San José State University
Thayer Watkins
Silicon Valley
& Tornado Alley

Cabeza de Vaca's Travels
Through Mid-North America 1528-1536

Cabeza de Vaca

Cabeza de Vaca's Travels
Through Mid-North America 1528-1536

Alvar Nuñez Cabeça de Vaca was one of four survivors of the expedition to Florida commanded by Pánfilo Narvaez. He was the grandson on his father's side of Pedro de Vera, the conqueror of the Canary Islands. His mother's family name, the one he used, was Cabeça de Vaca, Head of Cow or Cow's Head. This was an illustrious name given to an ancestor that guided the Christian king of Navarre and his army through a secret mountain pass to attack and defeat a Moorish army. The entrance to the mountain pass was marked by the skull of a cow. The king, in gratitude of the service rendered by the guide, gave him the family name of Cabeça de Vaca.

The other three surviving members of the expedition were Alonzo del Castillo Maldonado of Salamanca, Estevanico, an African Moorish slave born in Açamor (Morroco), and Andrés Dorantes of Béjar. Cabeça de Vaca was a native of Jerez. Hereafter the modern spelling of Cabeça, Cabeza, will be used.

Pánfilo Narvaez secured from the King of Spain the right to conquer and colonize the land between Florida and the Rio de las Palmas in eastern Mexico. The expedition of six hundred soldiers and colonists set sail in five ships from Spain in June of 1527. Cabeza de Vaca was appointed treasurer and high sheriff of the expedition by the King of Spain.

The expedition fleet stopped for 45 days at the island of Santa Domingo to take on supplies. More than 140 members of the expedition deserted there to settle on that island. The next stop was Cuba where two of the five ships and sixty men were lost in a hurricane. Pánfilo Narvaez purchased additional ships and secured additional men and horses, but the size of the expedition was down to four hundred compared to the six hundred it started with. Upon leaving Cuba the ships were caught in a severe storm that drove them toward Florida. The diminished expedition arrived in Florida near what is now called Tampa Bay.

At this point the short-comings of Pánfilo Narvaez as a leader became crucial. He wanted most of the men to disembark upon the land but one of the ships to be sent off to search the coast for a harbor the ship's pilot believed existed. Cabeza de Vaca argued that the soldiers should not leave the ships until the ships were secure in known harbor and that in this wilderness if the expedition were divided the parts would never find each other. Despite the misgivings of Cabeza de Vaca and others, Pánfilo Narvaez persisted with his plan and Cabeza de Vaca acquiesced to the plan.

Three hundred men left the ships near Tampa Bay that day in 1528 and only four survived, returning to civilization eight years later thousands of miles away on the west coast of Mexico in what is now the state of Sinaloa.

Before the fatal separation of the expedition force from the ships there were several forays made into the surrounding countryside. Tampa Bay was found and exploratory parties made several contacts with the natives. The natives of the area were not at first unfriendly but soon they made it known that they wanted the Spanish to leave. The native villages the Spanish encountered were small, consisting of only ten to fifteen huts constructed of woven mats.

Since the range of exploration was limited as long as the expedition force had to stay within range of the ships Pánfilo Narvaez conceived the plan that the ships would sail along the coast searching for a safe harbor and the foot soldiers and cavalry would travel parallel to the coast and eventually meet up with the ships. Some of the officers of the expedition agreed to the plan but, as mentioned before, not Cabeza de Vaca. Nevertheless Cabeza de Vaca turned down the opportunity to stay with the ships. He said in his narrative that duty and honor required that he join the rest of the force in the exploration of the land.

Very quickly the force lost its bearings with respect to the sea and small parties had to leave the main group and search for the sea. Furthermore the expedition was having to subsist upon the rations they brought since they were finding little food on the way. The natives were able to provide some food, primarily corn, but not enough to sustain this horde of three hundred. A group of three hundred does not seem large by modern standards but this was many times more than the population of the communities the group was visiting. Some native communities were friendly to the Spanish but eager to have them move on. Other groups were hostile and sought to speed the expedition's passage by ambushing the soldiers in areas where fallen trees prevented effective counterattack.

