- 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
Perhaps also they took pleasure in their prosperity and power. Laden with gifts, which they distributed as fast as they were received, and exercising such authority over the awed and superstitious Indians that none dared to take a drink of water without permission from the strangers, the four wandered on. Their followers engaged in chain-reaction plundering while extolling to the plundered their own example and the magical powers of the Children of the Sun.
Along river valleys and across mountain ridges they went west and northwest through northern Mexico. The land was rugged and dry, except in the verdant valleys. The natives continued their attentions, presenting the strangers with ceremonial rattles and a bell of copper, and introducing them to pifiones, the nuts of the pinon tree. In this country the travelers were given corn flour. And Cabeza worked a true cure (of his other “cures” he was always careful to point out that the Indians believed that they had been cured). He operated on an Indian who had been shot by an arrow, removed the arrowhead from deep in the man’s chest, and with a deer bone as a needle sewed up the wound.
Now they had roast quail and venison to eat and rabbits killed by throwing-sticks, and they blessed the food of the crowds of natives who frequently accompanied them. On they went, crossing “a great river,” probably the Rio Grande again, near the Big Bend; then, after journeying 250 miles through dry, rough country, they again forded “a very large river,” having come back once more to the Rio Grande, farther north. Here they saw the first habitations that looked like houses rather than huts, and the Indians gave them corn, pumpkins, and beans.
The Indians’ superstitious fear grew as the journey went on, until the Spaniards themselves began to pray that the terrorized natives would not flee, abandoning their new-found alien gods in the wilderness. Despite their fear, the Indians continued to care for the strangers and to hand them on from tribe to tribe as they moved westward toward a land reported to be rich in maize.
The years had hardened the four men physically and confirmed them in their faith.
We used to walk all day without eating until night, and we ate so little that the Indians were astonished to see it … We possessed much authority and influence with the Indians, and in order to preserve these we seldom spoke to them. The Negro always spoke to them, keeping himself informed of the routes we wished to follow … We passed through a great many [peoples of] diverse tongues; with all of them Our Lord God favored us, for they always understood us, and we them. We asked and answered questions by signs as well as though they spoke our language and we theirs, because, although we knew six languages, we were not able to use them everywhere, there being a thousand variations. In all those lands those who were at war made peace so as to come and to receive us and to bring us all they possessed. In this manner we left the land in peace, and we told them by signs which they understood that in Heaven there was a man Whom we called God, He Who had created Heaven and Earth, and we adored Him and held Him as Our Lord, and that we did as He commanded us and that all good things came from His hand and that if they did thus all would go well with them. Their comprehension was so great that had we had a language by which we could have made ourselves perfectly understood we would have left them all Christians.
Week after week they walked westward from the Rio Grande, across northwestern Mexico, over the passes of the Sierra Madre, down the western mountain valleys toward the coast, into a land of relative plenty where there were corn and beans, fixed habitations, and cotton cloth. The Indians brought the Spaniards corals from the Gulf of California and turquoises that came from a land of lofty mountains and large buildings far to the north—the Pueblo country of Arizona and New Mexico. In one town Dorantes was presented with six hundred open deer hearts: this place they named Corazónes. It was near what is now Ures, in Sonora, “the entrance into many provinces on the South Sea.”
It was the spring of 1536. There were no other Christians, nor rumors of them, here in the unexplored far northwest of Mexico.
To the south the wanderers made their way, threading the valleys between the mountains and the ocean^ One day, while waiting for a rain-swollen river to subside, Castillo saw at the neck of an Indian the buckle of a sword belt and stitched to it a horseshoe nail. We took them and we asked the native what they were: he told us that they had come from the sky. We questioned him further as to who had brought them thence. They all replied that some men who wore beards like us had come from the sky and arrived at that river, bringing horses and lances and swords, and that they had lanced two [Indians]. With as much dissimulation as we could attain we asked them what these men had then done. They replied to us that they had gone to the sea and put their lances beneath the water and that they themselves had gone beneath the water and that afterward they saw them go on the surface toward the sunset. We gave many thanks to God, Our Lord, for what we heard, for we were’ despairing of ever hearing of Christians.