- 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
The five boats were blown out to sea by a howling north wind and became separated. At vespers, Cabeza saw two of the boats. His men drew near to one of them, that of Governor Narváez, who told Cabeza that he was going to try to reach the shore, and that the treasurer could do the same if he wished. Cabeza replied’ that in his opinion they should first try to join the third boat, which was farther at sea. But Narváez’s boat began to pull toward the distant land. Cabeza writes: I, seeing his will, took my oar, as did all those in my boat who were able to do so, and we rowed until almost sunset. But the Governor had the strongest and healthiest of all the men in his Ixiat and we could not by any means follow or keep up with him. Seeing this, 1 asked him to give me a line from his boat so that we could follow him, but he replied that it would be no small thing if they themselves were able to reach land that night. I told him that since he saw the small chance that we had of following him and of doing what he had ordered, he should tell me what it was that he would have me do. He answered that now was not the time for one man to command another, and that each one should do what seemed best to save his own life, and that that was what he intended to do, and saying this, he drew away in his boat.
Cabeza and his men joined the other boat. They sailed together for four days until another storm separated them. Of the crew, only Cabeza and the boatswain had enough strength to work the boat; only they heard the roaring breakers which hurled them upon the Texas shore that day early in November, 1528.
After the castaways had eaten what little corn they had salvaged, Cabeza ordered one of the men, Lope de Oviedo, to climb a tree to survey the country. Oviedo reported that they were on an island. Cabeza sent him off to look around, and Oviedo found some empty Indian huts not far away and took from them a dog, some fish, and a pot, and started back to his companions. Cabeza meanwhile had sent two men to search for him.
They came upon him nearby, and they saw that three Indians with bows and arrows were following him and calling to him and he likewise was beckoning them on. Thus he arrived where we were, the Indians remaining a way back, seated on the shore. Within half an hour, some one hundred Indian bowmen joined the first three, who now, whether they were large or not, our fears caused to seem like giants.
Thus, probably a few miles below the present city of Galveston, on a desolate island now joined to the mainland by the sea’s powerful action and called Velasco Peninsula, Indians and white men met. This first meeting of Europeans and natives in the southwest of lhe United States was peaceful. The Indians brought fish and roots to the starving strangers, receiving trinkets in return. After resting a few days the Spaniards decided to try to re-embark. They dug their boat out of the sand, stripped oft their clothes and put them in it, and with much exertion launched the vessel. Two crossbow shots from shore they shipped a wave that soaked and chilled them. Another wave struck the boat, and it capsized, drowning three men who clung to it; the others were tossed again by the breakers upon the beach.
Naked, the Spaniards huddled among the dunes, chilled by the north wind—the norther that carries the cold of the Great Plains across Texas and deep into Mexico. Here the Indians found them once more, and so sad was the plight of the white men (with two of their dead lying among them) that the Indians sat down upon the sand and howled their ritual lamentation. The natives brought the castaways to their huts and warmed and led them and’ then danced all night, to the terror of the Europeans, who feared that they were being prepared for sacrifice.
The next day some fifty more Spaniards came into camp. Led by Andrés Dorantes and Alonso de Castillo, and including Dorantes’ slave, the Negro-Moor Estevanico, these survivors of the expedition had been wrecked a few miles up the beach the day before Cabeza’s boat had gone ashore.
Together the Spaniards agreed to launch the boat of Dorantes and Castillo. The men who had the strength and will might go in it; the others would make their way along the shore; and all would seek the land of Christians.
This attempt to flee the island also failed. The boat was launched, but it sank immediately. Marooned without provisions and with cold weather coming, the Spaniards decided to winter on the island. But they picked four men from the ranks—all four strong swimmers who might be more successful than some of their companions in crossing the wide bays, lagoons, and rivers—and sent them on down the coast in an effort to reach the Spanish settlements in Mexico.
Cold and stormy weather swept the island; the Indians could catch no fish and dig no roots; the flimsy huts gave no shelter; death came. Five Spaniards living apart in one hut became cannibals, “until only one remained who, being alone, there was no one who might eat him.” Of the more than eighty Spaniards who had come to the island, soon only fifteen remained alive. Then half the Indians died of a stomach sickness.