Cogut Institute for the Humanities
Center for the Study of the Early Modern World

This lecture on the role of the Spanish and their descendants in the larger panorama of US history provided an eye-opening start to the 2019-20 academic year. Carrie Gibson began by talking about Linden Place, which is in nearby Bristol, RI, the historic home of the DeWolfe family [photo1], which had extensive ties to the slave trade and owned plantations in Cuba [photo 2]. The example of the DeWolfe's clearly showed that the ‘Hispanic’ past of the United States was never specific to the US-Mexico border, but had also touched many areas of the country.

The lecture showed how this past is also embedded in the personal memories of Hispanic people throughout the US, and the challenges of incorporating those stories into the broader history of the nation. The Hispanic past has been ‘misremembered’ in many respects: examples from places ranging to New England to California illustrated the reach of Spain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, especially in Florida and New Mexico, where Spanish conquistadors attempted to settle, well before the 1620 arrival of the Pilgrims in New England. Key moments have been forgotten as well as remembered in the twentieth century. The Fountain of Youth Archeological Park in St. Augustine [photo 3], for example, has long profited on the unfounded myth that Juan Ponce de León was looking for the source of eternal life. Despite the fact that Ponce never set foot in St. Augustine, the park manages to have an actual connection to the Spanish past, in that the city’s first Spanish settlement in 1565 and a later mission were on that site, evidence of which has been found in excavations.

Similarly, there was a craze for the ‘Mission Era’ in California, spurred on by the 1884 novel Ramona, about an orphaned young woman, born of a Native American mother and a Scottish father, who raised by an elite Californio creole Spanish family. The family’s declining fortunes were symbolized by the crumbling mission churches and the novel’s romanticized picture of the final days of Mexican California prompted an effort to save and conserve the churches. [photo 4]

Finally, Carrie Gibson addressed the issue of how to reconcile ‘public’ memory with the other multiple memories in the historic landscape – of which the Hispanic past is but one. Is it possible to make this history to be more central to the national story, especially when there are still many obstacles? In the heated political climate of the present, it has become a matter of urgency to think about the wider national historic narrative and the place of the Hispanic past within it.

On a separate occasion during her visit, Carrie Gibson also took the time to discuss the challenges of writing ‘trade’ history, aimed at a non-specialist market with graduate students at the Center. She outlined her own career, moving from her Ph.D. to her first book, as well as some of the pros and cons of the non-academic publishing industry. She also described writing possibilities that exist outside of academia, and how to realize them (such as finding an agent, securing a book advance, and so forth), and how to think about communicating work to non-specialist audiences or pursuing projects that might appeal to a wider public.