Thirty-five years after Christopher Columbus discovered the New World, the Gulf coast of the present-day United States was still mostly unexplored. Attempts to establish colonies on the Florida peninsula had been unsuccessful. In present-day Mexico, about 150 miles south of the Rio Grande, an expedition had discovered the Soto La Marina River - known as the "River of Palms." The Spanish settlement of Pánuco, about 100 miles south of there and near present-day Tampico, was the northernmost European settlement on the North American continent. The only information Spain had about the region between the River of Palms and Florida was a sketch of the Gulf of Mexico made in 1519 that gave a basic depiction of some river mouths and bays, the most prominent of these being the Mississippi River, which Spain called Río del Espiritu Santo, or "River of the Holy Spirit." (To learn more about the early Spanish exploration of the Gulf coast, please see the previous article, "Spanish Exploration of the Gulf of Mexico".)
In 1527, King Charles I of Spain appointed Pánfilo de Narváez as governor of the vast, unknown territory between Florida and the River of Palms. Narváez was authorized to conquer the land and its natives and to settle and administer areas brought under his control. Like the other Spanish conquistadors, Narváez was expected to raise his own army and apply much of his own personal wealth to the project, with little financial support from the crown. He was also required to respect the institutions and practices of the Roman Catholic church and to bring Catholicism to the natives under his rule. He was entitled to keep the profits generated within his jurisdiction, after returning the king's share. With luck, he would find gold or silver, but even agriculture could make a Spanish governor rich, if the natives were sufficiently numerous and controllable. A successful conquistador could become a very wealthy and powerful man.
The Narváez Expedition was a spectacular disaster. After stranding themselves in Florida, without their ships, Narváez and his men built some small boats, in which they were going to attempt to skirt the Gulf coast all the way to Pánuco. They ended up shipwrecked on the Texas coast. Only four of the castaways managed to return to Spanish civilization. These men spent seven years living with the natives of present-day Texas, and they trekked across hundreds of miles of it on foot. One of these "four ragged castaways," as history calls them, was Narváez's second-in-command, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. Cabeza de Vaca's published account of his travels through Florida and Texas is the only surviving first-hand record of the expedition. It is also the earliest written history of Texas, left by one of the first Europeans to set foot upon its soil.
Born in Spain in 1470, Pánfilo de Narváez came to Jamaica as a soldier in 1509 or 1510. In 1511, he aided Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar in the conquest of Cuba. In 1520, Velázquez sent him to Mexico with an army of 1,400 men to oust his former protege, Hernán Cortés. Velázquez had sent Cortés to conquer Mexico as a territory of Cuba, but Cortés double-crossed him by declaring it to be under the direct rule of Spain. Even though Narváez's forces vastly outnumbered Cortés's, Cortés nevertheless outmaneuvered him and captured him after a battle in which Narváez lost an eye. Many of Narváez's men left him and joined Cortés. Narváez spent 3½ years in prison. After Cortés released him, he went to Spain. He was 56 or 57 when he was appointed governor of Florida.
Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca1 was born into a noble family in Spain in approximately 1490. He joined the army, serving with distinction in Spain and Italy. He does not appear to have any command experience before being appointed as an officer of the Narváez Expedition at around age 37. His letter of appointment is dated February 15, 1527. He had two titles, the most important of which was treasurer of the expedition. As such, he was responsible for collecting taxes, rents, and fines, paying the officers' salaries, and sending gold back to Spain. He was also the master-at-arms, meaning he had the authority to place people under arrest. He was the highest-ranking officer below Narváez, and functioned as his second-in-command. When the expedition was on the move, Cabeza de Vaca was usually in front, while Narváez was in the rear. When the expedition was stopped, Narváez typically had Cabeza de Vaca lead a party to scout ahead or take care of a specific task while he stayed with the main fleet or army.
Most of what we know about the Narváez Expedition comes from Cabeza de Vaca's published account. While this record is amazingly detailed, it is also, without question, self-serving. In it, Narváez and others are responsible for everything that goes wrong on the expedition, while not only is nothing ever Cabeza de Vaca's fault, but most of their problems could have been avoided if only everyone had listened to him. Narváez is portrayed as weak, cowardly, selfish, and foolish, while Cabeza de Vaca portrays himself as strong, brave, selfless, and wise. At the same time, however, Cabeza de Vaca writes with a factual, professional tone that gives his work a great deal of credibility. Because of this credibility and because there are no contradictory accounts available, historians must take most of what he wrote at face value, despite the appearance of bias.
The Narváez Expedition launched from San Lucar de Barrameda, Spain on Monday, June 17, 1527.2 It undoubtedly made a stopover on the Canary Islands, off the coast of Morocco, as this was the standard practice for ships sailing from Spain across the Atlantic. The fleet then crossed the ocean, arriving at Santo Domingo in the present-day Dominican Republic in early to mid-September. This was Spain's first colony in the Americas and was originally the Spanish capital of the New World. The fleet stayed there for 45 days to receive supplies and horses, but Cabeza de Vaca wrote that more than 140 men left the expedition during that time.
