Romancing the stone

Is museum piece record of ill-fated conquistador or elaborate hoax?

HARLINGEN — Is it proof of the date and place the first Spanish explorer put a foot ashore in what is now Texas? Or is it some arcane archeological hoax?

Valley residents can judge for themselves Thursday when the Pineda Stone makes its reappearance as an exhibit at the Harlingen Arts and Heritage Museum.

The authenticity of the engraved clay tablet dated 1519 discovered near the mouth of the Rio Grande in 1974 has been disputed from the start. A report in the Valley Morning Star states it was found on Nov. 3 by U.S. Navy Reserve Surface Division servicemen who were at the spot looking for Civil War artifacts for the Rio Grande Valley Museum.

“There has been some uncertainty about the tablet’s authenticity,” the Star reported at the time, “and it is being checked out by archeological experts.”

Nearly 45 years later, we’re still waiting on those experts for a definitive answer.

Exploration

The stone purportedly was left at the mouth of the Rio Grande by Spanish conquistador and cartographer Alonso Alvarez de Pineda, who we know sailed from the Spanish holding of Jamaica in 1519 with three ships and 270 armed men. A fourth ship carrying supplies joined the expedition later.

He left Jamaica at the direction of Gov. Francisco de Garay and voyaged north and west as he mapped the western shore of Florida, up to Mobile Bay and probably entered the Mississippi River. He then proceeded south off the shores of what is now Texas all the way to what is now the Mexican city of Tampico.

While there is no written, authenticated proof Pineda touched land in Texas, some historians believe it is highly likely, even if it was only to set men ashore to forage, hunt and replenish the ships’ water kegs.

The inscription on the stone reads thus:

AQ

AL ALVARes

De PIÑeDA

1519

CON 270 HO…

y 4 B…

De GaraY…

David Carson, author of “The Account of Cabeza de Vaca: A Literal Translation with Analysis and Commentary” published in 2018, is one Texas historian who doubts the stone’s provenance.

“By doing some guesswork regarding abbreviations and the broken pieces, this translates to: “Here Alonso Alvares de Piñeda, 1519, with 270 men and 4 ships (barcos), De Garay.”

But Carson, like many others, has questions about the inscription. He says the spelling of Alvarez with an “s” rather than a z is troubling, as is the missing accent mark over the “A” in Alvares. He calls “highly questionable” the use of the tilde over the “n” in the captain’s name, since it was not seen in the Spanish alphabet until the 18th century.

Also, he says if the “b” stands for “barcos,” small ships at that time instead would have been referred to as “navios.”

Other historians, like Robert S. Weddle, noted some other problematic features on what he calls “the rock,” and points out the “7” has a cross struck through it to eliminate confusion with the numeral “1,” a stylistic affectation not yet used in Europe in the 16th century.

“We have folks on both sides of the fence,” said Joel Humphries, the city’s arts and entertainment director. “We have some who think that it is an utter hoax. We have others that have pointed to well, the tilde, and the markings on the stone, make it look legit.

“My personal feeling on it? I don’t want to know,” he added. “I think the thing that makes it the most interesting is that there’s an element of debate about it. Frankly, I’d like to keep it that way. I’m not sure we ever want to know.”

‘Under lock and key’

The stone was on display at the Historical Museum on the arts and heritage museum grounds until about 2015, when a bizarre series of events led museum officials to put it in “protective custody” in the evidence locker of the Harlingen Police Department.

The Historical Museum building was not in good shape — museum officials have spent the last few years putting it right — and visitors used to come by to view the stone.

“A group of individuals showed up that seemed particularly interested in the stone,” Humphries recalled. “They talked that in their religious faith it was kind of a religious relic. So they came by one day to look at it, and they came by subsequently on a few more occasions.

“The last time they did, they had a number of people with them,” he added. “They had more people with them than we had staff on site. They were actually kind of looking at the case and looking behind it at how the cases were put in. So my coordinator called me and said, ‘I’m a little concerned about this, especially given the state things are in out there.’ At that point we decided the best thing we could do is put it under lock and key.”

The stone at the police station was viewed by some people but by appointment only.

500 years later

The exile of the Pineda Stone will end this month as the museum celebrates the 500th anniversary of the stone’s purported placement at the mouth of the Rio Grande by Pineda’s expedition.

As for Pineda, his legacy is one of the hard-luck stories of the early Spanish explorers, and despite his map-making prowess charting the Gulf of Mexico, little else is known of his voyage from his home base in Jamaica.

It is believed he was captured and killed by a tribe of Huastec Indians near the mouth of the Panuco River near present-day Tampico in 1520. Unlike Pineda, his map of the gulf did make it back.

The grey shadows over Pineda’s life and its end may be fitting, symbolically, for the disputed provenance of the Pineda Stone.

And perhaps the true charm of the stone is that it can mean whatever one wants it to mean.

Pineda Stone inscription

AQ

AL ALVARes

De PIÑeDA

1519

CON 270 HO…

y 4 B…

De GaraY…

If you go

WHAT — Pineda Stone unveiling

WHEN — Aug. 15, 6-8 p.m.

WHERE — Harlingen Arts and Heritage Museum, 2425 Boxwood St.