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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

If You Think You Live in the Worst of Times

You should read some history. Or, for more graphic exposure, watch it. Hubby and I stopped watching Netflix’s “Marco Polo” because the violence on the screen was just too real – as it really was at the time. Asian rulers in Polo’s era – and long after – routinely tortured and killed their political enemies by extremely cruel methods. People were skinned alive, and prolonged “death by a thousand cuts” was common. Prisoners of war were caged until they perished of thirst and hunger. People were buried vertically up to their necks, and honey was poured over their heads until ants bit them to death. Dead bodies were pinioned on stakes and left to rot as an admonition to others. Woe to him – or her – who tried to take the corpse for a decent farewell.

So, as I said, we couldn’t stand any more of “Marco Polo” and fast forwarded from the late 1200s to the late 1400s with “The Borgias.” The patriarch of the family was Rodrigo Borgia, who was born in Valencia, Spain, and elected by the College of Cardinals in Rome as Pope Alexander VI in 1492. His longtime courtesan, Vanozza Cattanei, lived with him and their four children in a Vatican palace – as did other mistresses. The pope named his eldest son, Cesare Borgia, a bishop at age 15, an archbishop at 17, and a cardinal at just 18 – and soon after that, Cesare probably planned the 1497 assassination of his brother Juan. The family’s only girl, Lucrezia, was forced into various marriages for political reasons and does not deserve her reputation as cruel; she was not nearly as wicked as her brother and father (the pope).

Pope Alexander VI led wars against France and other Italian principalities, as well as against “infidels.” The need to refill church coffers to pay for his armies was so great that he encouraged the sale of “indulgences,” as priests were ordered to collect specific sums for forgiveness of specific sins. A priest in Florence, Girolamo Savonarola, led opposition to the church’s corruption and eventually was burned to death for blasphemy. So that gets me to the point that inspired this piece: I only vaguely remembered Savonarola from college classes, and I googled him to read more. Guess what came up? “Savannah Court in Rolla, Missouri.”

Nothing is Singular

Evil though his actions were, there is a danger in aiming the arrows of history at one person: Pope Alexander VI could not have held the power that he did without support from high-ranking clergymen. And just as it is easier to tag one man for the crimes of many, the same is true for those whom history too often crowns as great achievers – without acknowledging the contributions of others, especially government. In the Americas, this begins with Christopher Columbus, who frequently is portrayed as a lone adventurer, even though we also know that his fleet of three ships was funded by the Spanish government. Yes, Queen Isabella’s role in scientific exploration is no myth. She was a co-equal monarch with her husband Ferdinand – as was their daughter, Juana.

His second voyage included seventeen ships, and he had them anchor at the tiny Canary Island of Gomera to visit the woman who was governor there. My point here, however, is not the strong roles that women always have played, but rather that the myth of the lone explorer is so wrong. Columbus’ fleet went from three to seventeen because of money from the church/state of Spain. Even Marco Polo, a native of Italy’s Venice, was accompanied by his father and uncle -- and they were funded by Turks in what then was Constantinople.

Each of the six expeditions to Florida prior to permanent settlement at St. Augustine in 1565 also had international funding and planning – and included women. The ships commanded by Ponce de Leon in 1513 and 1522 came from Puerto Rico, which his wife governed while he was gone. Panfilo de Narvaez led hundreds of invaders of several ethnicities from Spain in 1528. That included a woman, Ana Mendez, who survived the disastrous expedition to testify before a Spanish commission. Father Luis Cancer, who was killed immediately upon landing at Tampa Bay in 1549, earlier had gone from Cuba to Vera Cruz, Mexico specifically to recruit a native Floridian called Magdalena as a guide – and again the theocracy that was New Spain funded the journey. Ditto with others that didn’t work out.

Defrauding Government Isn’t New

I could go on with Florida history, but the pioneers who gave me the most insight into the strong role of government were in Texas and New Mexico. Not at all the lone cowboy image of later, the first expedition left San Bartolome, Mexico, with some 400 people -- and 83 wagons of supplies. Some settled at El Paso, but others went on north of what now is Santa Fe. Priests were with them, of course, and they dedicated a church on September 8, 1598.

Another expedition in 1695 makes it even more clear that the government of New Spain – centered in Mexico City – was the financial sponsor of early explorers. I wrote of this in the New Mexico section of my History of Women in the United States: A State-by-State Reference, and it is easier just to quote myself:

“Leader Juan Paez Hurtado not only padded the muster list to get himself compensation for people who had not actually gone, but also cheated widows out of ‘more than 6,000 pesos in settling their late husbands’ accounts…’ Charges against him were brought by Simona de Bejar, ‘the mulatta wife of Mateo de Negrete.’ Even though she was a young married woman whose husband, in the usual circumstances of the time, would have spoken for her, Bejar clearly was the first person to go to authorities with her suspicions that Hurtado had defrauded the government and his recruits.

When they left Zacatecas, Mexico, ‘each family was taken to the royal treasury office where they supposedly were given their allowances, followed by a visit to a store where they were given various articles of clothing…and supplies.’ In addition, the government of New Spain sponsored these emigrants with cash according to family size – with the maximum payment being 320 pesos to groups of four or more. This definition offered great incentive for creating fake families, and apparently a number of women with ‘excessive’ children happily redistributed them, doubtless taking part of the money as a reward…

The very first family listed was headed by a woman, Sebastina Rodriguez, a widow described as a ‘free mulatta’ with three children. Like other Spanish women – married, widowed, or whatever – she used her maiden name. Nor was she exceptional as a pioneer. Although the possibility of fraud makes it difficult to determine exact numbers, about as many women were listed as heads of families as are listed as married women traveling with husbands. What does appear to be rare is a man who went into this wilderness without a woman.”


Again, it was television that inspired this research and the following rant. Hubby frequently tunes in the History Channel while unpacking the dishwasher – which I appreciate enough not to yell at the TV (most of the time) when I hear something egregious. He’s been watching a series called “Frontiersmen,” and I happened to pass by when they were praising Daniel Boone as a lone adventurer.

The facts are these: After King George III reserved the land west of the Appalachians for indigenous peoples and forbade white settlement, Daniel and Rebecca Bryan Boone were among about fifty people who violated the order and went to Kentucky. They left North Carolina in August 1773, just weeks after Rebecca bore her ninth child.

An attack by Native Americans killed the Boones’ 16-year-old son and delayed the group’s progress, but several women and many children went on to permanent settlement at Harrodsburg in 1774. In July 1776, just days after American independence was declared, three teenage girls of the Boone family were kidnapped by Shawnees while canoeing. Their rescue got a great deal of publicity for Daniel Boone, but not so much for his daughter Jemima or her cousins, Fanny and Betsey Callaway.

Even in old age, Rebecca Bryan Boone, along with Daniel, led their large family into another area where they weren’t supposed to settle. In 1798, the whole troop of them, including adult children, children-in-law and grandchildren, went to Spanish-held Missouri. There they may have heard of Valle Villars, a widow who, in 1795, had requested a land grant from Spain because she was “overburdened with a numerous family.”

Bottom line: It’s really important that we get over our national myth of the lone frontiersmen. Nothing happens without women – and few things happen without government. Columbus was just an early version of NASA.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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