Next, Narváez took the fleet to Cuba. His old mentor, Cuban governor Diego Velázquez, had died, but Narváez still had some friends and colleagues there, some of whom had previous experience sailing to the Gulf of Mexico. Narváez also purchased another ship and took on some horses and more men to replace those who had deserted him in Santo Domingo.
While the fleet was on the southern coast of Cuba in late October or early November, taking on supplies, a hurricane struck the island, resulting in the loss of two of Narváez's ships and about 60 people. With many members of the expedition disheartened and fearful, Narváez decided to spend the winter at Cienfuegos and resume the expedition the following spring. During the winter, he picked up another ship along with a pilot named Miruelo, who claimed to have been to the River of Palms, which was the western boundary of Narváez's new jurisdiction. Miruelo represented himself as an expert on all of the Gulf coast and seemed to be exactly the right person to serve as the expedition's chief pilot.
When the expedition embarked from Cuba, it consisted of four large, three or four-masted galleons and a medium-sized, two-masted brigantine from which Miruelo guided the fleet. The command personnel were Narváez, Cabeza de Vaca, and two other officers who King Charles had appointed to look after his financial interests. The first of those was Alonso Enriquez, who served as the comptroller or purser. Cabeza de Vaca refers to him as "the accountant." Narváez sometimes placed him in charge of the men in his and Cabeza de Vaca's absence. The other financial representative of the king was Alonso de Solís, who served as the king's commercial agent and also was there to inspect any mines that the expedition found. Cabeza de Vaca referred to Solís as "the inspector." The several times he appears in Cabeza de Vaca's narrative, he is usually at Cabeza de Vaca's side, joining him on his excursions and search parties. The last official appointed by the king was Juan Suárez, a Franciscan friar who had previously served in Mexico. Suárez was in charge of the religious component of the expedition and was joined by four other friars. Cabeza de Vaca referred to him as "the commissary." Jerónimo de Alaniz was the official scribe, or "notary"; he joined the expedition in Cuba.
The ships carried about 480 soldiers and 80 horses. Ten of the soldiers' wives came with them. The army was led by men who Cabeza de Vaca calls "captains." Note that these were company officers in the army, not ship captains. Four are known only by their last names: Pantoja,3 Valenzuela, Peñalosa, and Téllez. The last was Alonso del Castillo, the son of a noble but poor Spanish family. A member of Castillo's group named Andrés Dorantes would rise to the rank of captain during the expedition. Castillo, Dorantes, and Dorantes's slave, Estevanico,4 would ultimately become the other three shipwreck survivors who would walk out of Texas with Cabeza de Vaca.
On February 22, 1528, the ships departed from Cienfuegos. Cabeza de Vaca writes that the new pilot, Miruelo, navigated the fleet into shallow water, and it was stuck for 15 days until a storm lifted the ships out. After rounding the west end of Cuba, the fleet sailed along the northern coast of the island, battling storms and contrary winds. Narváez had arranged to pick up another ship in in Havana, but a storm prevented him from entering the harbor. Rather than deal with any more delays, Narváez decided to go on to Florida and deal with the sixth ship later.
On April 7, the expedition sighted land. Two days later, the ships cast anchor on the western coast of the Florida peninsula. The Spaniards had arrived at a harbor, but it was not the one Miruelo had been looking for, and it was unfamiliar to him. He would later discover that he had overshot his intended destination by about 15 miles. (If his intended destination was Tampa Bay, which seems certain, than he probably landed on the western coast of Tampa Bay, probably on the Pinellas peninsula. The expedition reported finding a "very large bay" only a few hours' march from where they disembarked.) Narváez had the area scouted and, on April 10, he unloaded the ships. The expedition had spent 48 days at sea just getting from Cuba to Florida. In that time, 38 of the 80 horses aboard had died. Narváez held a formal ceremony claiming the territory for Spain. He then ordered Miruelo to take the brigantine up the coast and search for the port that he said he knew. If he could not find it, he was to sail back to Havana and return with the ship and supplies that were waiting there.
Narváez then began a more concerted exploration of his new province. He and his men discovered a native village, and in it, they found some artifacts from an earlier Spanish shipwreck - boxes, pieces of cloth, and the like. Among these items was a small gold baby rattle. The Spaniards, who were already causing quite a disturbance in the village by seizing some of the natives and burning the boxes, gestured to the natives, asking them if they knew where there was any more gold. The natives, gesturing back, told them about a distant land to the north called Apalache, where there was not only an abundance of gold, but of everything else they could want. At least, this is what Cabeza de Vaca and the Spaniards understood from this non-verbal discussion. While this may have been a tragic failure of communication, it is at least equally likely that the natives were manipulating the Spaniards into leaving their village and finding some other natives to bother.5
After exploring their surroundings for a few more days and finding nothing but huts and corn, Narváez called an officers' meeting. It included all of the king's agents - Treasurer Cabeza de Vaca, Comptroller Alonso Enriquez, Inspector Alonso de Solís, and Friar Juan Suárez - plus the scribe, Jerónimo de Alaniz, and a sailor named Bartolomé Fernandez, who apparently was the most trusted navigator they had now that Miruelo was away. One of the ships had already wrecked in the unsafe port where they disembarked. There was a consensus that they should not build a settlement where they were, but that they should move on. Narváez then announced that, rather than loading the ships back up, he wanted to send them northward along the coast to find Miruelo's harbor and wait there while the army moved up the coast by land. He expected that the army would be separated from the ships for only a few days.