One of the hostile native tribes was the Apalachee. The expedition entered the land of Apalachen soon after crossing the Suwannee River from the east. There was plentiful ripe corn available in the fields of Apalachen.

Cabeza de Vaca led an advance troop of fifty infantry and nine cavalry to capture the town of Apalachen. There was no fight for the town because the warriors had already left. Among the forty small houses there were only women and boys. The men of Apalachen harassed the expedition by firing arrows at it from ambush. Shortly after the expedition's arrival in the town the men showed up to ask for the release of the women and children. The Spanish granted this but took hostage the chief of the town. The warriors then returned to fight the Spanish.

The Apalachen warriors crouched low and moved about firing arrows with force and accuracy. Cabeza de Vaca noted that musket and cross bow were ineffective in this fight. The cavalry were effective and terrifying to the natives but only in open ground. Unforturnately for the Spanish most of the land was filled with trees and fallen trees, and lakes were common. In one encounter the native warriors waited until the Spanish soldiers were crossing a shallow lake to start firing arrows. When the Spanish emerged from the lake to counterattack the warriors fled into the forest.

The Town of Aute

After resting and gathering the food stocks of the town of Apalachen the expedition ascertained that the next town of significant size to the west was Aute. Aute was reputed to have much food; corn, beans, pumpkin and fish. By this time the expedition was less concerned about finding gold and more concerned with food for survival.

The small ornaments of gold the expedition had previously found among the natives may not have come from local sources. These ornaments may have been fashioned from gold obtained from the wrecks of Spanish ships.

Along the way there were few clashes with the natives. The engagements were minor but some members of the expedition were killed, including a native of Mexico who had joined the expedition in Spain. The native bowmen were targeting the places where the different parts of the Spanish armor came together. The arrows were delivered with such force that some even penetrated the armor. Some soldiers claimed to have seen young oak trees as thick as the calf of a man's leg that had been completely penetrated by native arrows.

The expedition entered Aute apparently without battle, probably because the inhabitants fled. Within a day or so the expedition left Aute. Many of the soldiers were ill and there were not enough horses left to carry them. The expedition reached the sea and set about building boats to carry them along the coast to New Spain. The construction of the boats, more likely rafts, was a great effort because they had neither the tools or experience necessary to build these vessels. But they improvised. They constructed bellows for a furnace from hollow wooden tubes and animal skins. All metal objects were melted down to make nails. The shirts off of the backs of the expedition members were taken to make sails. The horses were killed and eaten. Their hides were used to make, among other things, containers for water for the voyage. They named the location where they worked the Bay of Horses.

They contructed five boats. Each was loaded with almost fifty men which was more than they could safely carry. Soon they were short of food and water. The horse hide water containers rotted and they lost their water supply. Storms forced them to take shelter at waterless islands and at one point they went five days without any water to drink. Some resorted to drinking sea water, which doomed them.

They encountered further storms. They met some natives who appeared to be friendly. These natives took them to their village and gave them food but later attacked them. The expedition made it back to their boats and disembarked after battles which mainly involved stone throwing.

They encountered other natives in canoes who promised to get them water if they provided containers. Two members of the expedition were taken along with the natives to get water and two natives were left as hostages to ensure the return of the expedition members. The natives later came back without the water and without the expedition members and hostages tried to escape but failed. Later the natives returned asking for the hostages and promising to return the two from the expedition. The Spanish would not trust the natives and so kept the hostages. The expedition discovered that the sea water around them was fresh. It was the outflow of the Mississippi River.

The expedition tried to anchor in a sheltered area but a storm came up that swept them out to sea. The storm eventually cast them up on the shore of an island which probably was Galveston Island. They gave it the name Isle of Misfortune.

The natives give some assistance to Cabeza de Vaca and the other survivors of his group. When the group recovered a bit from their ordeal they try to leave the island. Their boat was buried in sand and they stripped off their clothes to better work in the surf to free the boat. The boat is launched but a short distance from shore it is overturned by a wave. Many are drowned and those that survived were naked and left with nothing since all of the possessions including their clothes were in the boat.

