A Desperate Trek Across America

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This real or imagined gifts of healing enabled the four survivors to move unimpeded, their reputation preceding them wherever they went. Nor were their actions a mere charade to win food and respect. They believed that their curative abilities went somehow much deeper: they came to see their incredible suffering odyssey as a test to which God had subjected them before revealing the true purpose of their existence. They viewed their sufferings as mortifications of the flesh, their beatings and extreme hunger akin to those of flagellants who inflicted torment upon themselves or of monks who fasted nigh unto death.

Once, alone and unable to find his party’s camp, Cabeza de Vaca wandered in the woods naked in dread of the approaching chill of night. “But it pleased God that I found a tree aflame, and warmed by its fire I endured the cold that night.” For five days he nursed that fire, before finally finding his companions.

The four wanderers were no longer mere castaways; they had become explorers once again. Yet theirs was a most peculiar expedition. Four naked and unarmed outsiders were led by hundreds, even thousands, of Indians. They were fed, protected, and passed off as though prized possessions from one indigenous group to the next. They became the first outsiders to behold what would become the American Southwest and northern Mexico, the first non-natives to describe this enormous land and its peoples.

By the time the four reemerged from the continental interior and reached the Pacific Coast, they had been so utterly transformed by the experience that fellow Europeans could hardly recognize them. A posse of Spanish slavers operating in what is now northwestern Mexico spotted potential prey: 13 Indians walking barefoot and clad in skins. On closer inspection, some of the details did not seem quite right. One was a black man. Could he be an Indian or an African emerging from the heart of the continent? Another member of the party appeared to be a haggard white man with hair hanging down to his waist and a beard reaching to his chest.

When Cabeza de Vaca addressed them in perfect Spanish, the slavers were “so astonished,” he wrote, “that they neither talked to me nor managed to ask me anything,” but bent themselves on rounding up the Indian escort. But Cabeza de Vaca and his companions would not allow it. No longer did the castaways view their companions as mere chattels, the rightful prize of Christian conquest.

Perhaps no one understood their transformation more than the Indians themselves, who were unable to believe that Cabeza de Vaca and his three companions belonged to the same race as the slavers. The Indians had observed, he later wrote, that “we cured the sick, and they [the Spanish slavers] killed those who were well; that we came naked and barefoot, and they went about dressed and on horses and with lances; and that we did not covet anything but rather, everything they gave us we later returned and remained with nothing, and that the others had no other objective but to steal everything they found and did not give anything to anyone.”

Cabeza de Vaca went back to Spain, attached himself to the court of Charles V, and was able to present his ideas of a humane colonization of the New World. After years of lobbying, he was dispatched to South America, where he attempted to carry out his plans, alas with little success. He spent the last years of his life in his native Andalusia, reminiscing about his adventures in another world.