Gáspar de Villagrá’s Historia de la Nueva México, originally published in 1610, was first issued in English by the Quivira Society in 1933. Reprinted by the Rio Grande Press in 1962, it is not only the first history of New Mexico but also the earliest of any North American state. This thirty-four canto historical account of the Ácoma uprising and of Juan de Oñate’s early conquest, was written as an epic poem patterned after Virgil’s Aeneid within eleven years of the events’ occurrence by a participant and eyewitness, Captain Villagrá. In spite of its historical significance, the Historia was overlooked or ignored by historians, and remained unnoticed for over two and one half centuries. Rediscovered in the 1880s by such outstanding writers as A. F. Bandelier, Cesareo Fernández Duro, John Gilmary Shea, and Hubert Howe Bancroft, the conquistador-historian’s epic did not receive its deserved recognition until the publication of Bancroft’s History of Arizona and New Mexico in 1889.
Like other conquistadores and soldiers, both ancient and modern, Villagrá wrote his account to immortalize the momentous events of which he was a participant. That he was a successful narrator, despite his lack of poetic talent, is evident. Villagrá, however, did more than immortalize the conquerors and their deeds. Notwithstanding his occasional indulgence in poetic license and exaggeration, he wrote an authoritative contemporary history of the conquest of New Mexico. Moreover, Villagrá, basing his work on documentary materials, treated more than just conquest. His observations on the Pueblo Indians contain data that is important to students of the Southwest; his descriptions of fellow Spaniards give insight into late sixteenth-century traditions, beliefs, religious devotion, and intolerance.
Fortunately for both Villagrá’s reputation and for the English-speaking students of Hispanic history, the Quivira Society selected Gilberto Espinosa’s translation for publication. Espinosa rendered a highly readable and flowing prose translation of some exceedingly difficult material. His vocabulary and judicious punctuation merit recognition.
The annotation of the text, representing the scholarship of the 1930’s, was written by Frederick Webb Hodge of the Southwest Museum; it suffers because it omits the results of recent research. Hodge’s knowledgeable Foreword, however, compensates to a large extent for this drawback.
The Rio Grande Press is to be congratulated for making available this scarce classic of the Spanish conquest of the Southwest. The book’s value, however, could have been enhanced by the addition of several maps.