According to Cabeza de Vaca, Narváez asked everyone for their opinions, and he gave his first. He answered that it was a bad idea to send the ships away because the pilots had no idea where they were, the expedition possessed barely a day's worth of rations for each man, and they knew nothing about the country they would be traveling through. Cabeza de Vaca said that they should all get back on the ships and sail until they found a harbor that was suitable for settlement.
Friar Suárez, on the other hand, reminded the men of all of the storms, delays, and other problems that the fleet had endured while at sea. He equated getting back on the ships with tempting God. He agreed with the governor's idea of marching overland, while the ships made their own way to the harbor, which could not be more than fifty miles away, and should be impossible to miss. Solís, Enriquez, and Fernandez agreed with Narváez and Suárez, while only Alaniz agreed with Cabeza de Vaca. Narváez then made his decision to send the ships away.
What Cabeza de Vaca does not mention in his account of the discussion, but what surely must have been on everyone's mind, were the natives' stories of Apalache, the land of gold and plenty to the north. Everyone who signed up for this expedition, from Governor Narváez and the officers down to the lowest foot soldier, went in hopes of finding a city of gold. Apalache was their chance, and there were natives in this area who could take them to it. If they got back on the ships and disembarked at some other harbor, they might lose their opportunity to find Apalache. To say that they underestimated the distance they would have to cover is a gross understatement. If they were at Tampa Bay and looking for Apalache, which was near Tallahassee, they had over two hundred miles to cover on foot.
Up to this point, the Narváez Expedition had suffered from both incompetence and bad luck, but it had not lost any people since leaving Cuba, and it still had a chance at success. At this crucial moment, however, the prospects of not just success, but survival, were about to be dashed, and if Cabeza de Vaca is to be believed, he knew it. He writes that he invoked his authority as treasurer and ordered Narváez not to send the ships away, and he asked Alaniz to record this order in the expedition journal. Narváez rejected Cabeza de Vaca's assertion of authority, ordered everyone to get ready to leave, told Alaniz to write that down and, for good measure, called Cabeza de Vaca a coward. Cabeza de Vaca walked out of the meeting and, for a while, would only communicate with Narváez by messengers. Narváez wanted Cabeza da Vaca to take charge of the ships, but he refused, saying he knew that the army was doomed, and that he would forever be known as a coward if he saved himself by staying with the ships. Narváez then placed another man in charge of the ships, and, on May 2, they sailed away.
The army then began its march northward to Apalache. Narváez began with about 300 men and 40 horses. For seven weeks, the expedition moved north, finding little to eat except whatever corn the men were able to beg or take from the poor native villages they encountered. For much of the way, they were shadowed or mildly harassed by natives, but they did not have any serious conflicts with them. Only one European died during this segment of the trip, and that was a drowning. One Indian chief who said the natives of Apalache were his enemies did serve as a guide for part of the trip, but again, this could easily have been merely a tactic for the chief to get the strangers out of his territory as quickly as possible. During these seven weeks, the governor deviated from his plans to follow the coastline and look for a port, taking his men further and further inland. Worried, Cabeza de Vaca and the other officers brought this to attention. Narváez did authorize two scouting parties to make side trips to the coast to look for a port or the ships, but even though they found neither, Narváez said he did not want to hear any more about finding a port.
On June 24, the army spotted Apalache in the distance. Cabeza de Vaca writes that they thanked God for bringing them there, after so much difficult marching with nothing to eat. "To find ourselves at last where we wished to be," he wrote, "and where we had been assured so much food and gold would be had, made us forget a great deal of our hardships and weariness." Once they got closer, however, they saw that Apalache was a sham. Instead of a city of gold and plenty, it was a village of about forty small huts and nothing the Europeans could use except corn. They camped there for 25 days - sending out search parties and asking the natives if perhaps they were at the wrong place - but no, this was the largest village they could find, and it was the largest one any of the natives had ever heard of. The expedition finally left Apalache and went to another village, called Aute, again finding only some food.
The natives of the Florida panhandle, who were expert archers, proved to be more aggressive than the natives of the peninsula. They attacked the Europeans who had taken over their camps, they attacked their search parties, and, from the safety of the trees, they shot arrows at the army as it crossed the swamps. Cabeza de Vaca writes of two of their men killed by enemy arrows. Furthermore, about a third of the men, including Narváez, fell ill at Aute. Cabeza de Vaca went searching for the coast and found water, but all he could see was one bay or inlet after another, with no way to know how far away the open sea was, or where to find it. He also writes that most of the men with horses decided to leave, but their consciences prevented them from doing it secretly. When they came to say goodbye, he and the other officers, appealing to their honor, convinced them to stay.
Narváez and his men never saw any of the ships after they were sent away. Miruelo, the brigantine pilot, did do as he was instructed, and sailed northward, looking for his port. Not finding it, he sailed to Havana to rendezvous with the ship that was waiting there to join the expedition. They returned together, also as instructed. They found Tampa Bay and the three ships Narváez had sent away under so much controversy. They sailed the bay and confirmed they had left Narváez and the army just fifteen miles to the north of there. The fleet then sailed up and down the Florida coast for over a year looking for the governor. They finally abandoned the search and returned to Cuba.
