The First Europeans in Texas
1528 - 1536
Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca and three companions, the first Europeans to penetrate the interior of Texas, were members of the ill-fated Panfilo de Narviez expedition from Cuba to Florida in 1527. The 242 Spaniards, stranded there, constructed five frail boats in which they attempted to sail along the coast to Mexico. The boats were destroyed by a storm in November, 1528, and all the explorers perished except De Vaca and three others. After nearly six years of servitude to the Indians and two years of wandering across strange lands the four survivors arrived on May 13, 1536, at Culiacan, the northern outpost of New Spain near the Gulf of California. After preparing a report of his adventures at Mexico City, De Vaca left for Spain to seek royal favor and a commission to lead an exploring expedition into the country he had visited. He landed at Lisbon on August 9, 1537, and went directly to the Court of Spain, where he learned that the commission he sought had been granted already to Hernando de Soto. Excerpts from De Vaca's account of the shipwreck and of his return to the Spanish Court follow. (for the full text of the story go to "The Journey of Alvar Nuņez Cabeza De Vaca")
I. CABEZA DE VACA SHIPWRECKED ON THE TEXAS COAST
From Buckingham Smith (trans.), The narrative of Altar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca (New York, 1871), 61-77.
. . . Thus we continued in company, eating a daily allowance of half a handful of raw maize, until the end of four days, when we lost sight of each other in a storm; . Because of winter and its inclemency, the many days we had suffered hunger, and the heavy beating of the waves, the people began next day to despair in such a manner that when the sun sank, all who were in my boat were fallen one on another, so near to death that there were few among them in a state of sensibility. Of the whole number at this time not five men were on their feet; and when the night came, only the master and myself were left, who could work the boat. Two hours after dark he said to me that I must take charge of her as he was in such condition he believed he should die that night. . .
Near the dawn of day, it seemed to me I heard the tumbling of the sea; for as the coast was low, it roared loudly. Surprised at this, I called to the master, who answered me that he believed we were near the land.
Near the shore a wave took us, that knocked the boat out of water the distance of the throw of a crowbar, and from the violence with which she struck, nearly all the people who were in her like dead, were roused to consciousness. Finding themselves near the shore, they began to move on hands and feet, crawling to land into some ravines. There we made fire, parched some of the maize we brought, and found some rain water. From the warmth of the fire the people recovered their faculties, and began somewhat to exert themselves. The day on which we arrived was the sixth of November .
After the people had eaten, I ordered Lope de Oviedo, who had more strength and was stouter than any of the rest, to go to some trees that were near by, and climbing into one of them to look about and try to gain some knowledge of the country. He did as I bade, and made out that we were on an island.
[He] found some huts, without tenants, they having gone into the woods. He took from these an earthen pot, a little dog, some few mullets, and returned.
. . . Three Indians with bows and arrows followed and were calling to him, while he, in the same way, was beckoning them on. Thus he arrived where we were, the natives remaining a little way back, seated on the shore. Half an hour after, they were supported by one hundred other Indian bowmen, who if they were not large, our fears made giants of them. They stopped near us with the first three. It were idle to think that any among us could make defence; for it would have been difficult to find six that could rise from the ground. The Assessor and I went out and called to them, and they came to us. We endeavored the best we could to encourage them and secure their favor. We gave them beads and hawkbells, and each of them gave me an arrow, which is a pledge of friendship. They told us by signs that they would return in the morning and bring us something to eat, as at that time they had nothing.
At sunrise the next day, the time the Indians appointed, they came according to their promise, and brought us a large quantity of fish with certain root some a little larger than walnuts, other a trifle smaller, the part got from under the water and with much labor. In the evening they returned and brought us more fish and roots. They sent their women and children to look at us, who went back rich with the hawk-bells and beads given them, and they came afterwards on other days, returning as before. Finding that we had provision, fish, roots, water and other things we asked for, we determined to embark again and pursue our course. Having dug out our boat from the sand in which it was buried, it became necessary that we should strip, and go through great exertion to launch her, we being in such a state that things very much lighter sufficed to make us great labor.
Thus embarked, at the distance of two cross-bow shots in the sea we shipped a wave that entirely wet us. As we were naked, and the cold was very great, the oars loosened in our hands, and the next blow the sea struck us, capsized the boat. The Assessor and two others . . . were drowned under her. As the surf near the shore was very high, a single roll of the sea threw the rest into the waves. . . . The survivors escaped naked as they were born, with the loss of all they had; and although the whole was of little value, at that time it was worth much, as we were then in November, the cold was severe, and our bodies were so emaciated the bones might be counted with little difficulty, having become the perfect figures of death.
At sunset, the Indians thinking that we had not gone, came to seek us and bring us food; . . . [and] seeing no better course, and that any other led to a nearer and more certain death, I disregarded what was said, and be-sought the Indians to take us to their dwellings. They signified that it would give them delight, and that we should tarry little that they might do what we asked.
Because of the extreme coldness of the weather, lest any one should die or fail by the way, they caused four or five very large fires to be placed at intervals, and at each they warmed us; and when they saw that we had regained some heat and strength, they took us to their habitations, where we found that they had made a house for us with many fires in it.
Captains Andres Dorantes and Alonzo del Castillo [having come up with all the persons of their boat] . . .were surprised at seeing us in the condition we were, and very much pained at having nothing to give us, as they had brought no other clothes than what they had on.
