The Narváez Expedition in West Texas

The Narváez Expedition in West Texas


This article identifies the presence of survivors of the Narváez Expedition in west Texas.

Approximately 200 members of the Narváez Expedition landed on the Gulf coast of Texas. Only four of them returned to Spanish civilization. Their names were Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Andrés Dorantes, Alonso del Castillo, and Estevanico. There are two written accounts of the expedition. One was authored by Cabeza de Vaca and called La Relación ("The Account"). The other was authored jointly by Cabeza de Vaca, Dorantes, and Castillo and edited by Gonzalo de Oviedo. This account is commonly known as the Joint Report.

The expedition chronicles tell us that these four castaways were held as slaves by some natives in present-day Texas and that they managed to escape while they were in some cactus fields. They then walked across the North American continent and arrived at the Spanish outpost of San Miguel de Culiacán, on the Pacific coast of Mexico. Part of their cross-country journey was through the trans-Pecos region of west Texas.

Map of West Texas

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Figure 1. Map of West Texas.

La Junta

In his account of his journey across North America, Cabeza de Vaca writes:

The following day, Alonso del Castillo left with Estevanico the Negro, taking the two women as guides. The one of those who was a captive took them to a river that ran through some mountains where there was a town in which her father lived. These were the first houses we saw that had the appearance and form of [houses]. ... [Castillo] told of how he had found houses that were fixed, with people, and that this people ate beans and gourds, and that he had seen corn.1

These people had the best bodies that we saw, were the most lively and skilled, and best understood us and responded to what we asked them. We called them "of the cows," because the majority of them that die are close to there, and because they go up that river more than fifty leagues to kill many of them.2

The above passages in La Relación refer to two neighboring native villages that the four ragged castaways visited. These passages have enormous significance, for they describe the only location along Cabeza de Vaca's route that has been identified through historical evidence.

In 1581, about 50 years after Cabeza de Vaca and his companions passed through the village of the "cows" - Cabeza de Vaca's word for bison - Agustín Rodríguez and Francisco "El Chamuscado" Sánchez led a small expedition down the Rio Conchos in present-day Chihuahua to explore the area for missionary opportunities. The Rio Conchos is a large tributary of the Rio Grande. When Agustín and Sánchez arrived at the confluence of the two rivers, they found several villages of friendly natives who grew squash and beans. They described these natives as "handsome" and "beautiful." They erected a Cross in the village and said Mass, then moved up the Rio Grande toward present-day New Mexico.

The following year, Antonio Espejo returned to the area where the Rio Conchos meets the Rio Grande. He found five villages of natives who lived in "permanent" pueblos and "flat roofed" houses, and raised corn, beans, and gourds. They had "buffalo hides, very well tanned," and settled the Rio Grande above the Conchos "for a distance of twelve days journey." Espejo wrote that the natives appeared to "have some knowledge of our Holy Catholic faith" and "told us, and gave us to understand through interpreters, that three christians and a negro had passed through there..."3

Spain called this location La Junta de los Rios, which means "the junction of the rivers." The natives living at La Junta are often identified as Jumanos. The Jumanos have also been identified with tribes living in other parts of Texas, and there is some debate among scholars over whether the La Junta natives were Jumanos. What is not debated, however, is that La Junta was the site of the village "of the cows" described by Cabeza de Vaca in Chapter 30 of La Relación. The Mexican town of Ojinaga and the Texas town of Presidio, in Presidio County, now occupy this location.

Along the Rio Grande

The castaways asked the natives at La Junta about the land and stayed with them for two days, thinking about which direction they should travel. They decided to follow the river "toward the sunset." The natives had told them they would have to travel for seventeen days through a barren land where the only thing to eat was a rough and dry fruit called chacán. The castaways, finding this fruit to be inedible, subsisted instead on deer fat that they packed for the journey. "And so we endured the whole seventeen-day journey," Cabeza de Vaca wrote. "At the end of it, we crossed the river and traveled another seventeen days."4

The aforementioned crossing would be at El Paso, where the Rio Grande crosses through a mountain pass - el paso being Spanish for "the pass." It is also where the Rio Grande turns from a northwesterly course to one going more directly north. The castaways, who were attempting to reach the "South Sea" or Pacific Ocean, would have found following the Rio Grande past El Paso to be contrary to their purpose, so it makes sense that they would have departed from it there. The distance from the Rio Conchos to El Paso along the Rio Grande is about 300 miles and includes an increase in elevation of about 1200 feet. Covering this distance in 17 days would involve a rate of about 18 miles per day, which is reasonable.