Meanwhile, it was clear to those who were stranded in Florida that their focus had to be not on finding gold or riches, but on survival, and to survive, they had to leave Florida. With no tools and not much knowledge about ship-building - these were noblemen and soldiers, not craftsmen, engineers, or sailors - they fashioned five boats out of whatever plants and materials they could find. They sacrificed their shirts to make sails. The horses made an even greater sacrifice, providing meat for the men and hides for water bags. This effort took the Europeans more than six weeks, during which time the natives killed ten more of them, and some 30 to 40 others died from illness or starvation. On September 22, the 251 remaining men boarded the five boats and pushed off from the inlet they solemnly named the Bay of Horses.
Narváez's plan was to take the boats westward along the Gulf coast, skimming the shore, until they reached Pánuco. If he knew Pánuco was over 1,200 miles away, he might have considered going back to Cuba instead. The boats would have had to skim the coast for 400 miles, then they would have had to cross 100 miles of open seas. It would have been extremely risky, but people in modern times have made the same crossing on crude rafts and even rubber tire tubes. More likely, however, they would have met up with their ships on the coast and been able to return home defeated and humiliated, but alive. The leaders of this expedition always underestimated the distances they needed to cover by an order of magnitude or more, however, so off to Pánuco they went. Cabeza de Vaca does not mention any discussion of any other plan or idea, so it can be assumed that he, as well as most or all of the other men, agreed with it.
The officers on the expedition were distributed among the five boats, with Governor Narváez and Captain Pantoja in charge of one, Cabeza de Vaca and Inspector Alonso de Solís in charge of one, Comptroller Alonso Enriquez and Friar Juan Suárez in charge of one, Captains Peñalosa and Téllez in charge of one, and Captain Castillo and Dorantes in charge of the last.
As the Europeans made their way along the coast of Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi, they stopped wherever they could to find food or water. Even that proved to be extremely difficult. Twice when they landed, they were attacked by natives, with at least three men being killed, and another two presumably captured.6 Cabeza de Vaca writes that the horsehide water bags rotted quickly and became useless. Five men died from drinking seawater.
When the boats reached the Mississippi River, things went from bad to worse. The current from the river, combined with a strong wind from the north, swept the boats far away from the shore. The men spent two days on the high seas, trying to reach the shore again. On the third night, they spotted columns of smoke from campfires on land, but the boats also became separated. The next afternoon, Cabeza de Vaca saw two boats near his and steered over to one of them. It was the governor's. Cabeza de Vaca writes that Narváez was ordering his men to row to the shore as hard as possible. He tried to keep his boat up with the governor's, but could not because "the governor had the healthiest and strongest men with him." He then asked Narváez to throw him a line so they could stay together, but Narváez refused because he did not want to be slowed down. He told Cabeza de Vaca everyone was on his own. Cabeza de Vaca then went over to the other boat he saw, which was the one led by Peñalosa and Téllez. These two boats were on the open sea together for four more days, but they lost contact with each other in a storm. The next morning, the waves carried Cabeza de Vaca's boat to the Texas coast and violently threw it onto the beach.
The fates of each of the five boats and their crews are known in varying amounts of detail. It is known that two of them were stranded on an island on the upper Gulf coast. According to tradition, this was Galveston Island, but a closer look at the text indicates that it was actually Follet's Island in Brazoria County (for more information, see our article, "Identifying the Isla de Malhado"). This landmass on the south side of Oyster Bay is a peninsula today, joined to the mainland at its west end. Alonso del Castillo's boat landed on the east end, at present-day San Luis Pass, on November 5, 1528. The men on his boat were the first non-indigenous people to set foot on Texas soil. Cabeza de Vaca's boat landed the next day some six or seven miles to the west. Neither group knew about the other at first.
Cabeza de Vaca's group met some friendly natives, who brought them food and water every day in exchange for some beads and trinkets. After the Europeans felt like they had recuperated, they attempted to launch their boat again, but the waves and offshore current overturned it and took it down. Sadly, Cabeza de Vaca's right-hand man, Inspector Alonso de Solís, drowned, along with two others. The survivors lost everything they had in the accident, including their clothing, which they had removed before getting in the water. That evening, the natives came for their usual visit and were stunned at what they saw. Cabeza de Vaca writes that when they explained to the natives, using gestures, what just happened to them, the natives wept with them for half an hour at their plight. He asked the natives if they could take him and his people to their village, and they did so, with great celebration.
After he arrived at the village, Cabeza de Vaca noticed that one of the natives possessed a Spanish trinket that his people had not given them. He inquired about it, and was told about Castillo's group, which was in a different village on the same island. Castillo's men had fared somewhat better than Cabeza de Vaca's, for they still had their clothing and other belongings, not to mention their boat. The two parties combined, and the men attempted to repair the one boat, but it sank as soon as it was launched into San Luis Pass.
The Europeans did not consider attempting to build more boats, for they believed that they were now within walking distance of Pánuco. (Actually, they were over 500 miles away.) With winter approaching, however, most of them believed they would be better off staying where they were, especially considering the rivers and bays they would undoubtedly have to cross. They selected their four most able-bodied men, who were all good swimmers, to go to Pánuco and send for help for those who remained. One native from the island went along with them as a guide.
