San José State University
Department of Economics
Thayer Watkins
Silicon Valley
& Tornado Alley

The Survival of the Spanish Soldier Juan Ortiz
in Florida After the Narvaez Expedition

It is well known that the Spanish Expedition to Florida led by Panfilo Narvaez was a disaster and that almost all of the six hundred members were never seen again. It is also well known that Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca and three companions made it back to the Spanish Empire after eight years of captivity and wandering. Less well known is that another member of the expedition survived in Florida for eight years. This is the story of that survivor.

One of the decisions by Narvaez that led to the disaster of the expedition was to isolate the expedition ships from the main ground party. The ships were supposed to travel along the coast to find a safe harbor where they would renew contact with the ground party and provide them with additional supplies. Many, including Cabeza de Vaca, felt this unwise because there was little chance that in the uncharted wilderness the two groups would ever make contact again. The ground party tried to send small groups to the coast to look for the ships. This proved fruitless and exposed the small groups of attacks by the natives.

The ships searched the coast of the Florida peninsula but did not locate the ground party. From one ship the Spaniards saw a post on the beach with what looked like a letter stuck in a split in the post at its top. The Spaniards brought their ship as they could to the beach and then called out to some natives on the beach to bring the letter to them. The natives declined to do so and told the Spaniards to come ashore. Most of the Spaniards suspected correctly that the situation was a trap. A group of about five however decided to go ashore to retrieve the letter. When this group came ashore a large number of natives came out of hiding and trapped the Spaniards on shore. Those that resisted capture were killed. One Spaniard, Juan Ortiz of Seville, surrendered.

The natives took Ortiz to their village. The chief there decided to sacrifise Ortiz to the gods by slowly roasting him over a fire. The daughter of the chief took pity on Ortiz and pleaded with her father to allow the Spaniard to live on the basis that he would be harmless. The chief came Ortiz the assignment of guarding the cemetary where the bodies of the native dead were left in trees. Wolves tried to eat the corpses there.

One night while Ortiz was on guard a wolf came and took the body of a child that had recently died. Ortiz threw a dart at the wolf but in the dark could not tell whether it had hit the wolf. The next day when the body of the child was found to be missing the native chief ordered Ortiz to be executed for failing in his duty. However when the natives searched the area for the remains of the child's body they found the wolf dead from Ortiz's dart and the child's body unconsumed. Ortiz was forgiven and continued to live with that tribe.

Later times were tough in the village and the chief decided again to sacrifise Ortiz. However Ortiz was again saved by the chief's daughter when she warned him about what was going to happen. Ortiz was able to escape. He fled to a neighbor village under the command of a chief named Mosocos who expressed some interest in the Spaniard in the past.

Ortiz lived safely for many years in the village of Mosocos. He became tanned and tatooed and looked virtually the same as the others in the village.

From time to time Mosocos told Ortiz that others of his kind had been seen in the vicinity of the village or along the coast. Ortiz rushed to see them but found nothing. Ortiz began to believe the stories of Spaniards being seen were merely fabrications of Mosocos to test whether Ortiz's allegiance was to the village or to his own kind.

However when Ortiz was with a group from the village in the woods a group of Spaniards appeared and attacked Ortiz's group. Ortiz cried out in Spanish, "Do not kill me. I am a Christian." Ortiz was brought to Soto who was delighted to have saved a Christian and to have an interpreter for his expedition.

Ortiz joined the expedition and served it well as an interpreter. Once the expedition left the area of the village where Ortiz had lived he would have to function as one element of a chain of bilingual interpreters.

Long after Ortiz had joined the expedition he was involved in a dramatic episode. Two Spaniards had stolen some property of friendly natives the expedition had encountered. When the natives complained Soto order the men executed. Other members of the expedition pleaded with Soto to rescind his order but to no avail. Some the natives who had been the victims of the theft came to speak with Soto, perhaps to witness the executions. Ortiz saved the Spaniards lives by giving Soto a false tranlation of the natives speach. Ortiz told Soto that the natives said that they were not seriously offended by the theft and did not want the Spaniards executed. Soto then released the Spaniards.

Although Ortiz survived the Narvaez expedition he did not survive the De Soto expedition. He later died of natural causes. The expedition was severely hampered by the loss of Ortiz as an interpreter. Thereafter there was often confusion concerning directions of travel based upon information they thought they were getting from locan informatants.

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