The passage quoted above explicitly states that the castaways crossed the river at the end of their seventeen-day journey. This means that while they were walking up the Rio Grande from La Junta to El Paso, they were on the Texas side of the Rio Grande. Beginning at La Junta and assuming they stayed near the river bank, they walked along the border of Presidio County, stepped quickly across the corner of Jeff Davis County, and walked along the border of Hudspeth and El Paso Counties.


We now turn to the task of estimating the timeline in which the castaways walked up the Rio Grande from La Junta to El Paso. While the texts do not make any specific references to dates or seasons during this segment of the castaways' journey, we can still build a reasonable estimate by taking the dates given at other locations in the narrative and working toward the area in question.

In La Relación, Cabeza de Vaca states that he and his three companions escaped from their captors in the cactus fields on the thirteenth day of September. He also noted that the first day of September had a new moon.5 In reality, the new moon was on August 29, 1534. Assuming Cabeza de Vaca was correct about the moon rather than the date, this means they made their escape on September 10, 1534 Three days later, they reached a village of natives called Avavares, with whom they stayed for eight months.6 They then set out again. This means that the castaways departed from the Avavares' village in May 1535.

Jumping ahead, Cabeza de Vaca recorded the date that he and his companions left the town of San Miguel de Culiacán as May 15, the year being 1536. He also noted that they spent at least fifteen days there,7 meaning they arrived no later than April 30, 1536.

What we have from these two endpoints is that it took the castaways approximately eleven months to travel from the Avavares' village in south Texas to Culiacán. Using the route interpretations given by Davenport and Wells and Krieger, we come up with a very rough estimate of 1,700 miles between these two locations. This equates to a travel speed of about 5 miles per day. While this may seem slow, we must remember that once the castaways reached a village of natives, they stayed with them for at least a day, and usually a few days. Cabeza de Vaca mentions staying in one village "more than fifteen days."8 Then again, they sometimes traveled for three days or more straight. Overall, our estimate of 5 miles per day seems quite reasonable, and it implies about two or three days of rest for every full day of travel.

El Paso happens to be almost exactly at the halfway point along our hypothetical route. For the purposes of this exercise, then, let us suppose that the castaways spent 5½ months going from the Avavares to El Paso and another 5½ months going from El Paso to Culiacán. That means they arrived at El Paso and crossed the Rio Grande into present-day Mexico in, let us say, mid-November 1535. Since we are only making a rough estimate, we could easily be off by a few days or weeks, or even more, but in order to put something down, mid-November it is. Working backward 17 days puts the castaways at La Junta in late October to early November. According to our hypothesis, then, the castaways left the Avavares in May and crossed the Rio Grande and hiked across Nuevo Leon, Coahuila, and Chihuahua from June to the end of October. They arrived at La Junta in November, crossed the Rio Grande again into Texas, and hiked up the north bank of the river to El Paso for 17 days. They then crossed the Rio Grande for the third and last time in mid-November, hiked across Chihuahua, New Mexico, Arizona, and Sonora from December to April, and arrived in Sinaloa in April 1536.