At least one of the Narváez Expedition's boats made it to the Texas shore intact. As Cabeza de Vaca noted, Governor Narváez had the strongest and fittest men on his boat, and they were rowing hard to shore the last time he saw them. This boat presumably reached the coast of Louisiana a few days before the two boats landed on Follet's Island. Narváez and his party continued their previous method of skimming the coast westward, landing wherever they thought they could find food or water. Unfortunately, they must not have seen any sign of their fellow survivors or their boats as they navigated past Follet's Island.
The boat carrying Alonso Enriquez and the friars capsized or wrecked on the mouth of a river west of Follet's Island. This was most likely the San Bernard River in Brazoria County. The men left the boat and began walking along the coast. Sometime later, Narváez's boat caught up with them. Narváez passed them and continued on his way until he reached Cavallo Pass at Matagorda Bay. He took his people across, then came back for Enriquez's party and took them across. The combined parties camped that evening on the western shore of the pass. Narváez and two other men - all three of whom may have been sick - remained on the boat, with no water or supplies. A north wind came up that night, and in the morning, the boat was gone. Neither it nor Narváez or the other men were ever seen again. (For more information about the Narváez Expedition survivors at Cavallo Pass, please see our article, "Identifying the Inlet of Espíritu Santo.")
With Narváez gone and presumed dead, command of the party on Matagorda Island should have gone to Enriquez, but one of Narváez's last orders was to name Captain Pantoja as the lieutenant governor. There was some disagreement among the leaders of this group about where to go next, because the friars believed that they had already passed Pánuco and they ought to reverse direction. Instead, they went onto the mainland and found some woods, where they decided to spend the winter. Their camp was probably in Calhoun County, between Matagorda Bay and the Guadalupe River.
The fifth boat was led by Captains Peñalosa and Téllez. It had no contact with the other boats after Cabeza de Vaca lost sight of it in a storm out on the Gulf of Mexico. It ended up southwest of all the others, possibly on Mustang Island in Nueces County. It is unknown whether this is where the boat landed, or whether it landed further up the coast, and then the crew steered it there. At any rate, the other survivors later heard from some natives that a tribe called the Camones massacred every person on that boat. They were too weak to offer any resistance.
For a more detailed analysis of where and when the five boats landed, please see our article, "Tracking the Narváez Expedition's Five Boats on the Gulf Coast."
Today, the climate on the Texas Gulf coast is characterized by mild winters, with only a few days of freezing temperatures each year. In 1528, however, many parts of the Earth, including Central and North America, were experiencing what geologists call the Little Ice Age. Ample evidence from literature proves that even as recently as the mid-1800s, the winters in Texas were longer and bitterer than they are today.
Of the 251 members of the Narváez Expedition who set out from the Bay of Horses in five boats, about 160 were still living when the temperatures began to drop in Texas in late November. Most had decided to settle in for the winter. One large group was on Follet's Island, and another large group was west of Matagorda Bay. Four individuals were on the move down the coast, trying to make their way to Mexico.
Both of the large camps experienced severe trials during the winter. Pantoja's poor treatment of his group of survivors aggravated Alonso de Sotomayor, who had been Narváez's chief of staff, so much that he killed Pantoja in a fight. This was the first killing committed by a European in Texas. Throughout the winter, one by one, the remaining survivors died of starvation and exposure. They even resorted to cutting up the bodies of the dead and eating them. When Sotomayor died, there was only one man, named Hernando de Esquivel, left alive to eat him. Esquivel was feeding off of Sotomayor's body in March when a native captured him.
Two of the four strong swimmers who had been with Cabeza de Vaca's group on Follet's Island died while traveling on the coast in November, as did their Indian guide. The other two men, unable to continue because of cold and hunger, stopped. When some natives found them, one of the Spaniards attempted to flee, but the natives pursued and killed him. The last one, named Figueroa, was staying as a captive with these natives at about the same time that Esquivel was captured. The tribe keeping Figueroa was neighbors with the one that captured Esquivel, and the two Spaniards had a chance to meet and talk on one occasion. They exchanged information about what had happened to the men on their boats, including Governor Narváez's disappearance and presumed death. Figueroa attempted to convince Esquivel to flee to Pánuco with him, but Esquivel refused, having become convinced by the friars that Pánuco was to the northeast, rather than the southwest. Esquivel subsequently fled to a different group of natives, who killed him.
The predicament of Cabeza de Vaca's group on Follet's Island was equally dire. Their numbers were drastically reduced during the winter from hunger, cold, and illness. The men split up into smaller groups and dispersed around different parts of Follet's Island, Galveston Island, and the mainland across Oyster Bay. Cabeza de Vaca writes that a group of six men living on the coast resorted to cannibalizing their dead, just like those who stayed by Matagorda Bay. The natives also lost many people from illness that winter, and some of them considered killing their visitors because of it, but cooler heads prevailed. The Europeans called their new home in Texas "Isla de Malhado," or "Island of Misfortune."
