A New Digital Life For The Oldest Written Account Of Texas

“It isn’t just a book. It is representing an entire period of time.”

By Laura RiceJuly 26, 2018 11:22 am, ,

The earliest written account of Texas has been updated for the online generation. While the text itself hasn’t changed, the digital presentation is closer to the real thing than ever before.

Texas State University Libraries and The Wittliff Collections have launched a website celebrating La relación. The book was first published in 1542 and was written by Spanish conquistador Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca.

“[I]t’s the story of an expedition to Florida, one of the first efforts by the Spanish to conquer a large territory,” Texas State University Distinguished Professor Emeritus Dr. Frank de la Teja says.

“What they called Florida stretches from the Atlantic coast north of Jacksonville all the way to the Gulf of Mexico and Texas,” de la Teja says. “The story that Cabeza de Vaca tells took place over eight years, and when he returned to Spain he wanted to tell that story, which is a fascinating tale of Indians and geography and animals and all kinds of things that occurred to him and his companions over that period of time.”

Texas State has one of just a few copies left of the book, which is a centerpiece of their special collections.

“But it’s a very fragile item,” de la Teja says. “And so it has to be treated with a kind of reverence because it isn’t just a book. It is representing an entire period of time.”

While the book had been digitized before, this newest digital version is by far the most accessible.

“I can tell you that the wow factor is in the interoperability of it,” de la Teja says. “I mean, you’re getting about as close to being able to manipulate the book as you could if you were actually holding it, although it doesn’t give you the texture of the paper, the resolution, your ability to move back and forth, the ability to see the different features of it is all the latest technology.”

The previous digitization was by far the most accessed resource maintained by Texas State and the Wittliff collection, often by school teachers. De la Teja says that’s in part because it’s not written in an academic style—it’s a story.

“Cabeza de Vaca is telling us a continuous story,” de la Teja says. “He’s writing quite a captivating story about wandering among tribes and having punishment inflicted on him, and turning around and healing people, and pulling arrows out of, you know, performing surgery and being treated almost in a demi-god kind of fashion and describing how the Indians feel that there are evil spirits afoot, and all kinds of things that are going on. At the same time he’s telling you the story about moving along, crossing an entire continent. There are stories there that teachers can use to help students engage with a period of time and a perspective. These are people who were entirely lost and who are moving forward from one group to another based on the generosity of the people that they meet.”

De la Teja says the book is also a launching pad for larger conversations about who we are and where we come from.

“[I]n fact, one of the things that the book does is it allows us to debate what the nature of human interaction is like because this flips the story around,” de la Teja says. “The Indians have the upper hand, and you have these four survivors of a disastrous expedition that at first thought was going to conquer this place, and they wind up almost being conquered by the place. Only four of them wind up making it out. And they can only do so based on the generosity and the charity of the people that they meet along the way. So it flips the table. The European isn’t on top. He’s actually at the mercy of the elements and the people that they encounter.”

Written by Rachel Taube.