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The tale of Cabeza de Vaca has elements of a fanciful yarn but it is true. In 1527, King Charles V of Spain approved a bold venture to explore the unknown land known as La Florida. Florida at that time was the name for a large area with undefined boundaries far beyond those of present day Florida. The hope, as usual, was to find great wealth similar to the stunning successes in Mexico and Peru ten years earlier.
The expedition leader, Pánfilo de Navráez, wisely chose a decorated soldier, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, to serve as treasurer and marshal representing the king’s interests during the expedition and they embarked for Florida in 1528. This was a major expedition with 600 men and 400 horses to be provisioned and equipped, but it experienced many unexpected disasters ending eight years later with only four men surviving and reaching Mexico City on foot with nothing to show for the effort. Fortunately Cabeza de Vaca later wrote a book, Naufragios (Shipwreck), based on his recollections some time after the long trek. Because he was working from memory his account contains many errors of time and place and some frustrating omissions concerning landmarks that would have helped historians determine his route more precisely.
In June 1528 all the 600 men and 400 horses were packed into five carracks, ships a bit larger than Columbus’s Niña. With such crowding it was inevitable that unsanitary conditions would lead to sickness, and many died during the voyage. To further complicate matters, 140 men deserted when the expedition reached Cuba. It is possible the deserters initial intention was to get a free ride to Cuba and start a new life. Also, fearsome stories of worse conditions yet to come: swamps, alligators, parasitic worms, and hostile Indians, may have given them the idea to desert.
When the expedition reached Florida, Narváez unwisely split them into two parties. One party of 300 was to go inland in search of Apalache, a place to the north reported by local natives to have an abundance of gold. Explorers often heard such tales of riches; always someplace far away. (The name Apalache later became the source of the name Appalachian.)
The second party was to stay on the ships and explore the coast to the area of Tampa Bay. By splitting the expedition, Navráez made the smaller groups more vulnerable to attack, risking that the land party might never be able to find the ships later.
The inland group, led by Navráez, pushed through swampland and eventually found a village believed to be Apalache with only forty huts inhabited by farmers raising corn—no gold. Now the inland explorers were out of food and uncertain where to find the ships. In the summer of 1528 the survivors, including Cabeza de Vaca, found the west coast of Florida, and were desperate for food and rescue.
In an attempt to save themselves the survivors undertook a seemingly impossible project. They decided to build five boats. They had no tools, no forge, and no materials. They built a forge to melt down stirrups, swords and any other bits of iron they had. From the iron they made axes for felling trees, saws for cutting boards, and nails for fastening them together. They made ropes from their clothes and horses’ manes. They created caulking from palm leaves. Those not occupied with building went inland looking for food to gather or steal. Others went along the shore catching fish and collecting shellfish. They slaughtered horses as needed for meat and from the hides made water vessels for the voyage. By the end of summer they had five primitive boats big enough for fifty closely packed men and some provisions. As they embarked the boats had only inches of freeboard above the water.
With no idea what lay in store for them, they set out to reach Pánuco, on the northeast coast of Mexico near the present city of Tampico. From there it would be a short but arduous trek over the mountains to Mexico City. They imagined they had 1,000 miles to travel, but the actual distance is closer to 3,000.
On their boats they suffered from crowding, hunger and thirst. Some died from drinking seawater. They met severe storms and when they went ashore they encountered hostile coastal Indian tribes. Cabeza de Vaca was wounded in one skirmish with Indians.They passed the mouth of the MIssissippi River and relished the fresh water they could drink even though far from land. At this time they still had five boats and continued sailing westward along the coast.
During a severe storm, probably a hurricane, the boats were were separated and three were lost; the men presumably drowned. Each isolated boat with its surviving men spent the night trying to keep the boat from sinking by constantly bailing water. Somehow two boats made it through the storm. One boat made its way to shore with only six men alive. They were half starved, thin, and gaunt with ribs showing. Their clothes were in tatters and they were half naked. They probably landed at Galveston Island offshore the land that became Texas. At the other end of the island another boat washed onto shore in the surf with more stragglers from the expedition…too weak to man the oars. Cabeza de Vaca was in this second boat. Nearby Indians seeing no danger from these alien men took them in and fed them.
Cabeza de Vaca and Dorantes decided to repair one of the boats so the few that were able could travel by sea, and the others could continue by land when they recovered sufficiently. At that time it became every man for himself…a sure way to destroy an expedition. Those who went in the boat were never seen again. For the men who went by land, physical hardships, lack of food, and disease soon took its toll. As the number of survivors dwindled rapidly, they were enslaved by a group of Indians. After a few years only fifteen were left alive, and four men escaped their captors and walked along the coast of present day Texas. It was now 1534 and the survivors had been slaves of the Indians for four years. These escapees were Cabeza de Vaca, Andrés Dorantes, Alonso del Castillo, and Esteban, an African slave owned by Dorantes. Only de Vaca and Esteban played notable parts in the odyssey that followed.