Cabeza de Vaca's group was suffering severely from cold and hunger and quite likely could not have survived on their own. Fortunately the natives that helped them before came back. Cabeza de Vaca decided that their only hope was to go to the village of the natives. The natives agreed to take them but some members of the group feared that when they were in the native village the natives would sacrifice them to idols. Cabeza de Vaca felt there was no choice but to take that risk.

In the village they were treated kindly and recovered. They soon realized they were not going to be sacrificed. After being saved by the natives from almost certain death from hunger and exposure Cabeza de Vaca's group of survivors were made slaves. The survivors were divided among several native groups and separated.

Cabeza de Vaca found there were survivors from the other boats. Altogether about eighty members of the expedition arrived on the Isle of Misfortune.

Cabeza de Cabeza de Vaca endured about a year of slavery in which he was required to harvest a root among the shoals. Usually the roots were gathered underwater from the shoals of the island by the women of the tribe.

This root was the staple food for the natives from October to the end of February. After February the tribe would go to a place where there were oysters and for three months they would live on oysters. At the end of April the tribe would move to a place where there were blackberries and they lived on blackberries for a month. During another three months of the year the natives lived on the fruit of the prickly pear cactus. When the prickly pears became ripe the natives and the Spanish soldiers with them ate the prickly pears day and night. Another time of the year the natives ate nuts, probably pecans, for two months a year when the nut tree produced, but this was only every other year.

Although the food the natives depended upon was monotonous there was no choice and often there was not enough. Cabeza de Vaca complained of going days without anything to eat. He mentioned that it was not unusual for natives to go five days without eating. Sometimes it occured that there was nothing to eat and the only place where food was available was a five days journey away-- five days of walking through difficult terrain to get food.

After more than a year as a lowly slave Cabeza de Vaca escaped from the natives on the Isle of Misfortune to live with another native tribe on the mainland.

In his new situation Cabeza de Vaca engaged in trading among the native groups. He, as an outsider, could carry out trade amongst tribal groups which were bitter enemies and usually at war. He traded in sea snails, shells, hides, ochre (colored clay for face and body paint), and flint for arrowheads. He was well known among the natives groups in the area and they welcomed him for the opportunity to trade for the things they needed. He stayed another five years in the vicinity of the Isle of Misfortune trying to convince other survivors to escape with him and attempt to reach New Spain.

During this period the natives encouraged some of the Spanish to become medicine men or faith healers. The native shamans engaged in faith healing. When a native was ill or in pain he or she would go to the tribal shaman who would cure the affliction by making incantations. Natives thought that the Spanish would be good faith healers because of their ability to speak in an alien language. When the Spanish objected that such rituals would do no good the natives replied that the Spanish were wrong and did not know what they were talking about. First Dorantes was coerced into performing such faith healings. He included those rituals of Catholic church service that he could remember. The natives declared that Dorantes and later Cabeza de Vaca were highly effective medicine men. The cured natives gave generous gifts of food to the Spanish for their faith healing. Despite the food given by the natives the Spanish still found they were starving much of the time.

Cabeza de Vaca noted that the natives often killed the girl babies because of the feuding among the native groups. Marriage was prohibited within the tribal groups. This meant that daughters could only marry someone from one of the enemy tribes and consequently would bear sons who would grow up to be the groups enemy. Thus to deprive their enemies of future warriors they killed their own female children. Of course this practice made it difficult for the young men of each group to find wives. This practice, along with the near starvation diet, accounted for the lack of population growth among the natives.

Moving among the various tribes in the region Cabeza de Vaca heard what happened to the other boats and their survivors. When the boat of the leader of the expedition, Governor Narvaez, came close to shore Narvaez rescinded the appointment of the second in command and appointed Pantoja in his place. Pantoja treated the men very harshly which they greatly resented. When the boat landed some of the occupants went ashore but Narvaez decided to stay on the boat. During the night a strong wind came up and blew the boat out to sea with Narvaez aboard. Those on shore included Esquivel, Pantoja and an officer of high rank from Cuba named Sotomajor. Sotomayor could not tolerate his treatment by Pantoja so he struck Pantoja such a blow that it killed Pantoja.

