Mesoamerican Manuscripts

Teresa T. Basler

Garrett-Gates Mesoamerican Manuscripts (C0744)

Garrett Mesoamerican Manuscripts (C0744)
Manuscripts Division

Department of Rare Books
Special Collections

Princeton University Library


Princeton Mesoamerican Manuscripts (C0940)

Background History

Princeton University Library has three collections of Mesoamerican manuscripts: Garrett-Gates Mesoamerican Manuscripts Collection (C0744), Garrett Collection of Mesoamerican Manuscripts (C0744), and Princeton Collection of Mesoamerican Manuscripts (C0940). The Garrett-Gates and Garrett collections form part of the larger Robert Garrett Collection (C0744).

The largest of the three collections was part of a larger collection of Mesoamerican materials originally assembled by William E. (Edmond) Gates (1863-1940), a printer by trade and a Maya linguist, archaeologist, and collector by avocation. He was born in Atlanta, Georgia on Dec. 8, 1863 and obtained an A.B. degree from Johns Hopkins University in 1886, where among other subjects he studied languages of the Near East and Asia. As a self-created Mayanist, Gates became a scholar-collector who dedicated the remainder of his life to the acquisition, study, and publication of manuscripts relating to the cultural region of Mesoamerica (Middle America), an area extending roughly from modern-day central Mexico to El Salvador and Guatemala. Gates collected thousands of Maya and Mexicana manuscripts from around the world, from which he printed hundreds of translations, facsimiles, and transcriptions.

Gates developed a particular interest in the decipherment of the Maya hieroglyphs, which covered ruins throughout Guatemala and Yucatan, and the two Maya languages Ki'che' and Yucatec. The ancient Maya civilization, developed in the 2nd millennium BC, was the only Pre-Columbian civilization in the western hemisphere to create a unique writing system, thus providing the Maya with the means to create a written history. Gates dedicated some thirty years of his life toward the understanding of this system and, because of his printing interests, the design and development of a font for Maya hieroglyphic type. Between the years 1914 and 1930, Gates collected as many manuscripts, vocabularies, texts, doctrines, and other artifacts from the earliest years of Spanish occupation as possible. Throughout the years he would spend thousands of dollars in the pursuit of manuscripts, believing it was within these original manuscript sources that he would find the answers to his linguistic questions concerning the decipherment of the Maya hieroglyphs.

In 1920, Gates established the Maya Society in Auburn Hill, near Charlottesville, Virginia, which had the sole purpose of the collection and dissemination of information on Maya languages and culture.Under the auspices of the Society, he published over twenty volumes of transcriptions and translations, including dictionaries, calendars, medico-botanical texts, and historical texts concerning the Spanish conquest. In 1930, as a means to recover from his ongoing financial difficulty, Gates reluctantly sold a portion of his manuscript "collextion" to Robert Garrett (1875-1961), a fellow resident of Baltimore, Princeton Class of 1897, Olympic athlete, investment banker, Princeton Charter Trustee, and collector. William Gates died on Apr. 24, 1940 in Baltimore, Maryland, leaving incomplete his research on the decipherment of the Maya hieroglyphs. In his lifetime he collected thousands of manuscripts and printed materials in the indigenous languages of Middle America, which would eventually be dispersed among several libraries throughout the United States.

