Roar of Distant Breakers

An Incomplete, Illustrated, Chronological Bibliographic Tour of the European Encounter with the American West.

Checklist for Roar of Distant Breakers

Curated by Luise Poulton, 2021

Digital exhibition produced by Lyuba Basin, 2021

Roar of Distant Breakers, exhibition poster

Every culture has its legends.
The books in this exhibition reflect journeys west, across vast land and sea scapes, by the descendants of a people desperate to find freedom, independence, peace, autonomy, and gold. These people, Europeans, found all these things and more on the North American continent. Their discoveries came at a high price for the peoples who had inhabited the continent for thousands of years. The result for them was nothing short of devastating. From the report of Cabeza de Vaca in the sixteenth century to the fiction of Wallace Stegner in the twentieth century, the narratives here are first-hand tellings from Europeans by birth, ancestry, culture, and ideology. These tellings became legend, for good or for bad, creating a distinctly American mythology – a mythology of reorder within a morally privileged space, a defining of possibility. They became the voice of the character of America – its culture and its society – enticing other voices to join in the American dream for freedom, independence, peace, autonomy, and, yes, gold.
This exhibition is dedicated to Gregory C. Thompson, Ph.D, Associate Dean for Special Collections, whose lively, generous, and patient leadership enables extraordinary opportunity for the growth of Special Collections and for the ability of the collections to be engaged with by people around the world.

Historia en Espanol, page 1

All over the land are vast and handsome pastures, with good grass for cattle, and it strikes me the soil would be very fertile were the country inhabited and improved by reasonable people.

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (ca. 1488-ca. 1560)
Espana : G. Blazquez, 1996
E125 N9 N85 1996

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca arrived on the Florida peninsula in 1527, shipwrecked after a harrowing voyage from Cuba. Held in captivity for six years by several groups of Native Americans, only he and three others of his original party survived. The small band, including a North African, Estebanico, made their way overland to the Bay of California. They traveled across Texas, up the Rio Grande, and into southern New Mexico. From there they crossed into Arizona and traveled south to a Spanish outpost. They were the first Europeans to cross the North American continent.

On their approach to the southern tip of the Great Plains, they saw buffalo. Cabeza de Vaca wrote, “These cows come from the north, across the country further on… and are found all over the land… On this whole stretch, through the valleys by which they come, people who live there descend to subsist on their flesh. And a great quantity of hides are met within land.” 

According to Cabeza de Vaca, the men were treated as supernatural emissaries and healers by the Native American tribes they met along the way. To the south, toward Mexico, they encountered land and people ravaged by Christians and European slavers. Cabeza de Vaca barely managed to keep his Native American escorts out of their hands.

Estabanico would later lead a Franciscan friar back to the future northern New Mexico to find the towns Cabeza de Vaca had despaired of finding, preparing the way for a larger expedition of Spaniards led by Francisco Vasquez de Coronado. The Zunis, rightly suspicious of his motives, killed Estabanico, leaving Friar Marcos to return to Mexico with faulty stories of wealthy cities. These cities turned out to be the pueblos. 

Cabeza de Vaca’s story of his odyssey, written in 1542, was an official report to the king of Spain, detailing the hardships of the expedition and his unintentional exploration of what is now Mississippi, Arkansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and California. What Cabeza de Vaca saw and described were peoples, rivers, mountains, and plains all, until then, unknown to Europeans.

Historia en Espanol, final spread


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