The Narváez Expedition in Aransas and Refugio Counties

The Narváez Expedition in Aransas and Refugio Counties


This article identifies the presence of survivors of the Narváez Expedition in Aransas and Refugio Counties.

Aransas and Refugio Counties are on the west side of San Antonio Bay and the San Antonio River. Most of the men of the expedition never made it this far. Out of the 200 or so who landed further east on the Texas coast, only twelve managed to reach Aransas and Refugio Counties. These men were in the area between November 1528 and around July 1534.

Of the castaways who reached Aransas and Refugio Counties, one certainly died there, and three more probably did. Eight castaways lived to continue their journey.

Map of Aransas and Refugio Counties

[-]Collapse Map [+]Expand Map
Figure 1. Map of Aransas and Refugio Counties.

St. Joseph Island

St. Joseph Island, which is also called San Jose Island, is a barrier island on the Texas coast. It is in Aransas County and is separated from the mainland by Aransas Bay. It is about 23 miles long, from Cedar Bayou and Matagorda Island on the east to Aransas Pass and Mustang Island on the west. St. Joseph Island varies from in width from one to five miles.

Satellite view of St. Joseph Island
Figure 2. Satellite view of St. Joseph Island.
Satellite view of the Richardson-Bass estate on St. Joseph Island
Figure 3. Satellite view of the Richardson-Bass estate on St. Joseph Island.

The Narváez Expedition

On November 5 and 6, 1528, about eighty men of the Narváez Expedition landed on Follet's Island in Brazoria County. On about November 11, four of these men began walking down the Texas coast in an attempt to reach Pánuco, Mexico. When this group reached Matagorda Island, some harsh winter weather came in. Two of the castaways and a native who came with them as a guide died of hunger and exposure on Matagorda Island. The two survivors, whose names were Figueroa and Méndez, crossed Cedar Bayou onto St. Joseph Island. The date was probably around November 17. These two Spaniards were captured by natives on St. Joseph Island. Méndez subsequently escaped from the natives and fled southwest toward Pánuco, but they pursued and killed him.1

Everything we know about the Narváez Expedition in Texas comes from two sources: a first-hand account written by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, entitled La Relación, and a summary called the Joint Report, paraphrased and edited by Gonzalo de Oviedo. These sources do not identify the native tribe that inhabited St. Joseph Island, killed Méndez, and held Figueroa captive, but based on Cabeza de Vaca's list "of the nations and languages," it should be the Guaycones, the tribe that inhabited the coast southwest of the Quevenes, who are believed to have inhabited Calhoun County. (For more information, see our article, "Identifying the Territories of the Coastal Natives Described by Cabeza de Vaca.")

In mid-April, probably around April 12, a second group of Follet's Island castaways led by Andrés Dorantes arrived at Cedar Bayou. The Joint Report states that they camped on the east side of the bayou, on Matagorda Island, contemplating how they were going to get across. The next morning, they looked across to St. Joseph Island and saw a native. They tried to get his attention, but he did not come over to them. He left, then returned that afternoon with Figueroa. The native and Figueroa went across to Matagorda Island, where Figueroa spoke to Dorantes and his men. After a while, the native was ready to leave, and Figueroa had to go with him, but he did say that he could give Dorantes's party some fish.2 Two of Dorantes's men went with them. One was a holy man from the Spanish province of Asturias. The expedition chronicles refer to him as "the Asturian" or "Asturiano." The Joint Report refers to the other as "a young boy." He was one of six members of Dorantes's group whose names are recorded in La Relación, but whose individual actions and fates were not recorded. These men's names were Estrada, Tostado, Chaves, Gutiérrez, Benítez, and Francisco de León.

When the native and the three Spaniards arrived at the native's camp, the tribe was preparing to go on a journey. The boy took some fish he was given and went back to Matagorda Island the next morning,3 probably April 14. The Asturian stayed with Figueroa. These two men lost contact with the rest of the castaways for a while after that.

