The Ordeal Of Cabeza De Vaca


Thirteen had left Malhado in 1529. Six died (four by drowning) during their march along the coast. During this journey of approximately 180 miles, the survivors had come upon another Spaniard, Figueroa. He was one of the four men who had been sent ahead from Malhado in the first weeks after the wreck of Cabeza’s and Dorantes’ boats to try to reach Mexico and bring assistance to the castaways wintering on the desolate island. Figueroa told Dorantes that two of his companions had died of starvation and exposure; the Indians had killed the third.

But there had been yet another Spanish survivor in the land, one Esquivel, to whom the Indians had brought Figueroa. Esquivel had described to him how his boat had been wrecked far back along the coast and how he had been found by Narváez, who had employed his own boat in ferrying the men from Esquivel’s boat over difficult stretches of the coast. But, “one night the Governor did not wish to go ashore and a coxswain and a sick page remained with him. In the boat there was neither water nor anything to eat and only a stone for an anchor. In the middle of the night the norther came up so strongly that it took the boat out to sea without anyone observing it and they never learned anything of him again.” The survivors of the boats of Narváez and Esquivel had struggled for life along the shore as their comrades were doing elsewhere on the coast, but these castaways too began to die during winter; the living dried the flesh of the dead and ate it, until only Esquivel remained.

Dorantes later learned from the Indians what had become of Esquivel. He “had wished to run away because a woman had dreamed that her son had to kill him and the Indians went after him and killed him and they showed Andrés Dorantes the sword and beads and book and the other things he had.” Figueroa, who had encountered Esquivel, himself became separated “farther down the coast” from Dorantes and the survivors of the group of thirteen, and no more was ever heard of him. All the others, after the journey from Malhado, were enslaved by the Indians and then killed, except Dorantes and Castillo and Estevanico.

For more than a year the three Spaniards and the Negro lived as slaves of their Indian masters. These Indians fed mainly on the roots, but also ate spiders, worms, caterpillars, lizards, snakes, and ant eggs. (“I believe,” Cabeza writes, “that were there stones in the land they would eat them.”) Though Cabeza describes them as thieves, liars, and drunkards, they were at the same time “a merry people, considering the hunger they suffer.” The women did the camp labor. The men were tireless runners and could follow a deer from morning to night. Sometimes the Indians set afire the grass of the plains to aid in capturing game and to drive away the intolerable hordes of mosquitoes that swarmed in the summer.

Cattle came here, [Cabeza states] and I have seen them three times, and partaken of them. It seems to me that they are the size of those of Spain. They have small horns … and very long hair, flocky, like a merino’s. Some are tawny, others black, and it seems to me that they have better and fatter meat than those of [Spain]. From the smaller ones the Indians make blankets to cover themselves, and from the larger ones they make shoes and shields. They come from the North over the land to the coast, spreading out over all the country more than four hundred leagues, and along their route and the valleys by which they come, the people who live nearby descend upon them and live off them.

Thus, the first description left by a white man of the American buffalo.

When the summer of 1533 came, the Spaniards and the Negro were brought by the Indians to the prickly-pear fields (most likely south of San Antonio). Before the prisoners had a chance to escape, the Indians fell to quarreling and took up their lodges and left. The four Christians (for Estevanico was a Christian) were denied by this dispute an opportunity to escape, and were separated once again, to spend another year in captivity.

After the passage of these hard months, the Indians reassembled to gorge on the tunas. The strangers gladly joined in feasting on the juicy, pear-shaped fruit. “There are many kinds of tunas,” Cabeza tells, “among them some which are very good, although all of them seemed so to me, for hunger never gave me time to choose.” By no means all the land was covered by cactus: “Throughout the countryside are very large and fine pastures of very good grass for cattle and it seems to me that it would be a fruitful land if it were worked and inhabited by civilized people.” Here the four men learned that they were indeed the last survivors of the Narváez expedition, for “the Indians told us that there were other Indians farther on, called Camones, who lived near the coast. They had killed all the men who had come in the [fifth boat from Florida], who had arrived so enfeebled that they could not defend themselves even when being killed.”

As the moon grew full in September, 1534, the Spaniards and the Moor slipped away from their masters. Not far off they came upon another tribe, the Avavares, who received them well. “That same night of our arrival some Indians came to Castillo and told him that they had great pains in their heads, and begged him to cure them. After he had blessed them and commended them to God, instantly the Indians said that the evil had left them and they went to their houses and brought many tunas and a piece of venison.”