This year we celebrate the 400th anniversary of the publication of the second part of Cervantes’ novel, “Don Quixote,” thus marking the completion of his masterwork, and thus also making way for some obscure Paducah history.
The first half of Cervantes’ tome came out in 1605, and the public immediately clamored for more from The Man of La Mancha. Cervantes set to work, though it would take him an additional ten years to finish the next section. Published in 1615, the second half of “Don Quixote” met with equal acclaim and the two volumes started being published as a single work in 1617.
From the get go, “Don Quixote” was a roaring success, not only in Spain and the rest of Europe, but in the New World as well. Spanish translations made their way with explorers to South America during the 17th century, while English translations trickled throughout colonial America in the 18th century.
Evidently, fans of the novel also made their way into what was one day to become western Kentucky, and namely, for our purposes, that fan was George Rogers Clark (for whom Clark Elementary is named). In his book titled “The Conquest of Illinois,” Clark chronicled his military exploits of the Illinois Campaign of the 1770s, and wrote in the second chapter of the book: “Intending to leave the Ohio at Fort Massac, three leagues below the mouth of the Tennessee, I landed on Barataria, a small island in the mouth of that river, to make preparations for our march.”
The island that Clark refers to as Barataria bears a striking geographical similarity to the island we call Owen’s Island. Bartaria is also happens to be the name of an island from Don Quixote, an imaginary place that Don Quixote bequests to his sidekick, Sancho Panza.
It’s no accident, no coincidence, that the two islands share a name. Cervantes made up the word for his novel (it does not exist anywhere else). But the novel was so widely popular that it’s quite reasonable that Clark (or whoever named the island) would have referenced Don Quixote.
Captain Valentine Owen, farmer and river pilot, ultimately lent his name to the little island visible from the foot of Broadway, but for a while it seems, the island owed a little of its heritage to that knight errant, that tilter of windmills, Don Quixote.
For more about this and that and other such things, visit us in the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library.