The four survivors were taken in by tribes along the way. Cabeza de Vaca and the other men adapted to the lives of the indigenous people they stayed with, whom he later described as Roots People, Fish and Blackberry People, or Fig People, depending on their principal foods. The four were viewed by the coastal Indian tribes as possible gods and sick people began to come for healing. The four used what little medical knowledge they had plus prayers and the sign of the cross over the patient. As a healer, Cabeza de Vaca used blowing (like the Native Americans) to heal, but claimed that God and the Christian cross led to his success. These procedures were perceived as magic incantations.
The native conclusion was that the incantations had worked and that these strange foreign visitors had mystical powers. As a result the four survivors, especially Esteban, were held in high esteem. Esteban’s former life in Africa made him more familiar with the role of a shaman and he played the part well. His presence was instrumental in the survival of the four. Esteban’s quick mind easily picked up the various languages they encountered making him a further asset to the survivors.
As the naked survivors moved southwestward along the Texas coast they encountered other Indians and continued performing healing rituals over the sick. All the four survivors were involved in this healing activity and their occasional successes gave them widespread fame, and Indians along the coast began to coming great distances to be healed. The sick would come and ask the “shamans” to rub them to make them well. De Vaca and especially Esteban became proficient in “healing.” The sick were satisfied with the results and brought the survivors more food than they could eat.
As they continued their trek along the coast they continued to survive by treating the costal Indians’ health problems in exchange for food. “All held full faith in our coming from heaven.” wrote Cabeza de Vaca. In reality there was little the survivors could do to heal anything more than headaches or wounds. Many Indians who came to them were blind from cataracts and others had incurable diseases. They believed the survivors could help them and were willing to pay for the service.
When the four survivors came to the Rio Grande, they inexplicably turned away from the direct southwesterly route to Pánuco and headed northwest roughly parallel to the river. They later turned west, crossing southern New Mexico and part of Arizona before turning south along the west coast of Mexico. Cabeza de Vaca wrote they turned away because the coastal Indians were hostile. Other travelers however reported encountering only peaceable Indians along the Gulf coast of south Texas and Mexico. They headed into very difficult desert terrain with fewer Indians for help and less food. Furthermore the change of route added years to their journey, and historians can only speculate on the reason for this illogical detour. Cabeza de Vaca later claimed the change of route was made in order to explore unknown lands in the Spanish realm. This makes little sense for four men who were in danger of starvation and had no defense against attack.
The only one who might have benefitted from an extended journey was Esteban. He had become a skilled shaman and his reputation had spread. Coastal Indians held him in high esteem and encouraged his coming to their area. He had become an equal among the four wandering explorers, and they were dependent upon him for survival. Hence Esteban had an advantage by staying away from Mexico where he would again become a slave. He may have somehow persuaded the others to travel a northerly route home. Finally the four reached Mexico City in 1536.
Esteban and his owner stayed in Mexico. Esteban later guided an expedition back to New Mexico to try to determine the existence of the golden cities of Cibola (see blog dated 6/13/2015). Cabeza de Vaca returned to Spain in 1537 to report to the king on the eight year long expedition. His account also served as a petition to the King of Spain to both establish a permanent Christian mission and eventually establish the native tribes as a nation under the governance of Spain. Disgusted by the Spanish abuse of Indians, Cabeza de Vaca urged the king to establish a more lenient policy toward native tribes. He continued to be a strong advocate for the rights of Native Americas throughout his lifetime.
Cabeza de Vaca later returned to Mexico and served as Mexican territorial governor. In that time he was accused of corruption and sent back to Spain to stand trial. In 1552 he was convicted then pardoned, and became a judge in Seville, Spain until his death in 1557.
Cabeza de Vaca, Alvart Núñez. Naufragios (Shipwreck), ed. Juan Maura (Madrid: Cátedra, 2001 )
Cabeza de Vaca, Álvar Núñez. The Journey of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and his companions from Florida to the Pacific 1528-1536. Translation of La Relacion, ed. Ad. F. Bandelier. New York, Allerton Book Co. 1904.
DeVoto, Bernard. The course of empire. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1952.
Varnum, Robin. Álvar Nùnez Cabeza de Vaca: American trailblazer. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. 2014.