In his memoir, Cabeza de Vaca never implies that he and his party were captives of the natives on Malhado, like the others were further west, but nevertheless, after they wore out their welcome, the natives treated them like their subjects or servants. The natives had gotten tired of sharing their scarce food supply with their guests, and demanded that they pull their own weight. One way that they expected the Europeans could be useful to them was to be their doctors. The Europeans, having no medical knowledge whatsoever, were reluctant to agree to treat the Indians, out of the fear of what could happen to them if their cures failed. The natives forced them to do what they wanted, however, by withholding their food until they complied. Cabeza de Vaca wrote that they treated the sick natives by praying and making the sign of the Cross over them. They also blew on the affected area, as this part of the ritual was important to the natives. Cabeza de Vaca wrote that every native they prayed for reported that they were cured, and so they were allowed to eat again, even though there was barely any food to eat. Sometime during the winter, Cabeza de Vaca was taken to, or voluntarily went with, a different group of natives who were staying on the mainland.
When spring arrived, Andrés Dorantes rounded up all of the scattered survivors he could find on the Island of Misfortune and its vicinity. A total of 15 men were found. These, plus another man who joined Dorantes's group later, and Figueroa, who was being held captive by the natives west of Matagorda Bay, were the only remaining survivors from the 200 or so who arrived in Texas five months earlier.
On April 1, 1529, Andrés Dorantes, Alonso del Castillo, and ten other men departed the Isle of Misfortune and began walking down the Texas coast in the direction of Pánuco. It appears that by this time, Dorantes had assumed leadership of the castaways. His group was joined after leaving the island by a thirteenth man, who was not found earlier and must have managed to catch up with them. When the group crossed the San Bernard River, they saw one of their boats - the one formerly led by Comptroller Enriquez. There is no mention made of attempting to repair the boat or use it again; rather, they continued walking down the coast. There is some debate among scholars and students of the expedition about what route they chose when they reached the eastern end of the long Matagorda Peninsula - did they stay on the peninsula and walk along the seashore, or did they go onto the mainland and travel along the bay? A careful study of the texts - in addition to the obvious repeated references to "the sea" and "the coast" - proves that they stayed on the coastline, crossed Cavallo Pass, and continued along the shore of Matagorda Island.
By the time this group reached the west end of Matagorda Bay, they had lost four men - two while crossing rivers, and two from hunger and fatigue. Nine men made it as far as Cedar Bayou on the Aransas-Calhoun County boundary and were met there by none other than their old comrade, Figueroa, who was still being kept as a slave. Figueroa told Dorantes's party everything he had learned about Governor Narváez and the other two boats from Esquivel. He and one of Dorantes's party, who Cabeza de Vaca only knew as "the Asturian," decided to flee. Years later, Cabeza de Vaca heard that those two men were still alive and living with some natives somewhere on the lower Texas coast. Two more of Dorantes's party subsequently died of hunger. Dorantes and the five remaining members of his party then became slaves of natives who treated them very brutally by beating them, throwing rocks at them, and pulling their beards "for mere pastime." Three Spaniards died at the hands of these cruel natives, leaving only Dorantes, Castillo, and Estevanico alive.
All three survivors managed to escape at different times to a tribe called the Iguaces. Dorantes fled from them to a different group of natives, called the Mariames. The Iguaces and Mariames were culturally related to each other and used some of the same feeding grounds, so Dorantes had opportunities to visit Castillo and Estevanico. He urged them to flee the country with him and continue the trip to Pánuco, but they, being unable to swim, did not want to risk their lives on the rivers and bays they would have to cross.
When Dorantes led the group out of Follet's Island in April 1529, three people stayed behind: Cabeza de Vaca, who was staying across the bay on the mainland; the scribe, Jerónimo de Alaniz; and a man named Lope de Oviedo. According to Cabeza de Vaca, all three of them were too ill to travel when Dorantes's party left the Island of Misfortune.7 Sometime after the large group left, Alaniz died. Cabeza de Vaca writes that even after he and Oviedo became fit to travel, he was unable to convince Oviedo to go with him, because Oviedo could not swim. Cabeza de Vaca writes that he spent this time traveling about from village to village across a large area that may have included much of east and central Texas, trading seashells, dyes, arrow heads, hides, and other items that the natives valued. Once a year, he would visit Oviedo on the Island of Misfortune to urge him to leave for Pánuco.
Cabeza de Vaca does not explain how, but eventually, in early 1533, he convinced Oviedo to leave. Cabeza de Vaca carried his countryman on his back across the rivers and inlets. They obtained assistance crossing Cavallo Pass from a tribe named the Deaguanes. On the western shore, they were met by some natives who informed them that six foreigners like them had been taken as captives by other natives, and they had killed three of them, but the ones named Castillo, Dorantes, and Estevanico were still alive. Cabeza de Vaca writes that these natives then threatened and began kicking him and Oviedo. Oviedo decided to return with the Deaguanes to the other side of Cavallo Pass, and that is the last time he is mentioned in the narrative.
In two days, the natives took Cabeza de Vaca to a location where the Mariames and Iguaces came to gather nuts. Here, he was reunited with his comrades and became a slave of the Mariames, along with Dorantes. Dorantes advised Cabeza de Vaca that their best chance to escape would be in six months, when the Iguaces and Mariames migrated to eat "tunas" - the dark red, egg-shaped fruit of the prickly pear cactus.
