America Before 1700 from the William Reese Company
By Michael Stillman
The William Reese Company's latest catalogue takes a look at early to the earliest Americana: America Before 1700. It starts from the days before America was even a gleam in Columbus' eye, and runs to the days when the Mathers dominated religious and political thought in New England and William Penn still ran the colony which bears his name. While the area of the New World now included within the boundaries of the United States forms the largest part of the collection, there are also works relating to the West Indies, South America, Mexico and Canada. So, setting our time machine back over five centuries, we will take a look at some of the items being offered.
The catalogue starts with a 1472 second edition (after the first of 1469) of Strabo's Geographia. Strabo was an ancient Greek geographer whose view of the world was still the latest news at the dawn of the age of discovery, though he lived 1,500 years earlier. This is the pre-Columbian world, no New World and not much of the East or Africa. It is essentially limited to the Mediterranean and Asia Minor. Change would be coming soon. Item 1. $187,500.
It is hard to believe that after such a simple geography stood for a millennium and a half, that just 36 years later we would see a compilation of voyages to new places all over the world. Item 3 is Montalboddo's Itinerarium Portugal-Lensium e Lusitania... published in 1508 following the first of 1507. It is the first compilation of voyages, including three of Columbus and one of Vespucci to the Americas, Cabral's discovery of Brazil, plus Vasco da Gama and others' trips to Africa and Asia. It contains the first map showing Africa as an entire continent surrounded by water. $275,000.
The thrill of discovery of new worlds would soon turn to something far less pleasant. Item 8 is the first Latin edition of Cortes' second letter, published in 1524. His first letter has been lost to history, but the second recounts his conquest of Mexico. In it he describes the great Aztec empire and its capital of Tenochtitlan (now part of Mexico City). Sadly, Cortes not only discovered an empire and its people, he also destroyed them. $45,000.
If the Spanish were in general cruel conquerors, there were still some good people among them. None, perhaps, was more principled than Bartolome de Las Casas. Las Casas was a priest who traveled to Cuba in 1502. He witnessed the newly installed slave system, the brutality and mass killing of the native population. He was horrified by what he saw and spent the remaining 64 years of his life, in the New World and in Spain, fighting for better treatment of the Indians. Item 27 is a rare 1582 French translation of his Histoires Admirables des Horribles Insolences... $11,000.
Item 60 is a 1635 second edition of William Wood's New Englands Prospect. This account provides detailed information both about the natural history and the various settlements of New England, just 14 years after the Mayflower's arrival. It also contains the best map of New England prior to that of John Foster over 40 years later. $75,000.