n the heart of Seville, Spain, Harry Kelsey immersed himself in the daunting task of studying the Spanish conquests in the New World at the Archives of the Indies. Kelsey was not deterred by the frigid temperature in the 16th-century building as he taught himself to read Spanish and decipher ancient writing systems.
“I was seated at a table wearing a scarf, overcoat, and gloves with the fingers cut off so I could take notes,” he once recounted out to the Los Angeles Times.
As the Chief Curator of History at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Kelsey found himself on a mission to shed light on the enigmatic story of how explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo built his sturdy ship, to commission a replica of the vessel.
The more Kelsey delved into his research, the more he became fascinated with the explorer who provided the oldest written record of the West Coast of North America. His efforts were rewarded when he discovered documents that finally confirmed Cabrillo’s birthplace, a mystery that historians had long debated.
Kelsey’s decades of research and hard work paid off when King Juan Carlos of Spain acknowledged his achievement and honored him with an award. Kelsey went on to publish numerous books on historical figures, such as English explorer Francis Drake and the early Spanish mariners who traversed the world, as well as contributing to the establishment of the Broadway Theater and Commercial Historic District in downtown Los Angeles.
Kelsey’s love for history and research likely stems from his parents, who were both teachers. After serving in the U.S. Army, Kelsey used his G.I. Bill to pursue his passion for history by obtaining his master’s and PhD in history from the University of Denver. Kelsey’s expertise and dedication were evident in his ability to handle original documents and manuscripts, and his talent for translating 16th-century Dutch and the logbooks of early European explorers.
Kelsey’s research into Cabrillo’s life and work ultimately led to the publication of a biography of the explorer, after eight years of traveling to Spain and reviewing primary documents. According to his colleagues, Kelsey was a stickler for fact-checking, and he always went to the bottom of research to ensure that a fact was a fact.
Harry Kelsey passed away at his Altadena home surrounded by his family, after suffering from congestive heart failure, prostate cancer, and lung disease. He was 93. Despite his untimely death, Kelsey’s legacy continues to live on through his works, inspiring future generations of historians and researchers to pursue their passions.