When tuna season came six months later, the natives traveled some 80 to 90 miles, as expected. Cabeza de Vaca and his comrades were preparing to make their escape when a quarrel erupted between some of the natives over a woman. Consequently, the natives separated their camps from each other, and the four Europeans were unable to meet up with each other. They had to wait another year until they were all brought together at the same spot. They were then finally able to escape together in late September of 1534.
While out on the prickly pear fields, the Mariames and Iguaces who held Cabeza de Vaca, Andrés Dorantes, Alonso del Castillo, and Estevanico went to visit with another tribe that had come to feed on tunas. It was from this tribe that the Europeans finally heard a report on the fifth boat of the Narváez Expedition - the one commanded by Captains Peñalosa and Téllez. The natives told them that the boat had come to shore further down the coast and how everyone aboard it had been massacred by the Camones tribe. The natives showed Cabeza de Vaca weapons and articles of clothing belonging to the dead men as evidence of the slaughter. With this information, the four survivors decided not to attempt to continue along the coast toward Pánuco, else they would probably meet the same fate. Instead, when they finally escaped from the Iguaces and Mariames, they fled inland. After running for a full day, they found a tribe called the Avavares.
In stark contrast to the coastal tribes, who kept the foreigners as slaves and enjoyed mistreating and even killing them, the Avavares treated them as honored guests. As the natives on the Island of Misfortune did, they brought their sick to them to be healed. Cabeza de Vaca writes that initially, the natives brought their sick to Castillo, who made the sign of the Cross over them and prayed for God's healing for them, and they were healed. There were some cures, however, that Castillo was too timid to attempt. Cabeza de Vaca was not timid. He writes about a native brought to him "with eyes up-turned, without pulse, and with all the marks of lifelessness," and states that the man was perfectly normal again the morning after Cabeza de Vaca ministered to him. Eventually, all four Europeans were healers, and Cabeza de Vaca writes that not only did everyone they prayed for become well, but the natives believed that as long as they were with them, none of them would die.
The four men stayed with the Avavares for eight months. In mid-1535, probably May or June, they took their leave. From this point on, they kept moving, staying only a few days in one village before moving on to the next. Whenever they left a village, a group of natives would accompany them to the next village. Escorting travelers was a custom that was important to the natives, and it had a peculiar twist: upon their arrival, the escorts would plunder the village they just came to as payment for their services. If the receiving village had advance notice of the entourage, the people there would attempt to hide their belongings, because they knew the custom. In any case, the members of the new village were not too upset, because they now had a chance to recoup their losses or better by serving as escorts to the next village. In what became a sort of primitive pyramid scheme, the further Cabeza de Vaca and his companions went, the larger their escort group became, and greater would be the robbery that their escorts committed against the receiving village. Cabeza de Vaca writes that the natives considered him and his companions to be "children of the sun" who commanded the utmost reverence and attention. The Europeans stayed busy healing the natives, who paid them with the plunder they had just taken, which the Europeans returned whenever they could.
In months of travel, the Europeans crossed over Texas and northern Mexico, all the way to the Gulf of California. Eventually, Castillo saw a native wearing a Spanish belt buckle around his or her neck. He and his companions made some inquiries about this, and then went in search of other Spaniards. They arrived at the frontier outpost of Culiacan, in the present-day Mexican state of Sinaloa, in April 1536.
The route that the four travelers took from Matagorda Bay to Culiacan has been a subject of wide disagreement. For example, the location of the prickly pear fields where they escaped from the Iguaces and Mariames has been theorized as being anywhere from central Texas to northeastern Mexico. Even a cursory review of the different routes proposed is beyond the scope of this document. That being said, there is one location the Europeans visited that is fairly uncontroversial. The present-day town of Presidio, in Presidio County, is on the Rio Grande at the mouth of the Concho River. This location was later known to the Spanish as "La Junta de los Rios," or "the meeting of the rivers," and it is where Cabeza de Vaca and his companions encountered a group of natives who lived in "real houses." A Spanish expedition to La Junta in 1581 confirmed the location of the village and corroborated many aspects of Cabeza de Vaca's account.
Cabeza de Vaca and his companions remained in northern Mexico from April to May of 1536. They then left for Mexico City, arriving there in early August. The three Spaniards - Cabeza de Vaca, Alonso del Castillo, and Andrés Dorantes - had an audience with Hernán Cortés and Antonio de Mendoza, the Viceroy of New Spain. Their reports of their journey in Florida and the Texas coast - lands that were inhabited by nomadic, war-inclined natives who lived in huts and constantly battled starvation - did not hold the viceroy's interest, but their reports of the village of fixed houses at La Junta, friendly, passive natives, and sightings of precious metals and stones between there and the Pacific Ocean, did. Three years later, Mendoza would appoint Francisco Coronado as commander of an expedition to explore these lands, with Estevanico as his guide. Estevanico was killed by natives on that expedition.
