Spanish-American Colonial Manuscripts | Newberry

Spanish-American Colonial Manuscripts

Jean-Frédéric Waldeck. Mexican Women Making Tortillas. c.1834.

Jean-Frédéric Waldeck. Mexican Women Making Tortillas. c.1834. Ayer Art Waldeck, Bx. D2, #110.

Edward E. Ayer (1841-1927), a Chicago businessman who made his fortune manufacturing railroad ties, launched his extensive career as a collector to document the early contacts of Europeans with the native peoples of the Americas after reading Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico while serving in the Union Army in 1864. He set about acquiring as many early manuscripts and books as possible on the discovery, exploration, and settlement of North and South America.

The 400 Spanish-American manuscripts constitute an important part of the larger Ayer collection of manuscripts, books, photographs, maps, and artwork, which Ayer donated to the Newberry Library between 1911 and 1927. These offer a detailed picture of life in the Spanish colonies of South and Central America (especially Mexico), the Caribbean, and parts of North America, including Florida, Texas, and Louisiana. They are particularly rich in Spanish colonial administrative papers, ecclesiastical and legal documents, and travel literature of discovery and exploration.

Included with the manuscripts are extensive collections of transcriptions and photostats of documents in the Archivo General de Indias and other Spanish archives, the Archivo General de la Nación in Mexico City, the Archivo Nacional de Cuba, the Nacogdoches Archives, and the Matamoros Archives.

Items forming the bulk of the original collection are described in A Check List of Manuscripts in the Edward E. Ayer Collection, compiled by Ruth Lapham Butler (Chicago: Newberry Library, 1937). However, all of the Spanish-language Ayer manuscripts, including many items acquired after 1937, are now searchable in the library’s online catalog.

Note the following areas of research interest in the Ayer Spanish-language manuscripts:

Ecclesiastical documents

  • Church records, baptismal and burial registers
  • Accounts of the establishment and administration of missions, especially in Mexico and California
  • Descriptions of religious practices of Native peoples
  • Missionary and land-owning activities of the Jesuit, Franciscan, and Dominican orders, including some annual reports
  • Inquisition proceedings and correspondence

Legal documents

  • Cartas de pago
  • Land contracts
  • Powers of attorney
  • Judicial petitions and proceedings
  • Genealogies to establish purity of bloodlines, nobility, or right of inheritance

Colonial administrative papers

  • Reports of viceroys and governors
  • Cedulas, directives from the Spanish king
  • Official correspondence
  • Mercedes, or land grantsTreasury and tax records
  • Military reports
  • Population statistics
  • Commerce and smuggling reports
  • Mining reports, especially from Mexico and Peru

Travel literature

  • Journals and letters from explorations of the Yucatan, California, and the Southwest, such as those of Avendaño y Loyola, Father Junipero Serra, and Velez de Escalante
  • Reports on discoveries to the viceroys and king
  • Histories of navigation, especially along the Pacific coast, California, and the Gulf of Mexico


  • Diaries, notebooks, correspondence of adventurer and Mayan ethnographer, Count Jean Frédéric de Waldeck (1766-1875)
  • His drawings of the Mayan ruins of Mexico and Mexican flora and fauna
  • Indian pictorial documents from Waldeck’s personal collection

Collections of personal papers

  • David Tilden Brown on Nicaragua
  • Chavez, Gonzalez, and Espinosa-Quintana families of Abiquiu, New Mexico
  • Montezuma family of Mexico
  • Archbishop Valera of Santo Domingo
  • Alejandro Marure of Guatemala

Researchers may also wish to consult the related collection of Ayer Philippine manuscripts, which documents Spain’s colonial activities in the Philippines, as well as the 268 Ayer manuscripts in numerous North American and Mesoamerican languages, including dictionaries and grammars, doctrinal and devotional handbooks, and native texts such as Indian village books and land documents. Of special interest are the sermons in Náhuatl and the trilingual dictionary of Father Bernardino Sahagún; Rodolphe Petter’s early Cheyenne grammar; Diego Basalenque’s Matlatzinca grammar and dictionary; and Juan de Gaona’s Colloquios de la paz y tranquilidad christiana in Otomí. In addition, the Newberry has the earliest existing manuscript of the Mayan sacred book, the Popol Vuh, in Quiché and Spanish. Please note that an appointment is necessary to work with the Popol Vuh. Appointments can be made by contacting Will Hansen, Director of Reader Services, at