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Documenting Colonial and Indigenous History: the Central American Archives, 1544–1821

James T. Simon
Director of International Resources Center for Research Libraries


Historical map of the Yucatan and Guatemala published in Amsterdam by Arnold Montanus, 1671.

In 2012, CRL libraries voted to acquire the complete set of the Archivo General de Centroamérica, 1544–1821 (also known as the “Central American Archives”). This acquisition, approved through CRL’s Purchase Proposal Program, makes accessible more than six million pages of original primary source documents chronicling Spanish rule in Central America and parts of Mexico. The Central American Archives collection represents a vast and unique resource for scholars of colonial and post-colonial history in Central America.

The collection originates from the Archivo General de Centro América (AGCA), located in Guatemala City, Guatemala. As the designated repository for colonial, municipal, provincial, and other records for the Captaincy General of Guatemala (Capitanía General de Guatemala) and related bodies, the AGCA holds the most comprehensive record on colonial affairs of the region now encompassed by Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and the Yucatan and Chiapas regions of Mexico.

The Indigenous Conquistadores

“The Archivo General de Centroamérica is the richest collection we have for Guatemalan colonial history,” notes Dr. Laura Matthew, colonial historian in the Department of History at Marquette University. Her recently published book, Memories of Conquest: Becoming Mexicano in Colonial Guatemala (The University of North Carolina Press, 2012) relies heavily on records found in the AGCA and other collections to demonstrate how indigenous allies helped the Spanish gain a foothold in the Americas.

Dr. Matthew’s work explores the colonial past of Mesoamerica, tracing the relationship between the Spanish conquistadores and the Nahua, Zapotec, Mixtec, and other groups that made European conquest possible. From 1524 to 1528, thousands of indigenous allies from central Mexico and Oaxaca invaded Central America alongside a few hundred Spaniards, planning conquests, raising troops and supplies, and instigating alliances. Matthew sheds light on the motivations of the “yndios conquistadores” by exploring the broader context of history of warfare and imperialism in Mesoamerica that extends well before the narrative of European expansion.

These warriors often remained behind as colonists, enjoying privileges due to their identity as conquistadors. In Ciudad Vieja, where Matthew bases her research, the descendants of the indigenous colonists became known as “Mexicanos,” subject to the colonial dictates of Spain but distinct from the conquered Mayan population by language (Nahuatl) and societal position. Matthew characterizes this group as an “inbetween” population, both indigenous and foreign, Indians and conquistadors. The Mexicanos were able to carve out a distinctive place within Guatemalan society by embracing the colonial order, where many Mesoamericans resisted integration into the Spanish Empire.

Matthew began her work in the archives, as most scholars do, by consulting the old-fashioned card catalog that takes up a large section of the second floor. The “Catálogo Pardo”—named for the former director that undertook the organization of the archive—consists of 23 cabinets, organized roughly by theme and subtheme. Scholars pull file drawers one by one to peruse the million-plus card files, each containing some basic classification and content description. Documents are identified by the number of the bundle—or legajo—then by expediente, or individual document number.

In her documentary research, Matthew relied principally on judicial and notarial records found in the archive, in addition to land surveys and government census reports. She discovered that the Mexicanos left behind an extensive “paper trail,” including probanzas de meritos y servicios, the standard form used by the Spanish conquistadores to request compensation for their services. As Matthew relates, “the Mexicanos considered themselves conquistadors, and expected to be treated as such.”

Much of the contents of the AGCA is unique, Matthew finds, particularly for indigenous affairs. During the early stages of colonial formation, “a lot of paper flowed across the Atlantic,” she relates. Copies of such documentation may be found in the Archivo General de Indias (AGI) in Sevilla, Spain. However, as the processes of governance were more firmly established, regional affairs were increasingly resolved at the local level, with records remaining in the region. “Much of the documentation on indigenous affairs in the 17th and 18th century are found only in the AGCA, unless cases were passed on to a higher court, or where colonists of European descent went ‘straight to the top.’”

Collection Highlights

The six million pages of documentation include a wide range of content, from official dispatches, confidential letters, and edicts of the central government to petitions, personal information, probate records, and court records documenting the small details of everyday life.

A significant portion of the collection traces economic affairs of the region, spanning the years 1519 to 1854. Records include information on excise taxes collected, land records, rents and property taxes, revenue accounts, agricultural and commercial affairs, and more. One large segment of the collection covers legal affairs, judicial writs, civil and criminal proceedings, hearings and trials, and civil and criminal sentences.

Some notable highlights include:

  • Notarial records, a fundamental source for social history (marriage, death, wealth)
  • Causas mortuales and bienes de difuntos, documenting possessions of deceased persons
  • Registros de barcos (ship manifests)
  • Population records of indigenous and colonial towns and villages
  • Municipal government records, minute books, and financial records
  • Proceedings of the Audiencia de los Confines (the high and appellate court of the kingdom)
  • Ecclesiastical, hospital, and university records

Preserving the Collection

Dr. John Browning, now Professor Emeritus of Spanish at McMaster University, also used the AGCA collection during his doctoral research on the late colonial period of Central America. Following a summer of research in Guatemala in 1968, Dr. Browning brought his experience with the impressive but endangered collection to the attention of William Ready, University Librarian at McMaster. To Brown’s delight, Ready suggested they approach the Archivo with a proposal for cooperative preservation of the collection.

After obtaining funding from the Donner Canadian Foundation, McMaster and the AGCA (under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture of Guatemala) began the preservation effort that would ultimately encompass more than 144,000 documents on nearly 4,000 reels of 16mm microfilm. The task took nearly a decade to complete, under challenging conditions and with fragile and faded originals. The microfilm was transferred to McMaster, with the original documents and copies of the film remaining in Guatemala.

