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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 four hurried on with their retinue. News about the other Christians became frequent, but it was bad news, at least for the Indians. The fertile countryside deserted, the villages burned, and the remaining inhabitants hidden in the mountains—all told of a Spanish slaving expedition from across the frontier of European settlement to the south. Still the four travelers were joined by awed Indians bearing gifts; still the Indians who had come with the four men from as far as three hundred miles back along the trail continued to journey on, assured by Cabeza of his protection.
Signs of Christians became numerous. Only the day before, some Indians reported to Cabeza, they had seen them. On the morning of the next day, near the Petatlán River (now the Sinaloa), Cabeza came upon Christians on horseback, who received a great shock to see me, so strangely dressed and accompanied by Indians. They stared at me a long time, so astonished that they neither spoke to me nor drew near to question me. I told them to bring me to where their captain was … and I asked him to give me a certificate of the year and the month and the day on which I had arrived there and the manner in which I came, and thus it was done.
By the Sinaloa River, not far from the Pacific Ocean and about one hundred miles north of the border settlement of San Miguel, the odyssey of Cabeza, Dorantes, Castillo, and Estevanico ended. The Indians accompanying the gods did not wish to abandon them until they had been conveyed into the safekeeping of other Indians; nor did these Indians wish to lose their protectors, for fear of the other white men.
Cabeza relates that the slave-hunting Christians took offense at this and made their interpreter tell [the Indians] that we were like themselves, and that we had been lost a long time, and that we were people of no account, and that they were the lords of that land, who had to be obeyed and served. But all this that was said to them the Indians reckoned as little or nothing, and conversing among themselves they said that the Christians lied, because we came from where the sun rises, and they whence it sets; that we healed the sick, while they killed the sound; that we came naked and barefooted, while they came clothed and on horses and with lances; and that we were not covetous of anything, but at once all that was given to us we gave away and we remained with nothing, while the others had no aim but to rob everything they found and never gave anything to anyone.
Cabeza finally persuaded the Indians to return to their homes and fields, and he thanked them and dismissed them in peace. With an escort the four travelers started on their way to Mexico City. But their efforts to protect the natives from the slave-hunters had endangered their own lives. Only the arrival of a well-disposed higher official saved Cabeza and the others from possible death at the hands of their own countrymen. At the request of this official, Cabeza and his companions pacified the frightened and rebellious Indians of the country through which they passed.
From the border settlement of San Miguel they pushed on three hundred miles to Compostela, where the cruel governor of the province resided; then another five hundred miles to Mexico City. There they were joyfully received and honored by the viceroy, Mendoza, and by the conqueror Cortes. The harsh imprint of their journey was still upon them, for Cabeza tells that it was some time after returning to the land of Christians before he could stand the touch of clothes upon his body, or sleep anywhere but upon the ground.
Cabeza reached Spain the following summer, but by 1540 he was again in the New World, now as governor of Paraguay. Political difficulties led to his recall and imprisonment; he returned to Spain and obscurity until his death, perhaps in the 1550’s.
Castillo and Dorantes settled in Mexico.
It was the Negro Christian from North Africa, Estevanico, who died like the conquistador he was. Incited by the rumors of civilizations and treasures in the unknown lands to the north of the regions crossed by Cabeza and his companions, Viceroy Mendoza sent out an expedition led by Fray Marcos de Niza. Its guide was Estevanico. Carrying the medicine rattle which he had picked up on his journey from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the Negro-Moor from Azamor, on the coast of Morocco, was killed in 1539 by Indians in the Pueblo country of New Mexico. He had blazed the trail that would be followed, a year later, by Coronado.