This is a website about the Relaciones geográficas, a series of geographic and cultural surveys completed by New World administrators in the late sixteenth century. Juan López de Velasco (1530-1598)—the main cosmographer-chronicler of the Council of the Indies under King Philip II—distributed a carefully constructed questionnaire across New Spain, the Caribbean, and South America. The documents transcribed here address the fifty questions established by Velasco, listed below as translated by Howard Cline.
This database features Relaciones geográficas reports that clearly followed the survey format, responding to the fifty questions that spanned general inquiries about the land’s fertility, population, local flora and fauna, indigenous medical knowledge, and more. After the relaciones made their way to Spain, they became dispersed, and are now housed in the University of Texas Austin’s Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, the Archivo General de Indias, and the Real Academia de la Historia.
The survey asked the administrators the following questions:
QUESTION 1 In the towns of Spaniards state the name of the district or province, also the meaning of the name in the native language and the reason it is so named.
QUESTION 2 State who was the discoverer and conqueror of said province and by whose order or mandate it was discovered. Give the year of its discovery and conquest and all that can be readily learned about it.
QUESTION 3 State in general the climate and quality of said province or district; whether it is cold or hot, dry or damp, with much rainfall or little and at what season there is more or less; and the prevailing winds, whether violent, and from what quarter and at what seasons of the year.
QUESTION 4 State whether the country is level, rough, flat or mountainous; with many or few rivers and fountains, with abundance or scarcity of water; whether fertile or lacking in pasture; with an abundance or scarcity of fruits and subsistence crops.
QUESTION 5 State whether the district is inhabited by many or few Indians and whether in former times it had a greater or lesser population; the causes for the increase or diminution and whether the inhabitants live permanently together in regular towns or not. State also what is the character and condition of their intelligence, inclinations and modes of life; also whether different languages are spoken throughout the whole province or whether they have one which is spoken by all.
QUESTION 6 State the latitude in which these towns of Spaniards lie, if this has been taken or if known, or if there is any one who knows how to take it. State on what days of the year the sun does not cast a shadow at noon.
QUESTION 7 State the distance in leagues between each city or town occupied by Spaniards and the city in which dwells the Audiencia in whose jurisdiction it belongs, or the residence of the governor to whom it is subject; state also the directions in which said cities and towns lie from each other.
QUESTION 8 Give also the distance in leagues between each city or town occupied by Spaniards and those which bound them in adjoining districts, stating in what direction they lie; whether the leagues are long or short, the country level or broken and mountainous; whether the roads are straight or winding and good or bad for travel.
QUESTION 9 State the name and surname that every city or town has or has had and the reason, if known, why it was so named; also who named it and who was the founder, and by whose order or mandate he made the settlement; the year of its foundation and the number of in- habitants at that and at the present time.
QUESTION 10 Describe the site and state the situation of said town, if it lies high or low or in a plain, and give a plan or colored painting showing the streets, squares, and other places; mark the monasteries. This can be easily sketched on paper, and shall be done as well as possible. It is to be noted which parts of the town face North and which South.
QUESTION 11 In the case of Indian towns it is only to be stated how far they are from the capital, in what district and jurisdiction they lie, and which is the nearest center (cabecera) for the teaching of religious doctrine. The names of all of the chief towns in its jurisdiction are to be given as well as those of their respective dependencies.
QUESTION 12 State also the distances between the other towns of Indians or of Spaniards that surround it and the directions in which they lie and whether the leagues are long or short and the roads level or straight or mountainous and winding.
QUESTION 13 State what the name of the Indian town means in the native tongue, why it was so named; what more there is to know about it; what it is in the language which the native inhabitants of the place actually speak.
QUESTION 14 State to whom the Indians belonged in heathen times and what dominion was exercised over them by their lords; what tribute they paid and the form of worship, rites and customs they had, good or bad.
QUESTION 15 State how they were governed; against whom they carried on warfare; how they fought; the clothes and costumes they wore and now wear and whether they used to be more or less healthy anciently than they are now, and what reasons may be learned for this.
QUESTION 16 State about all towns, of Spaniards or of Indians, whether the town is situated in a mountain, valley or open plain, and the names of the mountains or valleys and district in which it lies. Record the native meaning of each of these names.
QUESTION 17 State whether the town is situated in a healthful or unhealthful place and if unhealthful, the cause for this if it can be learned; note the kinds of illness that are prevalent and the remedies employed for curing them.
QUESTION 18 State how far or close is any nearby remarkable mountain or mountain range, in what direction it lies, and what it is called.
QUESTION 19 State what principal river or rivers pass near to the town; at what distance they do so; how abundant they are and whether there is anything remarkable about their sources, their waters, its water supply and how banks are exploited; also whether it is employed or could be employed for various irrigation works on an important scale.
QUESTION 20 Mention the important lakes, lagoons and fountains within the bounds of the towns, and any notable things about them there may be.
QUESTION 21 Mention volcanoes, caves and all other remarkable and admirable works of nature there may be in the district, which are worthy of being known.
QUESTION 22 Describe the native trees that commonly grow wild in said district; and benefits to be gained from them, their fruits and their wood. State for what they are or might be useful.
QUESTION 23 Mention whether the cultivated trees and fruit trees in the district brought there from Spain or elsewhere grow well or not.
QUESTION 24 Mention the grains and seeds and other plants and vegetables which have served or serve as subsistence for the natives.