For nearly 30 years, the microfilms were only available on site at McMaster’s Mills Memorial Library. In 2005, McMaster entered a collaborative agreement with ProQuest and the AGCA to distribute the film to other libraries. Given the variable quality of some of the film, ProQuest took pains to remaster the microfilm to improve the images and produce high-quality reproductions on 35mm microfilm. Only a limited number of institutions acquired copies due to the high price of purchasing the microfilm archives. Eventually, in 2011, rights for distribution of the collection posed to Norman Ross (Ross Publishing) in 2011.

Building a Better Finding Aid

The microform collection is organized largely along the lines of the original archive, grouped first by major section (corresponding to chronological and political division of the colony), then by legajo and expediente number. The major sections of the collection include:

  • A1: documents of the Superior Gobierno (legislation, edicts etc., originating from the Central Government)
  • A2: documents of the Capitanía General de Guatemala (judicial, military and economic matters)
  • A3: Real Hacienda (exchequer documents, fiscal matters, currency, taxation and court and criminal records)
  • A4: Asuntos Religiosos (including heresy trials), and
  • B1: documents of the National Period.

The former director of the AGCA, Joaquín Pardo, undertook the systematic organization of the colonial material as part of his life’s work. The organization of the collection is idiosyncratic, with a unique classification system that orders the collection both by type of governmental document as well as by distinct themes, geographic location, chronology, and proper name.

The existing finding aids to the collection (linked to CRL’s catalog record) provide pathways into the collection by geographic location, dates, and subject categories both in Spanish and English. However, the subject terminology employed is quite broad in many cases, classified at the legajo level and excluding the detailed descriptions of expedientes found in the original card catalog.

Image courtesy of the Archivo General de Centroamerica.

This challenge drew the interest of Russell Sheptak, Research Associate at the University of California, Berkeley. Sheptak, also a doctoral candidate at the Universitet Leiden, is a historical anthropologist interested in the colonial archaeology and history of Honduras. His initial research focused on pre-colonial populations in Honduras. Through examining early historical texts, he was able to establish place names of pre-Hispanic settlements, and conducted extensive archaeological research to identify evidence and characteristics of established societies.

Sheptak became interested in the co-construction of colonial society in Spanish colonial Honduras. He was intrigued by how Indians and Spaniards, Afro-de-scendants, French, and Americans living abroad negotiated their place in colonial society. As time went on, the documentation of the AGCA factored increasingly into his research.

In 2006, Berkeley acquired a complete set of the AGCA microfilm from ProQuest through a favorable pricing arrangement CRL organized for its members. Sheptak, then a visiting scholar at Berkeley, was among the first to use the collection and began sifting through the reels related to Honduras. As described above, he found that the finding aid created from the microfilm log lacked specificity. He also discovered that the guide contained errors in date transcription and, surprisingly, was missing more than 100 reels of content. Drawing from his extensive experience in the computer industry, he began creating a database that would fill in the gaps and enhance the basic records with additional information.

Sheptak’s work on the database grew into a formal program at Berkeley under the auspices of the Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program, an opportunity for students to work with faculty on cutting-edge research. In collaboration with Rosemary Joyce, a professor in the Anthropology Department, Sheptak introduces students to the nature of archival research, the types of documentation available, and the processes for reading colonial handwriting. Students then begin collecting information from the documents on microfilm, recording title information, a brief description of the document, and names of people and places mentioned in the document.

Of course, indexing a collection of 150,000 documents is painstakingly slow. Sheptak and colleagues began their work on the Honduran section of some 10,000 expedientes as a pilot, which, if successful, could be expanded to the entire collection. The objective is to create a searchable online database that can be used to pinpoint documents in the microfilm collection as well as the original document repository in Guatemala City. Sheptak hopes to start by mounting the basic information from the existing finding aid, and expand information as it becomes available.

Placing the Collection at CRL

“It is very important to have a set of these records available to scholars in the United States,” says Philip MacLeod, librarian for Spanish, Portuguese, Latin American & Caribbean Studies at Emory University. MacLeod performed research in the AGCA archives for his master’s and Ph.D. degrees from Tulane University. His study “On the Edge of Empire: Costa Rica in the Colonial Era (1561–1800)” relied upon notarial records and estate inventories found in probate records in the archive. He was one of the strongest proponents of acquiring the collection for CRL, as “Many scholars may not have the ability to travel to Central America to view the originals.”

David Block, associate director of the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas at Austin, agrees. “What CRL did in acquiring this was to make it accessible to a wide range of scholars. At the price it was offered, none of us could spring for it. We knew it was available, but could not really get at it.”

Teresa Chapa, librarian for Latin America, Iberia, Latina/o Studies at the University of North Carolina, also sees tremendous value in the archive. “There is a growing interest in Guatemala on campus. More and more, I am seeing requests from this kind of material from our students.” Chapa notes that professors teaching colonial history such as Kathryn Burns (Department of History) encourage students to engage with archival sources. For these reasons, Chapa sought support from her colleagues to nominate the Central American Archives for CRL’s Purchase Proposal Program.

Both Matthew and Sheptak concur that the ease of access will be a tremendous advantage to current and future scholars. Sheptak, for his part, says that while nothing bests the archival experience of using the originals, the microfilm set is effective for original research. “The microfilm collection is difficult to read in parts, particularly for the content in which the ink has faded to reddish-brown. However, nearly every document has a good degree of readability, and if one uses a digital reader/scanner, adjustments to the images help make difficult sections more legible.”

Says Matthew, “For my own work, it will be great to be able to go back and check on specific references, rather than having to return to Guatemala for confirmation. This also will be good for scholars working on new projects, to be able to browse the materials in a way that duplicates the archival process.”