The Ordeal Of Cabeza De Vaca


Winter was not far off, and the natives told the Spaniards that the country ahead was poor in game and abandoned by the Indians in the cold months. The travelers decided to remain where they were. They stayed with the Avavares for eight months; during most of that time they were in great want.

We went naked in that land, and since we were unaccustomed to that, in the manner of serpents we cast our skins two times each year. The sun and the air made great sores on our chests and backs, which pained us much because of the large, heavy loads which we carried. Often, after we brought wood from the thickets, blood ran from our bodies in many places … Sometimes, when it was my turn to get wood, and after it had cost me much blood, I was not able to bring it out, either by carrying or dragging. When I found myself in such labors I had no other remedy or consolation but to think of the Passion of Our Redeemer, Jesus Christ, and of the blood that He shed for me, and to consider how much more serious was the torment from the thorns which He suffered than that which I was suffering. Sometimes the Indians would order me to scrape and soften hides, and the greatest good fortune that I had there was the day in which they gave me something to scrape, because I scraped very much and I used to eat those scrapings and they would sustain me for two or three days.

Castillo and, increasingly, Cabeza were obliged to attempt cures upon the Indians. The white men did so fearfully, and with many prayers that God might indeed make their ministrations effective. The Indians, at least, always responded favorably, including one man whom Cabeza restored to health, although he had “all the appearances of death.”

Cabeza describes many of the customs of the tribes with whom he and his companions lived and among whom they traveled (probably between the Colorado River and the Rio Grande in southern Texas) when they resumed their journey in 1535. Children were suckled until they were twelve years old; this was often the only nourishment they could be given. Quarrels in the tribe were settled with fists and clubs, not bows and arrows, and were followed by a period during which the contestants went to live apart from the tribe. In enemy territory at night the Indians dug trenches around their camp; thus concealed, they were ready to fight surprise with surprise. Emerging from their huts in the dark, they crouched down to escape detection; this also gave them a chance to observe any unfamiliar object that might stand out against the sky. In battle they bent low and leaped about to escape enemy arrows.

He who would fight the Indians, Cabeza warned, should be advised that they show no weakness nor covetousness for their goods. While war lasts they have to be treated rigorously, for if they discover fear or covetousness in others they are men who know how to take the opportunity for vengeance and they take strength in the fear of their adversaries … They see and hear better and have keener senses than any men I know of in the world. They are great in withstanding hunger and thirst and cold, as though they were more accustomed to these and made for them more than other men.

In the late spring or early summer of 1535 the wanderers started again on their quest for Mexico. Now the pattern of their lives changed. They had acquired a reputation as medicine men, and as they moved from tribe to tribe those whom they visited met them with rejoicing; those left behind wept. Their diet also changed, although not for the better: now they ate beans of the mesquite tree, mashed and mixed with water and earth.

Perhaps at this stage of their journey they crossed the lower Rio Grande and entered Mexico. They were still lost, and still hundreds of miles from the nearest Spanish settlements to the south at Pánuco. But their march took on the character of a triumphal procession, or at least that of a successful traveling medicine show. At each village the Indians crowded around them, brought children and the sick to be touched and cured, and then escorted the travelers to the next settlement.

[So] began another novel custom: those who accompanied us began to act badly, taking the goods and looting the houses of those who received us so well, without leaving anything. It worried us greatly to see those who received us well badly treated, and also we feared that this would cause dispute … but the Indians who lost their goods, knowing our sadness, consoled us, telling us that the matter should not grieve us but that they were so content to see us that they considered their goods well bestowed, and that farther on they would be repaid by others who were very rich.

When the wanderers came in sight of the mountains of northeastern Mexico, they made what seems a strange decision. They turned from the coastal plain and headed inland, away from the direct route to the Spanish settlements. Cabeza gives the reason for this change: fear of the evil disposition of the coastal Indians, in contrast to the good treatment received from the inland tribes. Cabeza also hints that these indomitable men swung away to the west and north in search of that discovery of untold riches, that conquest of fabled cities, which had eluded them since they had sailed from Spain eight years earlier.