This article features the holdings of The Bryan Museum in Galveston, Texas. Many thanks to Joan Marshall, Director of The Bryan Museum, and Carol Wood, Archivist at The Bryan Museum.
Have you ever struggled to read a handwritten note? Maybe it’s because the handwriting is sloppy. Or perhaps it’s because your nephew has curious habits of spelling. Frustrated, you might want to blame a lack of attention to cursive education. But, more than likely, when you encounter difficulties, you’re struggling because handwriting varies widely from person to person. Scholars who specialize in handling archival materials have the same issues! They call the art of deciphering historic handwriting paleography. Expertise in paleography requires specialized training in handwriting over centuries, as well as mastery of the languages used.
Usefully, digital tools have improved the paleographic study. For example, with the help of this paleographic tool, scholars can read Spanish handwriting in documents like this letter from Juan Antonio Padilla, Stephen F. Austin‘s friend, and then-General Land Commissioner for Texas and Coahuila. Dated to 1829, Padilla’s certified letter describes the land disputes that kicked off the Texas Revolution and offers context for how settlers raced to stake their claims in the Coahuila-Texas state.
As a legal representative, he advocates for American settlers arriving in Texas. In his letter, he describes the Carranza family in northern Coahuila and the problematic way that their land claims had been delineated in a previous ruling. Rafael Carranza, the head of the family, was Venustiano Carranza Garza’s grandfather. Garza was a pivotal figure in the Mexican Revolution, and its President from 1917-1920. The letter goes into detail regarding a partitioning (repartimiento) of land between the towns of Monclova and Cuatro Ciénagas. This is important because it not only reveals the struggle for land and its relationship to political power, but it also highlights how these lands already had indigenous peoples who were living on them and who were regarded as part of the land and labor force to be distributed among landowners.
This letter reveals how tensions over land ownership shaped the future state of Texas. Being able to read the handwriting of the letter is just one of the steps in conserving its content for future generations.
- Want to learn more about visiting archives and reading documents? Visit my writing on the process.