- Historic Sites
The Ordeal Of Cabeza De Vaca
Marooned on the coast of Texas, he wandered for eight years in a land no European had ever seen
December 1960 | Volume 12, Issue 1
A crude boat carrying forty exhausted Spaniards drifted close to the long Texas beach. “Near dawn it seemed to me that the tumbling roar of the sea could be heard. Surprised, I called the boatswain and he replied that we were near the coast. We sounded and found ourselves in seven fathoms. It seemed to the boatswain that we ought to keep to sea until sunrise and I took an oar and pulled on the land side until we were a league off-shore. Then we turned the stern to the sea. Near the land a breaker took and threw the boat the cast of a horseshoe out of the water. With the violent blow almost all the men, who were like dead, came to themselves and seeing the beach near the) began to climb from the boat and crawl on hands and knees to some ravines where we made fire and toasted some corn that we had brought and drank some rain water that we found. The heat of the fire restored the men and they began somewhat to exert themselves. The day that we arrived here was the sixtli of the month of November.” The year was 1528.
Thus Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca ∗ of Jerez, treasurer of the ill-fated Narvaez expedition, which had set out from Spain in June, 1527, with five ships and six hundred men to explore and settle the lands between Florida and Mexico, tells how he came with his few remaining companions to the unknown land of Texas. Years before De Soto and Coronado entered what would become the United States, he was to make one of man’s great land journeys, crossing Texas and Mexico from the Gulf to the Pacific Ocean with two other while men and a Negro slave.
∗ The name Cabeza de Vaca means, literally, “head of a cow.” The King of Spain bestowed it upon an ancestor after the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212. This man was a shepherd who had marked with a cow’s skull a trail by which the Spanish were enabled to outflank and defeat a Moorish army.
The Narváez expedition had bad hick from the beginning: bad luck in its commander, the rash Pánfilo de Narvaez, who in 1520 had lost an eye in a fight that occurred when, at the behest of the governor of Cuba, he had attempted to halt Cortés’ march to the interior of Mexico; bad luck at Santo Domingo, the first New World port of call, where two men quit the expedition; bad luck in Cuba, where the ships were scattered by a hurricane and sixty men and twenty horses were lost.
The expedition spent the winter of 1527–28 in Cuba, took on fresh recruits and horses, and sailed in the spring for the little-known shores of Florida. On April 14—Holy Thursday—the five vessels anchored at the mouth of what was probably Tampa Bay. Here Governor Narváez—the title was one often granted by the crown to would-be conquerors—made his most important decision, and so insured the destruction of his expedition. He divided his force. The bulk of his men he took ashore and with them set out northward toward the place which the Indians called Apalache; there, they said, the Spaniards would find much gold. The ships were ordered to run along the coast, and were supposed” to meet the men marching by land at a vague rendezvous. That rendezvous was never kept. Alter a year of fruitless searching along the coast, the ships returned to Cuba.
The three hundred men making up the land party, each with two pounds of hardtack and half a pound of bacon, struggled alone the coast of Florida, battling Indians all the while. When, late in June, they reached Apalache (perhaps near Tallahassee), the Spaniards found a few huts, corn, and hostile natives, but no gold. The invaders pushed inland, but hunger, sickness, and frequent attacks by the Indians made their march a nightmare.
In desperation Narváez turned back to the coast and called a council. Cabeza writes: We agreed on a remedy most difficult to execute, which was to make boats in which to depart. This appeared an impossibility to all, for we knew not how to do this work, nor were there tools, nor iron, nor a forge, nor oakum, nor resin, nor rigging … But God willed it that one of the company should say that he could make some wooden tubes which, with deerskins, would serve as bellows … and we agreed thus to make from our stirrups, spurs and crossbows and the other things of iron that we had, the nails, saws, axes and other tools of which there was such need … We agreed that every third day we would slaughter a horse to be divided among those working on the boats and the sick.
On September 20, five boats were ready, each thirty-three feet long, calked with palmetto fiber and pitched with pine resin. From palmetto fiber and the horses’ tails and manes the men made rope and rigging, and from their shins, sails. They flayed the horses’ legs entire and tanned the skin to make water bottles.
Two days later, they ate the last horse. Leaving behind more than fifty companions who had died of diseasc or wounds, some two hundred and fifty survivors crowded into the five frail vessels and sailed from the place they called the Bay of Horses. They followed the shore line to the west, confident, in their ignorance of geography, that before long they would find safety among their countrymen in Mexico.
But the sea was as perilous as the land. The gunwales of the boats almost awash, their corn supply almost exhausted, the horsehide water carriers rotten and useless, the Spaniards groped along the coast, stopping to beg or to fight the Indians for fish and water. Maddened by thirst, some men drank salt water and died. One day the voyagers came to the mouth of a broad river whose current drove the boats away from the shore, but repaid the men with fresh water. It was the Mississippi.