Illustrations accompanying these books were done by European artists who based their depictions on the unreliable descriptions of eyewitnesses.  As such, they often propagated myths and misunderstandings of Native Americans by presenting them in classical poses with non-native clothing and adornments.

Items within this Case

Christopher Columbus, Epistola Cristoferi Colom, Basel: 1493. Facsimile reprint: Paris, A. Pilinski, 1858.

Columbus’ 1493 letter describing his voyage to America was the first printed account of the New World.  A bestseller of its day, the letter rapidly went through multiple editions. The Clements Library holds a copy of the Rome edition, one of the highlights of the Library’s rare book collection.  The facsimile of the Basel edition shown here (reprinted from the original in the Lenox Library) is embellished by a series of woodcuts.  This image illustrates Columbus’ landing in the New World.

Excerpt from the English translation by Frank E. Robbins, 1952:

“…On the thirty-third day after I left the Canaries, I reached the Indian Sea, there I found very many islands, inhabited by numberless people, of all of which I took possession without opposition in the name of our most fortunate king by making formal proclamation and raising standards; and to the first of them I gave the name of San Salvador, the blessed Savior, through dependence on whose aid we reached both this and the others. The Indians however call it Guanahani. I gave each one of  the others too a new name; to wit, one Santa Maria de la Concepcion, another Fernandina, another Isabella, another Juana, and I ordered similar names to be used for the rest.

When we first put in at the island which I have just said was named Juana, I proceeded along its shore westward a little way, and found it so large (for no end to it appeared) that I believed it to be no island but the continental province of Cathay; without seeing, however, any towns or cities situated in its coastal parts except a few villages and rustic farms, with whose inhabitants I could not talk because they took flight as soon as they saw us.”

Theodor de Bry, America Pars Quarta, 1594.
Plate IX.

Theodor de Bry (1528 – 1598) was an engraver and editor best known for his series of illustrated travel narratives based on explorers’ accounts of the New World.  His detailed engravings, frequently reprinted and widely distributed, provided Europeans with some of the first images of Native Americans.

This famous illustration portrays Columbus’ arrival on the island of Hispaniola and his first encounter with the native Taínos. Depictions such as these contributed to the myth-making of Christopher Columbus as the sole “discoverer” of the Americas.