ASU professors solving history’s mysteries in PBS series

(2.18) PBS West
AUTHENTICITY IN QUESTION: “History Detectives” host Eduardo Pagán searches for answers about an inscription on a rock wall in South Mountain Park that could be the earliest record of Spanish settlement in North America.(Photo by Kyle Thompson)
Published On:
Thursday, February 18, 2010
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Several ASU professors are working on a PBS television series to put to rest a historical quandary that has been debated since the 1920’s.

In the ’20s, an inscription was discovered at South Mountain Park in Phoenix, and historians have questioned its authenticity for more than 80 years. The inscription is in Spanish, and its English translation reads, “Fray Marcos de Niza crowned all of New Mexico at his expense, 1539.”

Marcos de Niza was a Spanish explorer who was part of the Francisco Vázquez de Coronado expedition. Marcos de Niza was looking in the southwest for one of the “seven cities of gold” Coronado claimed to have seen.

Some historians still aren’t sure about the route Marcos de Niza took, and authenticating that he or someone in his party wrote the inscription would prove his presence in the Valley.

If the inscription is authentic, it would be the earliest record of a European explorer’s inscription in North America, ASU history professor Eduardo Pagán said.

Pagán is one of four hosts for the PBS series, “History Detectives.” It will air locally on KAET/Channel 8 some time during the summer of 2010.

Pagán said he has known about the inscription for years and has always been curious about it. He is hosting an additional five segments for “History Detectives,” about historical mysteries in other parts of the nation.

“Marcos de Niza didn’t leave a map, he left a verbal description,” Pagán said. “Most historians agree on the route that he took, but agreeing is not the same as knowing.”

Bruce Barrow, director and producer of the segment, said verified information will contribute a better understanding of local history.

“Spanish explorers were the early Lewises and Clarks,” he said. “They were brave men coming into a world they knew little or nothing about and it’s important to find what they learned so we can learn.”

However, Pueblo Museum city archaeologist and history faculty associate Todd Bostwick said he has his doubts about the authenticity of the inscription.

“I’ve looked at the inscription, and I speak Spanish as a second language, and it just seems a little off,” he said.

Bostwick said the inscription reads “New Mexico,” but at the time the inscription would have been made, the area was called “New Spain” by explorers, leading him to doubt its legitimacy.

The show will be filmed Thursday at South Mountain Park and a private residence.

The team also filmed on the Tempe campus Wednesday at Hayden Library and a geology lab.

Bostwick said it benefits ASU students to have professors who are involved in projects like “History Detectives.”

“It’s real-life and it’s local,” he said. “It’s much easier for students to appreciate the history here in Arizona. This area is rich with Spanish history.”

The historian said the current Arizona flag contains the colors red and gold, which were taken from the Spanish monarchy colors. The flag shows how interlocked Arizona and Spanish culture are, Bostwick said.

“Any record of the exploration being here would be very valuable and would instantly gain national status,” he said.

While no participants were allowed to comment on the results of the investigation, Pagán said he hopes the inscription is real.

“I would love for it to be true,” he said. “I would love to discover that it is — as a historian and an Arizonan.”

Reach the reporter at sheydt@asu.edu