Imagining Mexico

Maps of Mexico

Spanish Northern Lands


Maps of the northern provinces of Spain were still vague in the first half of the 17th century. While Florida and “Spanish” Louisiana were fairly accurately displayed, California was still considered an island by some; in New Mexico, most towns were accurately displayed, but the Rio Grande flows erroneously into the Pacific.
N. Sanson, Le Nouveau Mexique et La Floride. Paris: Pierre Mariette, 1656. Fray Angélico Chávez History Library NMHM, Map Collection, 7.2 1656

The Camino Real from Mexico D.F. to Santa Fe, Nuevo Mexico


In the early 19th century, German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt explored Mexico, the Amazon jungles, and the Andean highlands. He returned to Europe in 1804 and produced several maps. This map documents the towns and villages along the Camino Real.
Alexander Humboldt and Pedro de Rivera. Carte de la Route qui mène depuis la Capitale de la Nouvelle Espagne jusqu’à S. Fe du Nouveau Mexique. 1807. Fray Angélico Chávez History Library NMHM, Map Collection, 7.2 1807

Spanish landing at Veracruz, Lithograph c. 1866 (Jules Desportes, active 1830s-1850s)


Hernán Cortés sailed from Cuba in November 1518, commanding eleven ships, with some five hundred Spaniards, sixteen horses, and numerous war dogs. Arriving first on the Caribbean side of Yucatan, the expedition sailed around the Gulf Coast of Mexico, eventually landing at Veracruz to explore the interior of Mexico. These scenes originally painted by a native Mexican artist some sixty years after the Conquest show the first sighting of the Cortés fleet (top) and Cortés and his native interpreter Doña Marina conferring with an emissary of Moctezuma II (bottom).
Diego Durán, Historia de las Indias de la Nueva España. Mexico City: J.M. Andrade and F. Escalante, 1867-1880. Fray Angélico Chávez History Library NMHM, John Bourne Collection 972 D948 Atlas

Mexico City in the Lake


The Aztec island capital of Tenochtitlan is shown well protected. Parts of the city were inter-connected by bridges and access to and from the mainland were made possible by six raised causeways. This map is based on one made by Hernán Cortés himself and first published in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1524.
"Mexico Regia et Celebris Hispaniae Novae Civitas." Engraving by George Braun and Franz Hogenberg. From Civitates Orbis Terrarum v.1. Cologne, 1572. Fray Angélico Chávez History Library NMHM, Map Collection (uncatalogued)

Plan of the City and Lake of Mexico with an elevation of an ancient temple. Engraving 1800 (unknown artist)


Bernal Díaz del Castillo recorded his memories of the Conquest 50 years later, and aimed to correct what he saw as errors in earlier accounts, including Hernán Cortés’s own report. The island capital of Tenochtitlan with a population of about 200,000, was connected to the mainland by causeways, visible in this map. This version of Díaz’s account was published almost three hundred years after the events he described, when the appearance of the Great Temple of the Aztecs had been forgotten, and it is shown as if it were a Babylonian ziggurat, as described in the Bible.
Bernal Diaz del Castillo, The True History of the Conquest of Mexico (o. 1560). Translated from the original Spanish by Maurice Keatinge. London: Printed for J. Wright ... by John Dean ..., 1800. Fray Angélico Chávez History Library NMHM, John Bourne Collection 972.02 D572 1800

Map of the Western Hemisphere


A Spanish missionary in New Spain, Juan de Torquemada (c. 1557-1624) became interested in Pre-Columbian Mexico when he was appointed guardian of the monastery at Tlaxcala, the ancient enemy of the Aztec and ally of Cortés. Torquemada wrote his account at a time when many ancient codices could still be consulted. Although Monarquia Indiana was first published in 1615, nearly every copy was lost in a shipwreck, and the work is generally known in this 1723 edition. The hand-colored map shows few details north of Mexico City, but includes New Mexico, the Sierra Nevada mountains, and the Mississippi River.
Juan de Torquemada, Monarquia Indiana. Madrid: Nicolas Rodriguez, 1723. Complete set, Fray Angélico Chávez History Library NMHM, John Bourne Collection 972 T687. Map, Fray Angélico Chávez History Library NMHM, Rare Book Room 972 T687 v. 1

Plano de la Nueva España en que se señalan los viages que el hizo el Capitan Hernán Cortés, Engraving 1769 (José Mariano Navarro, after J.A. Alzate)


Interest in Mexico’s Pre-Columbian past increased in the later eighteenth century, when Enlightenment ideas and curiosity about ancient civilizations spread through Europe and the Americas. Alzate’s map of New Spain accompanied Lorenzana’s work on the life of Cortés and the Conquest of Mexico. In addition to showing the travels of Cortés in New Spain, the map was among the first to use both California and Texas to identify the far Northern provinces.
Don Francisco Antonio Lorenzana, Historia de Nueva-España. Mexico City: Joseph Antonio de Hogal, City, 1770. Fray Angélico Chávez History Library NMHM, John Bourne Collection 972 C828h

The Aztec Calendar Stone, Engraving c. 1792 (Francisco de Agüera, active 1779-1820)



The Calendar Stone, discovered beneath the plaza of Mexico City in 1790, has become the best-known Aztec sculpture, reproduced in every art medium and at almost every scale. The sculpture was dedicated by Moctezuma II just a few years before the conquest, and was a sacrificial altar. Although the twenty days of the 260-days calendar appear carved on its surface, the monument was not used as a calendar. The face at the center is Tonatiuh, the sun deity, or perhaps the eearth god Tlaltecuhtli. Fransico de Agüera made the first image of the Calendar Stone, which illustrated León y Gama's 1792 treatise on the monument.
Antonio de León y Gama, Descripción Histórica y Cronológica de las dos Piedras que con Ocasión del Nuevo Empedradoque se está formando en la Plaza Principal de México, se hallaron en ella el Año de 1790. 2nd Edition. Mexico City: Impr. del Ciudadano A. Valdés, 1832. Fray Angélico Chávez History Library NMHM, John Bourne Collection 529.32 Leo