The day after the boy came back with the fish, Dorantes's party saw two natives who came to Cedar Bayou to pick berries. They attracted the attention of these natives and got them to take them off of Matagorda Island. The chronicles are unclear about who these natives were, where they came from, and where they took Dorantes's party. La Relación does not describe this incident at all. The Joint Report states only that these natives were "from another place," that they helped the Christians "across the water" in a canoe, and brought them "to their houses which were nearby."4 The implication is that these two natives were not from the same tribe who had Figueroa, and were not from St. Joseph Island. We do not know whether they took Dorantes's party "across the water" of Cedar Bayou to St. Joseph Island, or whether they crossed the bay over to the mainland, but either way, it seems safe to say they went into Aransas County.

At this time, Dorantes's party consisted of eight men. They stayed with these natives "until the natives tired of giving them food." The natives then threw five of the castaways out and kept the other three. The texts do not specifically state that this tribe kept any of the castaways as slaves, but since it seems that they forcibly separated the group and at least five other tribes in that area were known to have kept slaves, that is a reasonable inference. The natives told the five ejected Christians "that they could go to some other Indians who they said were located on another bay (ancón, or inlet) six leagues ahead."5 Six leagues equals 21 miles, which is approximately the distance from Cedar Bayou to Aransas Pass. It sounds like the natives were sending the Spaniards to either the southwest end of St. Joseph Island or to Mustang Island in Nueces County.

At least three of these Spaniards - Alonso del Castillo, Pedro de Valdivieso, and Diego de Huelva - did make it as far as Aransas Pass. Whether the other two did is hard to determine because of the Joint Report's imprecise and sometimes contradictory wording. One passage states that they "went farther down the coast, and there they died of hunger." "Farther" in this instance implies farther than the inlet to which Castillo, Valdivieso, and Huelva went, meaning they died beyond Aransas Pass. On the other hand, the Joint Report states that the natives who kept the other three castaways - Andrés Dorantes, Diego Dorantes, and Estevanico - threw them out also after a few more days. They went looking for the other five, and along the way, they found the bodies of the two who died. This would mean that the two starvation victims died on the way to Aransas Pass - definitely in Aransas County, and probably on St. Joseph Island. Since this description is a little more detailed and specific, it is more likely to be right. The two men who died were from the six listed above whose names Cabeza de Vaca recorded as being members of Dorantes's party, but without any other information. One of them was the "young boy" who had gone with Figueroa and the Asturian earlier.

To recap, at this point in the narrative, three Spaniards - Castillo, Valdivieso, and Huelva - have gone to Aransas Pass, while Andrés and Diego Dorantes and Andrés's Moor slave, Estevanico, are on St. Joseph Island, heading toward Aransas Pass. The Joint Report does not note the date or the number of days passed for this part of the journey, but it was no later than May 1529, and could have still been April. The text states that after the Dorantes cousins and Estevanico found the dead bodies of their two comrades, they "left that place and encountered other Indians. Andrés Dorantes remained with them, and his cousin went ahead to that bay where the other three Christians had earlier come to a stop."6 Here there is an error: Oviedo, the editor of the Joint Report, should have written "Diego Dorantes remained with them." There are several reasons we can identify this as an error: 1) Andrés Dorantes was one of the contributors to the Joint Report, and the narration from here follows the man who went to Aransas Pass, not the one who stayed behind, 2) in subsequent paragraphs, Andrés is discussed in connection with Valdivieso, Castillo, and the others, while Diego is not, and 3) the editor of the Joint Report, Gonzalo de Oviedo, had a habit of mistakenly using Andrés Dorantes's name in passages about other people.7

When Andrés Dorantes (and Estevanico) reached Aransas pass, Valdivieso "came from where he was on the other side to see this Spaniard." In other words, by the time Dorantes reached Aransas Pass, Valdivieso had already crossed it and thus was no longer on St. Joseph Island. In all likelihood, he was on Mustang Island in Nueces County. Subsequent passages place Figueroa, the Asturian, Castillo, Huelva, Estevanico, and Dorantes himself in the village where Valdivieso was living, all no later than May 1529.