Cabeza de Vaca had another meeting in Mexico City that was equally important. He spoke with Catholic Bishop Juan de Zumárraga about the natives of Texas and northern Mexico. All four of the survivors, but especially Cabeza de Vaca, developed intense sympathies for the natives - even the ones who treated them poorly. At the time, Spain was still enslaving native populations, but Zumárraga believed they should be treated kindly and taught Christianity instead of being enslaved, and his meeting with Cabeza de Vaca strengthened his position. Spain instituted a short-lived abolition of the enslavement of native Americans in its colonies in 1542.
After concluding their business in Mexico City, Cabeza de Vaca and Dorantes attempted to return to Spain, but their ship was wrecked in a storm before their departure. They spent the winter in Mexico City and then departed from Veracruz on separate ships in April 1537. Dorantes's ship ended up returning to port. He and Castillo took wives and raised families in Mexico and spent most of the rest of their lives there.
Cabeza de Vaca did return to Spain, with the intention of asking for Narváez's title to the province of Florida to be transferred to him. Instead, that grant had just been awarded to Hernando de Soto. Cabeza de Vaca consulted with De Soto and reportedly was offered a position on the expedition, but he declined.8 In 1540, he was appointed governor of the existing territory of New Andalusia - a section of South America including parts of present-day Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile, and Brazil. His benevolent disposition toward the natives made him unpopular with the landowners, however. He was arrested by one of his rivals for leadership in 1544 on the grounds of poor administration and was returned to Spain. He was convicted of the charges, but was apparently pardoned from the penalty of being banished from Spain. He died in poverty in Seville around 1558.
Some of the survivors of the Narváez Expedition who left on the ships from Florida in 1528 provided tidbits of information about the Cuba and Florida legs of the journey. For the majority of the trip, however, only two historical records exist. The first is the report made by Cabeza de Vaca, Castillo, and Dorantes in Mexico City soon after the conclusion of the expeditiofsn. This document, a 30-page summary of the expedition, is known as the "Joint Report." Cabeza de Vaca carried a copy of this document with him back to Cuba in 1537 and from there, it was sent to Spanish historian Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo in Santo Domingo. Oviedo wove the Joint Report into the immense work, General and Natural History of the Indies, which was completed sometime between 1552 and Oviedo's death in 1557. This version of the Joint Report is edited and rewritten and includes Oviedo's running commentary. The original, unedited report no longer survives.
The other historical record of the Narváez Expedition is the account authored by Cabeza de Vaca. He wrote his own account of his travels in Spain in 1540, when he had aspirations of receiving another royal appointment. This work, entitled "The Relation of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca," or La Relación, was published in 1542, after the author had departed for South America. It differs slightly from the Joint Report on details, and it contains much more material concerning the manners and customs of the natives of Texas, but overall, these two historical accounts harmonize very well. Cabeza de Vaca re-published La Relación in 1555 as Naufragios, which means, "the shipwrecked ones." The differences between La Relación and Naufragios are few and unimportant; they are essentially the same work.
In terms of its goal of establishing a new Spanish colony on the North American continent, the Narváez Expedition was a costly failure. It was not, however, a total loss. All of the places its members visited - Florida, the Gulf coast, Texas, and northern Mexico - would eventually be settled by Spain, and the reports from the four survivors provided an immediate impetus for exploration of the region now known as the southwestern United States. And, although it would be over 150 years before Europeans visited the Texas coast again, Cabeza de Vaca's record remains as an invaluable first-hand anthropological study of pre-Columbian North American natives.
By David Carson
Page last updated: May 11, 2021
1His surname was "Cabeza de Vaca," not "de Vaca." It means "cow's head" in Spanish.
2All dates in this article are represented according to the Julian calendar, which was in use at the time of the expedition. To convert them to the modern Gregorian calendar, add ten days.
3A soldier named Juan Pantoja went to New Spain with Narváez in 1520. That Juan Pantoja is sometimes assumed to be the same Captain Pantoja who sailed with Narváez again in 1527, but they could not have been the same person, because Juan Pantoja took part in the conquest of New Galicia, a province that did not exist until 1531.
4His name in La Relación is spelled Estebanico, but in English translations, it is usually written as Estevanico, just as Habana is changed in English to Havana. It is pronounced "eh-steh-va-NEE-co," stressed the same way as Federico (feh-deh-REE-co). It is incorrectly written as "Estevánico" (or "Estebánico") in numerous articles on the web, resulting in it being mispronounced "eh-steh-VAH-nee-co."
5Other Spanish explorers, both before and after Narváez, observed that whenever they showed something foreign to American natives, the natives informed them that there was plenty of that thing far away or in the land of their enemies.
6Their capture was not witnessed. They left with the natives to get water and never came back. They may have despaired of their chances of survival on the boats and escaped to the natives.
7The earlier observation that many parts of Cabeza de Vaca's narrative are obviously self-serving bears repeating. Beginning with the moment his boat sank and he asked the natives on the Island of Misfortune to take him and his comrades to their homes, there are many indications that Cabeza de Vaca was in no hurry to return to Spanish civilization.
8One of De Soto's expedition chroniclers, a Portuguese known as "A Gentleman of Elvas," gives two reasons: first, that De Soto did not meet Cabeza de Vaca's financial demands, and second, that Cabeza de Vaca wanted to head his own expedition, not serve in someone else's. D'Elvas does not indicate which was the "real" reason, but the two are not mutually exclusive.