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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 Spaniards named this place Malhado—Bad Luck Island. But with the help of the Indians, the fifteen Europeans survived. These Indians went naked, except for “the women, who covered their bodies somewhat with a wool that grows in the trees.” The men were large and well-formed; they pierced their lower lips and sometimes their nipples with pieces of cane. They treated their children mildly, engaged in prolonged, lachrymose funeral rites, and had taboos against in-laws. Their beliefs involved the foreigners in a practice which in the end was to save the lives of some of the hapless group. “They wished to make us physicians, without our taking examinations nor asking us for our diplomas,” Cabeza wrote.
They cure illness by blowing on the sitk, and with that breath and the placing on of hands they cast out the sickness, and they ordered us to do the same and to be useful to them in some way. We laughed at that, telling them that it was a farce and that we did not know how to cure. For this they took away our food until we did as they told us … The manner in which we cured was by blessing them and breathing on them and by praying a Pater Nosier and an Avc Maria and by supplicating as best we could God our Lord that he might give them health … God our Lord willed in His clemency that all those for whom we had prayed (and after we had blessed them) told the others that they were sound and healthy. Because of this they treated us well, and they did without food in order to give it to us, and they gave us skins and trinkets.
In the spring of 1529, the Spaniards separated. Two, Lope de Oviedo and Alaniz, remained on Malhado because they were too weak to travel. Cabcza had earlier been isolated from his fellows, for he had been taken to the mainland by some of the Indians during the winter and there had become desperately ill. Thirteen (one more Spaniard had appeared during the winter) started off toward Mexico. Cabeza’s illness prevented him from joining his concernions in their journey; he was left behind, the lone white man, so far as he knew, on the vast and unexplored mainland of North America above Mexico.
For Cabeza de Vaca this was the beginning of lour years of prolonged hardship, a period that called on all the castaway’s courage and vitality. He suffered bad treatment from the Indians and from nature. “Among many other tasks, 1 had to get out roots to eat from under the water and from among the reeds where they grew in the ground and from this my fingers were so worn that they bled if a straw touched them, and the reeds, many of which were broken, tore my flesh in many places.” Hunger and cold beset him. Sometimes he was alone, without even Indian companionship; at other times he was no more than a slave.
To free himself from dependence upon his Indian masters and to learn more about the surrounding country, Cabcza gradually set himself up as a trader between his tribe and others of the region, traveling among the often hostile Indians to exchange the shells, sea beans, and goods lrom the coast for the skins, ocher, and flints of the interior.
Each year Cabcza returned to Malhado to visit Lope de Oviedo, hoping to persuade his comrade, who was now the only white man on the island, to depart with him in search of Christians. Not until 1533 did Oviedo agree. He could not swim, but Cabeza managed to get him to the mainland and across the first four rivers whit h they encountered. Down the coast near a great bay the two Europeans came upon other Indians who told them that farther on there were three men, two of whom looked like the Spaniards. These Indians also knew of the fate of other members of the expedition who had tome that way more than four years earlier. All had died of cold or hunger or had been killed by the natives—for sport or in obedience to omens which had come to the Indians in dreams.
Cabeza and Oviedo waited there by a river (probably the Guadalupe) because these natives told them that the strangers who looked like themselves would soon be brought by their Indian captors to the river, where the tribes gathered to eat the nuts which grew plentifully on the trees lining the banks. While Cabeza and Oviedo waited, the natives abused them, slapping them and holding drawn arrows against their chests and telling them that they were going to be killed. Oviedo’s courage failed him, and he decided to return to Malhado. Cabeza implored him to remain but he would not; he turned and went back with some Indian women who had come with him from Malhado, and disappeared from history.
Two days later Alonso de Castillo and Andrés Dorantes, and Estevanico, his slave, were brought by their Indian masters to the “place of the nuts,” and the four men rejoiced much at finding each other alive.
The Spaniards agreed that they must conceal from their captors their desire to escape. They plotted to stay with these Indians, and to wait until the coming of summer when the tribe that held them prisoners would move to the prickly-pear grounds to feast on tunas, the purple fruit which grows from the edges of the flat-leaved, spiny cactus. To the tuna grounds came natives from distant places; with them the Spaniards might continue their !light to the south and west. Cabeza and the others were taken as slaves by various Indian families; but before being separated from his comrades he heard from Dorantes the story of the fate of the eleven men who had left Malhado for Mexico with Dorantes and Caslillo four years before, when Cabeza had been too ill to accompany them. Cabeza also learned what had become of others of the expedition who had come ashore in their rickety boats.