The group was without food and whenever one of them died the others consumed his body. Finally thre was only Esquivel and Sotomayor left. Esquivel was the last, he ate Sotomayor. Later native found Esquivel and took him prisoner. Later Esquivel perished when a woman in tribe that held Esquivel and another survivor named Mendez dreamed that those two were going to kill her child. The tribe took dreams to be true so the tribe killed Esquivel and Mendez.

Since the survivors were held by different tribes or groups they were often separated. The survivors were only able to get together when their captors went to the same place to find food, such as the nut trees or the prickly pear cactus. They plotted their escape to coincide with one of the times. The opportunity arose but was thwarted when the natives quarreled over a woman and separated taking their captives with them. The next year at the time of the gathering of the tribes to eat prickly pears the four (Castillo, Dorantes, Estebanico and Cabeza de Vaca) made their escape.

Other tribes welcomed them and aided them. They had heard of the faith healing of these strangers. Cabeza de Vaca had learned a number of different native languages during his five years as a trader. Their escape was aided also by the fact that it was the time of ripe prickly pears so food was available.

Cabeza de Vaca and Dorantes began to practice their faith healing among the natives they encountered and their reputation grew. The four became something like celebrities in the region. The tribes that sheltered them passed them on to the next tribe, taking the valuable things like bows in payment. The tribes accepted this trade knowing that they would get comparable valuables from the tribe they passed the four onto next. The reputaation of Cabeza de Vaca was considerably enhanced when he treated a man thought to be dead who subsequently was revived.

The inhabitants of new villages became more and more generous, willing to give all they possessed to please these men of great spiritual power. Cabeza de Vaca, a soldier, was being transformed into a devoutly religious man, almost a saint.

Cabeza de Vaca relates the tale of the Mal Cosa, the Evil Thing. The natives said that about fifteen years before there had appeared a small bearded man possessing supernatural powers. Cabeza de Vaca took the position that the Evil Thing was a demon and told the natives that the only thing that would protect them from the Evil Thing was conversion to Christianity.

It was thus the four traveled through what is Texas and northern Mexico healing and introducing Christianity ot the natives. The four finally emerged from the wilderness at Culiacan in what is now the northwestern Mexican State of Sinaloa.

After of period of recovery in Culiacan, Cabeza de Vaca and the others traveled on to the city Guadalajara and from there to Mexico City. Many officials recognized that Cabeza de Vaca's experience would make him extremely valuable on any future expeditions into the interior of North America. He knew several native languages and understood the cultures. Cabeza de Vaca himself wanted to go back and bring the native tribes into the Spanish Empire and convert them to Christianity by humane and enlightened means. But Cabeza de Vaca claimed that if he were to carryout the spread of Christianity and Spanish civilization by humane means it could only occur if he were the leader of the expedition.

He undertook a perilous journey back to Spain to seek his appointment by the King to the leadership of another expedition. Unfortunately for Cabeza de Vaca and for the natives the King had already appointment Hernando de Soto to lead the next expedition. De Soto asked Cabeza de Vaca to join his expedition but Cabeza de Vaca refused. De Soto was a soldier, an accomplished military leader, and was not likely to give much credence to Cabeza de Vaca's concern for humaneness and fairness.

The King did appoint Cabeza de Vaca to leadership of an expedition but not in North America. The Spanish colony in the region of the Rio de la Plata in South America was in trouble. The Governor of the colony was missing and feared dead. Cabeza de Vaca was to go to Rio de la Plata area and seek out the missing governor and if that governor was dead Cabeza de Vaca was to take his place.

The other survivors stayed in New Spain. Castillo and Dorantes prospered. Estebanico joined an expedition that preceded the expedition of Coronado and was killed by the natives.

Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca's adventures continued with the governorship of the Spanish colony in the Rio de la Plata region in South America.

The Time Line of Cabeza de Vaca's Travels in North America

HOME PAGE OF applet-magic
HOME PAGE OF Thayer Watkins