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Medieval Foothold in the Americas Volume 50 Number 4, July/August 1997
by Kathleen Deagan and José M. Cruxent

[image]Columbus chose what he called a "well-situated rock" as the site of La Isabela, located at the edge of the modern town of El Castillo. (José M. Cruxent) [LARGER IMAGE]

In September 1493, on his second voyage across the Atlantic, Columbus envisioned establishing a gold-mining colony that would become the center of a New World dynasty. Landing on the north coast of what is today the Dominican Republic, he and his crew of 1,500 built a town they named La Isabela after their benefactress, the queen of Spain. Sickness, short food supplies, and poor relations with the Taino Indians plagued the settlement, which was soon abandoned. During the past nine years, archaeologists from the Dominican Republic, the United States, Venezuela, Spain, and Italy, working with the National Park Service of the Dominican Republic, have found the remains of the fortified community at La Isabela, the first European town in the Americas and the only medieval-style settlement built in the New World. No two buildings shared the same orientation, unlike virtually all later Spanish towns in America, which were laid out on a symmetrical grid. Such plans were mandated by the crown in the sixteenth century, when Renaissance ideals of organization and symmetry became part of Spanish colonization efforts.

One of the most unexpected discoveries at La Isabela was an apparently unfortified settlement in an area known today as Las Coles, across the bay from the remains of the fortified town, known today as El Castillo. Established by Columbus on the banks of the Bajabonico River, Las Coles' rich agricultural soils, excellent clay sources, river transportation, and fresh water would have made it a better settlement site than El Castillo, though the latter was a more defensible location and was adjacent to a source of limestone for building. Although his writings imply that the plan of La Isabela was poorly conceived and hastily implemented, the discovery of Las Coles suggests that he had a scheme to meet the agricultural and administrative needs of the colony. The startling abundance of European material remains at La Isabela and the evidence of metalworking and pottery production contrast dramatically with the traditional depictions of settlers suffering from scarcity and want, and with the previously held belief that La Isabela was intended only as a temporary base for the exploitation of the wealth of the Indies. The earliest colonists here clearly attempted to bring their Spanish customs to the Americas.

* Abstract of companion article: "Images of Conquest," by Geoffrey Conrad, John Foster, Charles Beeker, Lynn Uhls, Mark Brauner, Marcio Veloz Maggiolo, and Elpidio Ortega

© 1997 by the Archaeological Institute of America