The only member of the expedition who may have been living on St. Joseph Island after May 1529 was Diego Dorantes. After he, his cousin Andrés, and Estevanico found the bodies of two dead men there, he stayed to live with some natives, presumably the Guaycones, while his cousin and Estevanico went further ahead. The Joint Report states that Diego was killed by natives "at the end of two years during which he had served and been among them."8 This information is given at a point in the narrative when Andrés is living with the Mariames, who are associated with northwest Calhoun County, and states that Diego was killed "near that place," so it is possible that Diego migrated off of St. Joseph Island or even out of Aransas County before he was killed. Then again, since The Joint Report is so inexact on this point, and St. Joseph Island was Diego's last known location, it is not unreasonable to count him among those who died there.

"The fishing here can not be surpassed; sheep-head, drum, mullet, red-fish, and many others too numerous to mention, abound; the water is literally alive with them." - Henry William Seaton, 1847.

Recent History

There were a few visits to St. Joseph Island by Spanish and French sailors and explorers in the 1700s, but neither Spain, France, Mexico, nor the Republic of Texas ever attempted to settle it. After Texas joined the United States in 1845, a town, Aransas, was established on the south end of the island. The same year, a U.S. Army company disembarked at Corpus Christi to prepare for an invasion of Mexico. Lieutenant William Seaton Henry wrote a colorful description of St. Joseph Island which noted its "unsurpassed" fishing and deer hunting and the ease with which fresh water was found with only a few feet of digging. The town and island were vacated during the Civil War and were not repopulated after the war ended.

In the 1930s, Fort Worth oilman Sid Richardson bought the entire island to use as a hunting and fishing retreat and built a lavish country estate near the south end. He entertained President Franklin D. Roosevelt there in 1937, Senator Lyndon B. Johnson in 1949, and former General Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1949. Richardson died in 1959, leaving the island to his nephew, Perry Richardson Bass. The island remains under the private ownership of the Bass family today. Fishermen and vacationers visit by boat to enjoy its coasts and beaches.

The Mainland

The mainland adjacent to St. Joseph Island includes Refugio County and the rest of Aransas County. This area is bounded on the east by the San Antonio River and San Antonio Bay and on the west by the Aransas River. It encompasses Copano Bay. From the two expedition chronicles, we can gather that four to nine of the Narváez Expedition castaways were in this area. Since there is not enough information to permit us to determine which side of the Aransas-Refugio County line they may have been on at any given point in their journey, these two counties are treated as a unit for the purposes of this analysis.

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The Narváez Expedition

As related in the previous section, a party of eight castaways who had been camped on the east bank of Cedar Bayou, on Matagorda Island in Calhoun County, caught a ride "across the water" with some natives on or around April 15, 1529. The Joint Report does not specify where these eight people were taken, but there is some reason to believe they were brought over to the mainland of Aransas County. If that is the case, they did not stay long, for the natives threw five of them out, then "three or four days" later, threw the rest out. The natives recommended that the castaways go stay with some natives who lived at an inlet we can identify as Aransas Pass, between St. Joseph Island and Mustang Island. Some of the castaways did go there, while others died or were captured along the way, but all indications are that by May, or perhaps even before the end of April, all eight castaways had vacated the mainland.

While there is some uncertainty about whether any castaways went over to the mainland in 1529, there are clear indications that three of them went there later. As related in the previous section, by May 1529, Dorantes, Castillo, and Estevanico were on the west side of Aransas Pass, presumably on Mustang Island, with a tribe of natives who killed Valdivieso and Huelva. Here, the Joint Report picks up the story of these men, focusing, as usual, on Dorantes:

The Spaniards were among these people for fourteen months. This was from the month of May until another month of May came in the next year. When this second month of May arrived, it was the year of 1530. In the middle of the month of August, Andrés Dorantes was in a place which seemed to him most appropriate to seek escape. He commended himself to God, and he left ... That day he passed a large body of water, and in great fear he walked as far as he could. On the next day he encountered some Indians who received him willingly, as they now knew that the Christians served well."9

