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La Isabela (Dominican Republic)

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Excavations at La Isabela, Dominican Republic

Excavations at La Isabela, Dominican Republic

James Quine
Definition:

La Isabela is the name of the first European town established in the Americas. La Isabela was settled by Christopher Columbus and 1,500 of his followers in 1494 AD, on the northern coast of the island of Hispaniola, in what is now the Dominican Republic.

History of La Isabela

La Isabela was established during Columbus' second expedition to the American continents, and the town was named, of course, for Queen Isabela of Spain. His first expedition, as every kid knows, lasted from 1492-1493. Columbus returned to Spain after his voyage "discovering" America with gold taken from the inhabitants of Hispaniola. The gold convinced King Ferdinand and Queen Isabela to fund a second, much larger expedition, and, in early 1494, Columbus and about 1,500 crew returned to Hispaniola, and established the colony. The purposes of the expedition were primarily to establish a foothold in the Americas for Spain, but also to discover sources of precious metals.

The La Isabela colony was a flat-out disaster: they did not find any extensive quantities of ores, and hurricanes, crop failures, disease, mutinies and conflicts with the resident Taíno made life unbearable. Columbus himself was recalled to Spain in 1496, to account for the financial disasters of the expedition, and the town was abandoned in 1498.

Archaeological Features at La Isabela

The town's buildings included a citadel built for Columbus to live in; a fortified storehouse (alhondiga) to store their material goods; several stone buildings for various purposes; and a European-style plaza. A silver-ore processing station was identified to the north of the alhondiga, evidenced by 58 graphite-tempered assaying crucibles and one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of mercury, brought to Hispaniola for the purpose of extracting gold from powdered ore by amalgamation.

Archaeological investigations at La Isabela have been conducted since the late 1980s by a team led by Kathleen Deagan and José M. Cruxent of the Florida Museum of Natural History, at which web site much more detail is available. Interestingly, like at the earlier Viking settlement of L'anse aux Meadows, evidence at La Isabela suggests that the European residents may have failed in part because they were unwilling to fully adapt to local living conditions.

Archaeology at La Isabela

Deagan and Cruxent reported on their work at La Isabela in two large volumes in 2002, one specifically on the archaeological research at the site, the other focusing on the historical setting.

In 2007, the most recently published study at La Isabela, an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, focused on the silver smelting operation, believed by Deagan and her colleagues to have involved the smelting of European galena, probably imported from orefields in the Los Pedroches-Alcudia or Linares-La Carolina valleys of Spain. The purpose of the exportation of lead galena from Spain to the new colony is believed to have been to assay the percentage of gold and silver ore in stolen artifacts, and, later, a failed attempt to smelt iron ore.

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to the Lower Central America, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Deagan K. 1996. Colonial transformation: Euro-American cultural genesis in the early Spanish-American colonies. Journal of Anthropological Research 52(2):135-160.

Deagan K, and Cruxent JM. 2002. Columbus's Outpost Among the Tainos: Spain and America at La Isabela, 1493-1498. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Deagan K, and Cruxent JM. 2002. Archaeology at La Isabela, America’s First European Town. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Thibodeau AM, Killick DJ, Ruiz J, Chesley JT, Deagan K, Cruxent JM, and Lyman W. 2007. The strange case of the earliest silver extraction by European colonists in the New World. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104(9):3663-3666.

VanderVeen JM. 2003. Review of Archaeology at La Isabela: America's First European Town, and Columbus's Outpost among the Taino: Spain and America at La Isabela, 1494-1498. Latin American Antiquity 14(4):504-506.

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