journey of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca remains one of the
most amazing feats of exploration in the Americas.
de Vaca was born into the Spanish nobility at Jerez de la Frontera
in Andalusia, Spain in 1490. Little of his early life is known,
except that he made his career in the military. In early 1527
he left Spain as a part of a royal expedition intended to occupy
the mainland of North America.
their fleet was battered by a hurricane off the shore of Cuba,
the expedition secured a new boat and departed for Florida. They
landed in March 1528 near what is now Tampa Bay, which the expedition
leader, Pánfilo de Narváez, claimed as the lawful
possession of the Spanish empire.
this confident declaration, the expedition was on the verge of
disaster. Narváez's decision to split his land and sea
forces proved a grievous error, as the ships were never able to
rendezvous with the land expedition. The party soon overstayed
its welcome with the Apalachee Indians of northern Florida by
taking their leader hostage. Expelled and pursued by the Indians,
suffering from numerous diseases, the surviving members of the
expedition were reduced to huddling in a coastal swamp and living
off the flesh of their horses. In late 1528, they built several
crude rafts from trees and horse hides and set sail, hoping to
return to Cuba.
thirst and starvation had reduced the expedition to about eighty
survivors when a hurricane dumped Cabeza de Vaca and his companions
on the Gulf Coast near what is now Galveston, Texas. They were
initially welcomed, but, as Cabeza de Vaca was to remember, "half
the natives died from a disease of the bowels and blamed us."
For the next four years he and a steadily dwindling number of
his comrades lived in the complex native world of what is now
East Texas, a world in which Cabeza transformed himself from a
conquistador into a trader and healer.
1532, only three other members of the original expedition were
still alive -- Alonso del Castillo Maldonando, Andrés Dorantes
de Carranca, and Estevan, an African slave. Together with Cabeza
de Vaca, they now headed west and south in hopes of reaching the
Spanish Empire's outpost in Mexico, becoming the first men of
the Old World to enter the American West. Their precise route
is not clear, but they apparently traveled across present-day
Texas, perhaps into New Mexico and Arizona and through Mexico's
northern provinces. In July 1536, near Culiacán in present-day
Sinaloa, they finally encountered a group of fellow Spaniards
who were on a slave-taking expedition. As Cabeza de Vaca remembered,
his countrymen were "dumbfounded at the sight of me, strangely
dressed and in company with Indians. They just stood staring for
a long time."
by the Spanish treatment of Indians, in 1537 Cabeza de Vaca returned
to Spain to publish an account of his experiences and to urge
a more generous policy upon the crown. He served as a Mexican
territorial governor, but was soon accused of corruption, perhaps
for his enlightened conduct toward Indians. He returned to Spain
and was convicted; a 1552 pardon allowed him to become a judge
in Seville, Spain, a position which he occupied until his death
in 1556 or 1557.