The timeline here can be confusing. The text states that "The Spaniards" were with these natives for 14 months from May 1529 to May 1530, but that is 13 months, not 14. Moreover, the castaways arrived and left at different times, not as a group. Most confusing of all, the text states that the Spaniards stayed until May and Dorantes left in August. Which is it: May or August? The answer is that Dorantes fled twice in 1530 - first in May, then in August. The flight past the "large body of water" took place in May. His second flight, which the poorly-edited text describes in the next paragraph, occurred in August.

Based on other information contained in the two expedition chronicles, we know that Dorantes went to the Iguaces. The Iguaces were neighbors of the Mariames, who lived around the Guadalupe River. According to our Interpretation of the Territories of the Coastal Natives Described by Cabeza de Vaca, the Iguaces' main habitation was west of San Antonio Bay. Cabeza de Vaca lists them as a mainland tribe, rather than a coastal one, so while their territory may have included mainland Aransas County, it seems certain they were also in Refugio County. The "large body of water" Dorantes passed the day after he left Aransas Pass would have been Copano Bay. Since he walked one more day and then stopped, it is doubtful he got as far as Goliad, Bee, or Victoria Counties.

The next paragraph of the Joint Report contains a lot of information about where each castaway ended up:

Castillo and the black man [Estevanico] stayed at this time, because they could not go with Dorantes. After three months [August 1530], the black man went after him, and they met, although they did not remain together. Castillo stayed, and he was in that place among those difficult people for another year and one-half. He then found an opportunity to leave in search of Dorantes. When he arrived, he did not find anyone except the black man. Dorantes ... was now with some other natives, who were located at a river near the bay of Espíritu Santo.10

Now we can make out the Joint Report's confusing statement earlier that when May of 1530 arrived, Dorantes fled in "the middle of the month of August." First, in May 1530, he fled to the Iguaces in Refugio County, one day's walk past Copano Bay. Next, three months later, in August, Estevanico made his escape from the natives of Aransas Pass and joined Dorantes in Refugio County. Dorantes did not stay with him, however: he then fled from the Iguaces to the Mariames on the Guadalupe River.11 Then, a year and a half later, which would be February 1532, Castillo fled from the natives of Aransas Pass to stay with Estevanico and the Iguaces. Thus, Dorantes was the first of these three men to reside in Refugio County, but he also stayed there for the least amount of time.

The Iguaces and Mariames had similar cultures and used some of the same feeding grounds. Each summer, both tribes would travel to south Texas and would return to their home territories in autumn. This means that even after Dorantes left the Iguaces, he still traveled through their territory at least twice a year. There may have been other occasions for Dorantes to have visited Aransas and Refugio Counties that the texts do not explicitly write about.

In early 1533, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca arrived at the territory of the Mariames and became their slave along with Dorantes. He was with them for the Mariames' annual migration through the Aransas and Refugio County area in 1533. In 1534, probably in July, the Mariames and Iguaces once again migrated to south Texas. The four castaways escaped while on this trip, so they did not return to Aransas and Refugio Counties.

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Recent History

Present-day Refugio and Aransas Counties became part of Spain's area of influence when a mission and presidio (fort) were established in neighboring Calhoun County in 1722. Presidio Captain Joaquin Orobio y Basterra explored the area in 1746 and discovered a river he named Aranzazu, a Basque word meaning "a thorny place."

Because of its position on the fringes of Spain's control, the area around St. Joseph Island, Aransas Bay, and Copano Bay was a hotbed of activity for smugglers and pirates in the 1700s. Copano Point, on the north shore of Copano Bay, was a smuggler's port dating back possibly as early as 1722. Sometime around 1750, Spain built a presidio named Aranzazu on the end of Live Oak Peninsula, near present-day Fulton, to watch over the entrance to Copano Bay. In 1785, Spanish governor Bernardo de Gálvez decided to turn Copano Point into an official port of entry and customs station and founded the town of Copano there.