How well does this hypothesis hold up when compared to the texts? Quite well, actually. Cabeza de Vaca's account of the journey contains numerous references to "tunas," the dark red, egg-shaped fruit of the prickly pear cactus. Tunas were so important that some tribes made annual migrations covering great distances to pick them. The expedition chronicles clearly establish that tunas were the principal sustenance of many native tribes during August and September, and that plants not harvested during that time still had edible fruit in October. A check of current resources on the world wide web confirms that prickly pear fruit begins to ripen in July and is ready to harvest in August.9 Cabeza de Vaca writes that at the end of his time with the Avavares, "the tunas began to ripen."10 He and his companions went to live with some other natives "a day's journey away," and "at the end of three days," they went to eat "a little fruit of some trees, which they subsist on ten or twelve days, during which the tunas appear." Further on, the castaways went to a village where they ate "tuna leaves," i.e. prickly pear pads, or nopales, which they roasted, and "grilled green tunas."11 All of this happened before the castaways crossed a large river which we take to be the Rio Grande. This means that when the castaways left the Avavares, which we take to be May 1535, the tunas were starting to ripen, probably meaning they were green but just beginning to turn yellow-orange. Around the time they crossed the Rio Grande, the tunas were edible, especially if cooked, even if they were not quite fully ripe. This would have probably been late June to early July.

After the castaways crossed the Rio Grande, they went further and saw some mountains. It appeared to them that if they followed the base of the mountains, they would be forced toward the Gulf coast. Because of their many bad experiences with coast-dwelling natives and the fear that they would be killed or enslaved if they went that way, they decided to turn west. Eventually, they gave up on the plan of going to Pánuco and instead decided to try to reach the Pacific Ocean. By the time the castaways turned west, it was probably August - the Joint Report states that "it was very hot"12 at that time. They spent August and September crossing present-day Nuevo Leon and Coahuila. This was the height of the tuna season. As expected, tunas are mentioned five times in La Relación in the chapters that take place between the castaways' first and second crossings of the Rio Grande. The last mention of tunas occurs in in Chapter 29, when the castaways were at least a month away from La Junta.13. Chapter 30 describes a fifty-league journey the castaways took prior to arriving at the village "of the cows." The Joint Report's account of this segment states, "there were neither prickly pears nor anything else" to eat. At the village immediately preceding the village of the cows, "they were very hungry as the prickly pears had finished." This fits well with an arrival at La Junta in late October or early November.

The portion of the castaways' journey from El Paso to Culiacán presumably covered about 850 miles and would have taken place from November to April. At one location on a river, Castillo spotted a native wearing a necklace with a belt buckle and a horseshoe nail on it. This was the first sign of "other Christians" the castaways had. According to the Joint Report, "This was around Christmas."14 Author Robin Varnum identifies the river as the Rio Matare in the present-day Mexican state of Sonora. If this is correct, the castaways were some 500 miles from El Paso. Above, we had them leaving El Paso around mid-November and traveling 17 days without stopping. They would have been able to cover half the distance from El Paso to the Rio Matare during that interval and would have had ample time to make it the rest of the way there by "around Christmas."

In conclusion, while the Narváez Expedition chronicles do not fully document the castaways' journey from south Texas to Culiacán, They provide enough information for us to deduce that they crossed the Rio Grande for the second time at La Junta, or present-day Presidio, that they walked up the north bank of the Rio Grande for 17 days, and that they crossed the Rio Grande for the third and last time at El Paso. Their trek along the west Texas border began after "the prickly pears had finished" and ended well before Christmas. This points to a timeframe of around late October to November. For our purposes, it will suffice to conclude that the four ragged castaways were in west Texas approximately in November 1535.


CountyCastaways Who VisitedDatesCastaways Who Died
Jeff Davis
El Paso
Cabeza de Vaca, Dorantes, Castillo, and Estevanico November 1535 None

By David Carson
Page last updated: October 13, 2017

1La Relación 30:10.

2La Relación 30:14.

3Davenport and Wells, p. 251

4La Relación 31:1.

5La Relación 19:3.

6La Relación 22:6.

7La Relación 36:3.

8La Relación 30:7.

9For example, from "wikiHow to Know when a Prickly Pear Is Ripe": "Closer to July, there will be a slight color change, as the base starts to turn orange to red. This denotes that the ripening process is on its way ... Harvest in mid-August to September (late summer through to early fall)." Remember that due to the differences in the Julian and Gregorian calendars, our "mid-August" is closer to Cabeza de Vaca's "early August."

10La Relación 22:11.

11La Relación 23:3.

12The Joint Report, Chapter 5.

13La Relación 29:10.

14The Joint Report, Chapter 6.

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