Thus together again, they related that on the fifth day of that month, their boat had capsized a league and a half from there, and they escaped without losing anything. We all agreed to refit their boat, that those of us might go in her who had vigor sufficient and disposition to do so, and the rest should remain until they be-came well enough to go, as they best might, along the coast until God our Lord should be pleased to conduct us alike to a land of Christians. Directly as we arranged this, we set ourselves to work. Before we threw the boat out into the water, Tavera, a gentleman of our company, died; and the boat, which we thought to use, came to its end, sinking from the unfitness to float.
As we were in the condition I have mentioned, the greater number of us naked, and the weather boisterous for travel, and to cross rivers and bays by swimming, and we being entirely without provisions or the means of carrying any, we yielded obedience to what necessity required, to pass the winter in the place where we were. We also agreed that four men of the most robust should go on to Panuco, which we believed to be near, and if, by Divine favor, they should reach there, they could give information of our remaining on that island, and of our sorrows and destitution. These men were excellent swimmers.
The four Christians being gone, after a few days such cold and tempestuous weather succeeded that the Indians could not pull up roots, the cane wears in which they took fish no longer yielded any thing, and the houses being very open, our people began to die. Five Christians, of a mess on the coast, came to such extremity that they ate their dead; the body of the last one only was found unconsumed. . . . This produced great commotion among the Indians, giving rise to so much censure that had they known it in season to have done so, doubtless they would have destroyed any survivor, and we should have found ourselves in the utmost perplexity. Finally, of eighty men who arrived in the two instances, fifteen only remained alive.
After this, the natives were visited by a disease of the bowels, of which half their number died. They conceived that we had destroyed them, and believing it firmly, they concerted among themselves to dispatch those of us who survived. When they were about to execute their purpose, an Indian who had charge of me, told them not to believe we were the cause of those deaths, since if we had such power we should also have averted the fatality from so many of our people, whom they had seen die without our being able to minister relief; already very few of us remained, and none doing hurt or wrong, and that it would be better to leave us unharmed.
To this island we gave the name Malhado [Misfortune]. The people we found there are large and well formed. . . . The stay they make on the island is from October to the end of February. Their subsistence then is the root I have spoken of, got from under the water in November and December. They have wears of cane and take fish only in this season; afterwards they live on the roots. At the end of February, they go into other parts to seek food; for then the root is beginning to grow and is not good..
There is another custom, which is, when a son or brother dies, at the house where the death takes place, they do not go after food for three months, but sooner famish, their relatives and neighbors providing what they eat. As in the time we were there a great number of the natives died, in most houses there was very great hunger, because of the keeping of this their custom and observance; for although they who sought after food worked hard, yet from the severity of the season they could get but little; in consequence, the Indians who kept me, left the island, and passed over in canoes to the main, into some bays where are many oysters. For three months in the year they eat nothing besides these, and drink very bad water. There is great want of wood; misquitos are in great plenty. The houses are of mats, set up on masses of oyster shells, which they sleep upon, and in skins, should they accidentally possess them. In this way we lived until April [1, 1529], when we went to the sea shore, where we ate blackberries all the month, during which time the Indians did not omit to observe their areitos [mystic dancing and singing] and festivities. . .
CABEZA DE VACA AT THE SPANISH COURT
From Buckingham Smith, Narratives of the Career of Hernando de Soto in the Conquest of Florida as Told by a Knight of Elvas (New York, 1866), 7-10.
After Don Hernando [de Soto] had obtained the concession, a fidalgo arrived at Court from the Indias, Cabaza de Vaca by name, who had been in Florida with Narvaez; and he stated how he with four others had escaped, taking the way to New Spain; that the Governor had been lost in the sea, and the rest were all dead. He brought with him a written relation of adventures, which said in some places Here I have seen this; and the rest which I saw I leave to confer of with His Majesty; generally, however, he described the poverty of the country, and spoke of the hardships he had undergone. Some of his kinsfolk, desirous of going to the Indias, strongly urged him to tell them whether he had seen any rich country in Florida or not; but he told them that he could not do so; because he and another (by name Orantes [Dorantes], who had remained in New Spain with the purpose of returning into Florida) had sworn not to divulge certain things which they had seen, lest some one might beg the government in advance of them, for which he had come to Spain; nevertheless, he gave them to understand that it was the richest country in the world.
Don Hernando de Soto was desirous that Cabeza de Vaca should go with him, and made him favorable proposals; but after they had come upon terms they disagreed, because the Adelantado would not give the money requisite to pay for a ship that the other had bought. Baltasar de Gallegos and Cristobal de Espindola told Cabaza de Vaca, their kinsman, that as they had made up their minds to go to Florida, in consequence of what he had told them, they besought him to counsel them; to which he replied, that the reason he did not go was because he hoped to receive another government, being reluctant to march under the standard of another; that he had himself come to solicit the conquest of Florida, and though he found it had already been granted to Don Hernando de Soto, yet, on account of his oath, he could not divulge what they desired to know; nevertheless, he would advise them to sell their estates and go, - that in so doing they would act wisely.
As Soon as Cabeza de Vaca had an opportunity he spoke with the Emperor; and gave him an account of all that he had gone through with, seen, and could by any means ascertain. . .
(for the full text of the story go to "The Journey of Alvar Nuņez Cabeza De Vaca")