The Karankawa, the 18th-century inhabitants of the Texas coast, were the last major native group in Texas that Spain attempted to Christianize. Mission Nuestra Señora del Refugio was founded as a mission to the Karankawa in present-day Calhoun County in 1793. It was moved to a site in Victoria County in 1794 and then, in 1795 to its final location in Refugio County. The Mexican government ordered the mission closed in 1824, but the order was not fully executed until 1830. The following year, settlers arrived via Copano and started building the town of Refugio around the old mission. Refugio became a full-fledged municipality under the Mexican government in 1834, and thus Refugio County was one of the Republic of Texas' original 23 counties.

During the Republic and antebellum period, Copano and a nearby town, St. Mary's, were the principal towns in Refugio County, but Union attacks and blockades focused on them forced the residents to flee inland. After the Civil War, several new towns, including Fulton and Rockport, were founded on Live Oak Peninsula. They prospered so quickly that in 1871, the Texas Legislature moved the seat of Refugio County to Rockport. The inland residents objected to this so strongly, however, that the county ended up being divided, with Refugio remaining the seat of Refugio County and Rockport becoming the seat of the newly-created Aransas County.

The texts contain no geographical information - descriptions of terrain, flora and fauna, rivers, etc. - that could help us identify more specifically where in Refugio and Aransas Counties the castaways lived and traveled. Consequently, we do not have a framework for estimating their whereabouts on a modern map.


CountyCastaways Who VisitedDatesCastaways Who Died
(St. Joseph Island)
Figueroa, Méndez, Andrés Dorantes, Alonso del Castillo, Estevanico, Diego Dorantes, Pedro de Valdivieso, Diego de Huelva, "Asturiano," "a young boy," one otherFrom Nov. 17, 1528 to about May 1531Méndez - killed by natives while trying to escape
The young boy and one other - starved
Diego Dorantes - killed by natives
Aransas and Refugio


(Possibly) Andrés Dorantes, Alonso del Castillo, Estevanico, Diego Dorantes, Pedro de Valdivieso, Diego de Huelva, "a young boy," one other

Andrés Dorantes, Estevanico, Alonso del Castillo, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca

April 1529

May 1530 to July 1534

By David Carson
Page last updated: July 24, 2017

1La Relación 9:6.

2The Joint Report, Chapter 3.

3The Joint Report, Chapter 3.

4The Joint Report, Chapter 3.

5The Joint Report, Chapter 4.

6The Joint Report, Chapter 4.

7For example, the Joint Report's account of Cabeza de Vaca and Lope de Oviedo leaving Follet's Island and ending up in the territory of the Quevenes and Mariames uses Dorantes's name instead of Cabeza de Vaca's throughout the story. This is only one of many instances of this error.

8The Joint Report, Chapter 4.

9The Joint Report, Chapter 4.

10The Joint Report, Chapter 4.

11It should be remembered that the Iguaces and Mariames would have been in south Texas for the tuna harvest in August. This causes a problem for our interpretation of the above timeline, wherein Estevanico finds Dorantes with the Iguaces in August, then Dorantes flees to the Mariames a few days later. The Joint Report states that the tunas were "ripe through August, thereby lasting fifty or sixty days." It also states that Cabeza de Vaca and his three friends escaped around the end of the tuna harvest on "the first of October," meaning the tunas were ripe in roughly August and September. La Relación states that the natives ate tunas "three months of the year" and gives the month of their escape from the tuna fields as September, on "the thirteenth of the moon." While the texts leave some room for interpretation as to exactly when the Iguaces and Mariames began and ended their annual migration to south Texas, it seems very unlikely that they would have still been in Aransas or Refugio Counties in the middle of August. While there are various ways to attempt to resolve this contradiction, the best explanation would seem to be the simplest: the texts contain errors, especially the Joint Report, which not only suffers from errors caused by lapses in the authors' ability to remember every event of the journey with accuracy, but also errors introduced by the editor.

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