QUESTION 25 State what plants have been introduced there from Spain and whether wheat, barley, wines and the olive flourish; in what quantity they are harvested and whether there are silkworms or cochineal in the district, and in what quantities.
QUESTION 26 Mention the herbs or aromatic plants with which the Indians cure themselves, and their medicinal or poisonous qualities.
QUESTION 27 Describe the native animals, birds of prey and domestic fowl and those introduced from Spain and state how well they breed and multiply.
QUESTION 28 Describe the gold and silver mines, and other veins of metal or minerals, and mineral dyes there may be in the district and within the confines of the town.
QUESTION 29 State the deposits of precious stones, jasper, marble, and other important and esteemed materials which likewise may exist.
QUESTION 30 State whether there are salt pans in or near said town and from where they obtain their supplies of salt and of all other things they lack for sustenance and clothing.
QUESTION 31 Describe the form and construction of their houses and the building materials for them that are found in the town or the other places from which they are brought.
QUESTION 32 Describe the fortresses in said town and the strongholds which are in their vicinity and within their confines.
QUESTION 33 Describe the trade and commerce and dealings by which the Spanish and native inhabitants of the town support themselves and state what they produce and how they pay their tributes.
QUESTION 34 State the diocese of the archbishopric or bishopric or abbey to which the town belongs; the district in which it is situated and its distance in leagues. State in what direction from it lies the cathedral town and the capital of the district and whether the leagues are long or short; the roads straight or winding and the country flat or rough.
QUESTION 35 Note the cathedral or parish church or churches in each town, with the number of benefices and prebends in each; if the town contains any chapel or noteworthy endowment, state what it is, and who was its founder.
QUESTION 36 Mention the monasteries of friars and convents of nuns of each Order there may be in each town; when and by whom they were founded and the number of friars and nuns therein. Mention also anything noteworthy there may be in the towns.
QUESTION 37 Mention also the hospitals, colleges and pious institutions there may be in said towns and by whom and when they were instituted.
QUESTION 38 If the towns are maritime, in addition to the above state in the report the nature of the sea which reaches them, if it is calm or stormy, and what sorts of storms, and other perils, and at what seasons, more or less, these commonly occur.
QUESTION 39 State whether the coasts have beaches or are costa brava without them, and the significant reefs, and perils to navigation there may be along the coast.
QUESTION 40 Note the tides, and rising of the sea, and how high these are, and at what time they rise and ebb, on what days and hours of the day.
QUESTION 41 State the main capes and points, and notable bays within the vicinity, with their names and extent, if these can be declared accurately.
QUESTION 42 State the ports and places of disembarkation there may be on the said coast, and provide a chart and map of them, as well as possible, on a sheet of paper, through which it may be seen the form and size they have.
QUESTION 43 State their size and capacity, with approximate paces and leagues they may have in length and breadth, as near as possible, and how many vessels they can accommodate.
QUESTION 44 State their depth in brazas, how clean is the bottom, special deeps and shallows in them and where; state if free of boring-worms and other inconveniences.
QUESTION 45 State the entrances and exits to them, and how they face, and the prevailing winds for entering and leaving them.
QUESTION 46 Note the ease or difficulties of obtaining firewood, fresh water, and supplies, and other good or bad features for entering and staying in them.
QUESTION 47 Give the names of islands belonging to the coast, why they are so named, their shapes and forms, and show them on the map, if possible, with length and breadth, and area, their soils, pastures, trees, and benefits they may offer, as well as the birds and animals on them, and their important rivers and watering spots.
QUESTION 48 State generally the sites of depopulated towns of Spaniards, when they were populated and when abandoned, and whatever may be learned of the reasons for their depopulation.
QUESTION 49 Mention any other notable thing about the natural features, and any effects of soil, air, sky, which may be found in any part and which are worthy of being noted.
QUESTION 50 Once this report is prepared, the persons who have aided in its preparation will sign it, and without delay send it, together with this Instruction, to the person who has dispatched it to them
This database was made possible because of René Acuña’s decades of research on the Relaciones Geográficas del Siglo XVI, published in ten volumes by Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in 1982-1988. Our main contributions have been to structure Acuña’s data into a readily searchable format. Likewise, Barbara Mundy's contributions to the study of the visual facets of the Relaciones has been foundational to the field and this project. For more recent scholarship on the Relaciones and parallels between American and Asian empires, follow Imperial Science in Early Modern Chinese and Spanish Empires and the forthcoming book, sponsored by the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. Of course, all errors that remain in the site and the texts transcribed here are our own.
Mackenzie Cooley is an Assistant Professor at Hamilton College, where she teaches the history of science and ideas in the early modern world.
Antton De Arbeloa (Hamilton ’21) majors in history with a minor in art. He has pursued his study of colonial Latin American history through research in Spanish archives in addition to work on a structured database of the sixteenth century Relaciones Geográficas.
Kayla Self (Hamilton ’21) is a World Politics major with a concentration in Latin American and the Caribbean. She has contributed to the Relaciones Geográficas database and has conducted on-site research in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic to understand how the Spanish Caribbean served as a precedent for inland Iberian empire.
Katie Dean produced the project image as a composite illustration drawn from the Cempoala map, housed in the Benson Latin American Collection. Dean is a Sydney-based artist specializing in digital visuals in the history of natural history.