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Happy 500th Anniversary, Old San Juan! Acquisitions about Puerto Rico at the Library of Congress

Puerto Rico is celebrating the 500th anniversary of the founding of Old San Juan, the oldest city in the United States, and we could not be more excited to share two recent acquisitions by the Latin American, Caribbean & European Division (LAC&E) which shed light on the historical details of Old San Juan and the history of Puerto Rico.

The first one is an 18th century manuscript by the Irish military engineer Thomas O’Daly. The Spanish Crown sent Mr. O’Daly, who trained at the Barcelona Mathematics Academy, to Puerto Rico where he was commissioned to review and reform the fortifications of Old San Juan such as Castillo San Felipe del Morro.

Parts of the manuscript where Castillo de San Felipe del Morro and Plaza de San Juan de Puerto Rico are described.

Parts of the manuscript where Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Plaza de San Juan de Puerto Rico are described, 1764.

The original title of the manuscript is: “Descripción de la Plaza de San Juan de Puerto Rico y estado presente de sus fortificaciones, hecha por el Ten. Coronel e ingeniero en Segundo Don Thomas O’Daly en el año de 1763, y remitido por manos del Gobernador Don Ambrosio Benavides a las del Excmo. Señor Baylio Don Julián de Arriaga en 20 de enero de 1764. Puerto Rico, 1764. [In English: Description of the Plaza de San Juan de Puerto Rico and present state of its fortifications, by Lieutenant Colonel and engineer Thomas O’Daly in the year 1763, delivered by hand by Governor Don Ambrosio Benavides to His Excellency Mr. Baylio Don Julian Arriaga on January 20, 1764. Puerto Rico, 1764].

Part of Thomas O'Daly's manuscript showing his signature, 1764.

Part of Thomas O’Daly’s manuscript showing his signature, 1764.

O’Daly’s document also includes a section titled: “Detalle de la Guarnición de la Plaza de San Juan de Puerto Rico para acudir a los puertos que se mencionan al toque de la generala, los oficiales y tropa que se domina con la distinción de destinos que se expresan. Puerto Rico, 1777. [In English: Plan of the Garrison of the Plaza de San Juan de Puerto Rico that goes to the ports, that are mentioned to the general, the officers, and troops that present with the distinction of the destinations expressed. Puerto Rico, 1777.] The “Detalle de la Guarnición” provides a description of the defenses of Old San Juan with instructions for its defense in case of military attack. At the end, the document contains a handwritten note by O’Daly with his signature. In total, there are 42 sheets and it is an extraordinary piece to study Old San Juan’s history.

The other important manuscript that LAC&E acquired is that of the Lieutenant of the Spanish Royal Navy, Carlos Smith. It is an 18th century document about Puerto Rico addressed to King Carlos III where Smith describes the economic, demographic, social and political situation of all of Puerto Rico’s municipalities at the time. The original title is: “Estado general de la Isla de Puerto Rico, que comprende el número de sus poblaciones, leguas que dista de una población de otra, vecinos que tiene cada una, con distinción de blancos, pardos, agregados, negros libres y esclavos, estancias y hatos, siembras y ganados que existen en las actuales haciendas, y cantidades que producen de cada especie en años regulares, arreglado hasta fines del año 1776. Puerto Rico, 1776-1777”. [in English General condition of the Island of Puerto Rico, which includes the number of its populations, distance from one town to another, population that each one has, with distinction of whites, browns, sharecroppers, freed blacks and slaves, ranches, crops and livestock that exist in the current farms, and quantities that produce of each species in regular years, arranged until the end of 1776. Puerto Rico, 1776-1777]

Part of Carlos Smith’s manuscript describing the situation in Puerto Rico, 1776-1777.

Part of Carlos Smith’s manuscript describing the situation in Puerto Rico, 1776-1777.

Smith’s manuscript consists of 33 sheets and its purpose, as stated in the document, was to promote reforms for Puerto Rico and have them financed by the Spanish crown. The report includes a census of the inhabitants of the island, divided into different classes as they were described at the time, as well as the number of farms and their respective crops. It is definitely another rich resource about Puerto Rico in the 1700s.

Part of Carlos Smith's manuscript showing his signature, 1776-1777.

Part of Carlos Smith’s manuscript showing his signature, 1776-1777.

Other Collections about Puerto Rico at the Library of Congress

The Manuscript Division possesses more sources on the island, such as the Puerto Rican Memorial Collection, which includes 1,500 items with dates ranging from 1519-1923. The collector of these documents was historian Alice Gould, best known for her research in the General Archive of Simancas in Spain concerning the crew members of Christopher Columbus’ voyages. However, Gould was also a scholar of Puerto Rican history who between 1941 and 1947 donated her documents related to the island to the Library.

The collection includes her correspondence, writings and bibliographic works, and original 19th century manuscripts of several important figures of Puerto Rico’s intellectual and political history such as Ramón Baldorioty de Castro, Alejandro O’Reilly and Ramón Emeterio Betances. The largest file in the collection concerns Father Rufo Manuel Fernández Carballido and includes his notes and essays on science, religion, education in Puerto Rico and a diary of a trip to the United States in 1837.

Another important collection are the papers of Puerto Rican scholar Eugenio María de Hostos and his son, Eugenio Carlos de Hostos. The documents were donated by Gloria de Alvear y de Hostos in 2006, granddaughter of Eugenio Carlos de Hostos. The collection is composed of family documents, which contain correspondence, photographs, press clippings, and miscellaneous documents. Both Eugenio Carlos de Hostos and his wife maintained regular correspondence with their family members who lived in the Dominican Republic, England, New York, Puerto Rico and Spain.

Early cartographic works are also part of the Library’s collections, available in the Geography and Map Division, which attest to the social and political changes on the island, as the following map attests. You can find more digitized maps like this one at this link.

Plan of the island of Porto Rico. 176-? Library of Congress Geography and Map Division

Plan of the island of Porto Rico. 176-? Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

Interested in any of these documents and collections? Do not hesitate to contact us through Ask a Librarian or call us at the Hispanic Reading Room reference desk at (202) 707-5397. We will be happy to assist you with your research project!

Discover more

Handbook of Latin American Studies (HLAS): A Resource Guide The Handbook of Latin American Studies is a bibliography on Latin America consisting of works selected and annotated by scholars.

The PALABRA Archive at the Library of Congress The PALABRA Archive is a collection of original audio recordings of 20th and 21st century Luso-Hispanic poets and writers reading from their works. This link takes you to the audio recordings of Puerto Rican authors.

Library of Congress Research Guides Library’s guides organized by research topic and collections – these include both online materials, and materials only available on site. The guides related to the Caribbean, Iberian, and Latin American Studies can be found here. Below is a selection of guides about Puerto Rico:

Library of Congress StoryMaps StoryMaps are multimedia storytelling publications on Library’s materials that can include rare books, photographs, audio recordings, music, maps, and more. Two StoryMaps that highlight materials about Puerto Rico are “¡a la huelga todos! The 1942 Sugar Industry Strike in Puerto Rico” and “On Language and Colony. A Linguistic Trajectory of Puerto Rico’s Identity as the World’s Oldest Colony.” 

The Library’s catalog contains millions of records for books, serials, manuscripts, maps, music, recordings, images, and electronic resources. Some books are digitized and with this link you can review those that are part of the digital collection “Puerto Rico at the Dawn of the Modern Age: Nineteenth- and Early-Twentieth-Century Perspectives.”


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