Collection Descriptions

The Garrett-Gates Collection (C0744) contains approximately 250 Mesoamerican manuscripts, chiefly written in Latin script. Maya languages are well represented, predominantly Yucatec and K'iche', and to a lesser degree Kaqchikel, Tzutuhil, Tzeltal, Pokoman, Chorti, Cholti, and K'eq'chi. In addition, there are several manuscripts in other Mesoamerican languages, including Nahuatl, Zoque, and Otomì. Many of the manuscripts also contain Spanish and/or Latin devotional, liturgical, and other texts. The collection consists of original manuscripts, documents, and transcriptions of ancient hieroglyphic texts, dating from the time of the Spanish conquest to the early 20th century, and includes ritual incantations, Chilam Balam books, Caste War letters, Spanish translations of Christian doctrinal works, manuscript dictionaries of the native languages, histories, autograph letters, land documents, maps, and confraternity records. William Gates acquired these manuscripts between 1910 and 1930 for the purpose of linguistic study. The manuscripts offer copies of texts in indigenous languages and provide evidence of the history and evolution of those languages under the influence of Spanish civilization during the period of Western contact with the indigenous peoples of the Americas. The materials also illustrate how the Spanish culture affected all aspects of life in New Spain, from the practice of religion to transfer of lands from the natives to the Spanish colonists.

There are gaps in the numbering sequence, which were intentionally created by Gates to account for any possible growth within sections. For example, Gates stopped at no. 76, marking the end of the Yucatec section, then began the K'iche' section with no. 101. He left a gap after no. 196 because he had hopes of locating manuscripts, which he would later incorporate (as he did with nos. 201-218).

Robert Garrett deposited the Garrett-Gates Collection at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton in 1942. The collection was transferred from the Institute in 1949, at Garrett's request, and donated to the Princeton University Library. From 1930 to 1949 Garrett continued to acquire other Mesoamerican manuscripts. To complement the predominantly Maya Gates Collection, Garrett chose to broaden the scope of his collecting to encompass all of Latin America. The Garrett Collection of Mesoamerican Manuscripts (C0744) contains 21 manuscripts and documents from Central and South America, dating from the 16th to the 20th century. Contents include pictorial manuscripts, "lienzos" (maps), histories, catechisms, and land documents, written in Tarascan, Nahuatl, Otomí, Latin, and Spanish (Latin script predominates, but there are others in hieroglyphics). For detailed discussions of the Otomí manuscripts in these collections, see David Charles Wright Carr, "Manucritos otomíes en la Biblioteca de la Universidad de Princeton," Estudios de cultura otopame, no. 4 (2004).

Since 1947, the Princeton University Library has acquired Mesoamerican manuscripts and artifacts as gift and purchase. The Princeton Mesoamerican Manuscripts Collection (C0940) is an open collection, currently containing 17 Pre-Columbian and Colonial manuscripts, documents, and artifacts, dating from the 7th to the 19th century. Contents include land documents, a manuscript copy of a Nahuatl play concerning the Wednesday of Holy Week, incised bone with Maya glyphs, leather maps with glyphs, Zapotec text on bone, Maya funerary vessels, and an Inca quipu. Texts are written in Latin script or Maya hieroglyphics. Languages represented include Zapotec, Yucatec, and Nahuatl. Several of the manuscripts also include Spanish and/or Latin text.

Of additional, related interest is the Pre-Columbian Stamp Seals and Roller Seas Collection (GC185). It consists of 147 clay stamp seals and roller or cylinder seals dating from the pre-Columbian era and post-Conquest until 1600 AD, chiefly from Mesoamerica but possibly from other places in the Americas. These seals (sellos) include anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, floral, and geometric designs, and were probably used to decorate fabric and/or the human body. Some of the stamps contain remains of pigments

Research Services

All descriptions and photographs are the property of  the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. For photoduplication services, access and use, please see

For all other inquiries, please contact:

Department of Rare Books and Special Collections
Princeton University Library
One Washington Road
Princeton, New Jersey 08544 USA

Tel: (609) 258-3184
Fax: (609) 258-2324


This preliminary checklist was compiled by Teresa T. Basler and is based on existing descriptions, contributed in whole or in part by various curators and scholars, including Alfred Bush, Michael D. Coe, Monro S. Edmonson, J. B. Glass, Michael G. Owen, David Carrasco, Mark Z. Christensen, Norman McQuown, David Wright, and Don C. Skemer.

Photography work was done by John Blazejewski with the assistance of AnnaLee Pauls. Web work by John Delaney. Editorial assistance was provided by Matthew Fisher.