by F.W. Hodge


  1. IN some respects the journey of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca and his three companions overland from coast to coast during the eight years from 1528 to 1536 is the most remarkable in the record of American exploration, and as a narrative of suffering and privation the relation here presented perhaps has no equal in the annals of the northern continent.

  2. The author of the narrative was a native of Jeréz de Ia Frontera, in the province of Cadiz, in southern Spain, but the date of his birth is not known. his father was Francisco de Vera, son of Pedro de Vera, conqueror of the Grand Canary in 1483; his mother, Teresa Cabeza de Vaca, who also was born in Jeréz. Why Alvar Nuñez assumed the matronymic is not known, unless it was with a sense of pride that he desired to perpetuate the name that had been bestowed by the King of Navarre on his maternal ancestor, a shepherd named Martin Alhaja, for guiding the army through a pass that he marked with the skull of a cow (cabeza de vaca, literally "cow's head"), thus leading the Spanish army to success in the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, in July, 1212, which led up to the final conquest of the Moors in Spain.

  3. Having returned to Spain after many years of service in the New World for the Crown, Pámfilo de Narvaez petitioned for a grant; and in consequence the right to conquer and colonize the country between the Rio de las Palmas, in eastern Mexico, and Florida was accorded him. The expedition, consisting of six hundred colonists and soldiers, set sail in five vessels from San Lucar de Barrameda, June 17, 1527, and after various vicissitudes, including the wreck of two ships and the loss of sixty men in a hurricane on the southern coast of Cuba, was finally driven northward by storm, and landed, in April, 1528, at St. Clements Point, near the entrance to Tampa Bay, on the west coast of Florida. Despite the protest of Cabeza de Vaca, who had been appointed treasurer of Rio de las Palmas by the King, Narvaez ordered his ships to skirt the coast in an endeavor to find Pánuco, while the expedition, now reduced to three hundred men by desertions in Santo Domingo, death in the Cuban storm, and the return of those in charge of the ships, started inland in a generally northern course. The fleet searched for the expedition for a year and then sailed to Mexico.

  4. Among the members of the force, in addition to Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, were Andrés Dorantes de Carrança, son of Pablo, a native of Béjar del Castañar, in Estremadura, who had received a commission as captain of infantry on the recommendation of Don Alvaro de Zúñiga, Duke of Béjar; Captain Alonzo del Castillo Maldonado, of Salamanca, the son of Doctor Castillo and Aldonza Maldonado; and Estévan, or Estévanico, a blackamoor of Asemmur, or Azamor, on the west coast of Morocco, the slave of Dorantes. With the exception of those who returned with the ships, these four men were the only ones of the entire expedition who ever again entered a civilized community.

  5. Pursuing a generally northerly course, harassed by Indians, and beset with hunger, illness, and treachery in their ranks, Narvaez's party finally reached the head of Appalachee Bay, in the country of the Indians after whom this arm of the Gulf of Mexico takes its name. Looking now to the sea as his only means of escape, Narvaez the incompetent, with neither the proper materials nor the mechanics, set about to build boats to conduct his men out of their trap - craft that were expected to weather such tropical storms as they had already so poorly buffeted with their stouter ships. Every object of metal that the expedition afforded, even to stirrups and spurs, was requisitioned for the manufacture of nails and necessary tools; a rude forge was constructed, with bellows of wood and deer-skins; the native palm supplied tow and covering; the horses were killed and their hides used for water-bottles, while their flesh served the Spaniards for food as the work went on; even the shirts from the very backs of the men were fashioned into sails. Picturing the character of the five boats, laden almost to the gunwales with nearly fifty men each, besides such provisions as could be stowed away, and the untold hardship from thirst after the decay of the horsehide canteens, the chief wonder is that the motley fleet survived long enough to reach Pensacola Bay. As it passed the mouth of the Mississippi, the current was so swift that fresh water was dipped from the gulf, and the wind so strong that the boats were carried beyond sight of land for three days, and for a time lost sight of each other. For four days more, two of the boats, including that in which was Cabeza de Vaca, drifted within view of each other; but another storm arose, again they were lost to sight, and one by one the occupants succumbed to exhaustion and cast themselves into the bottom of the boat, until Cabeza de Vaca alone was left to steer the flimsy craft in its unknown course. Night came on and the author of our narrative lay down to rest. The next morning, November 6, 1528, the boat was cast ashore on a long narrow island, inhabited by savages, on the Texas coast.

  6. On this "Island of Misfortune" Cabeza de Vaca's party was soon joined by that of one of the other boats, including Dorantes, so that altogether the island harbored about eighty Spaniards. Four men later attempted to reach Pánuco, but all perished but one. During the following winter disease raged among the little colony, reducing it to fifteen. Then the Spaniards became separated, Dorantes and his slave Estévan, now both the slaves of the Indians, were taken to the mainland, whither Cabeza de Vaca, weary of root-digging on the island shore, also escaped, becoming a trader among the Indians, journeying far inland and along the coast from tribe to tribe, for forty or fifty leagues. Every year during the five years that he plied his trade as a dealer in shells, sea-beads, medicine-beans, skins, ochre, and the like, he returned to Malhado, where Lope de Oviedo, and Alvarez, a sick companion, still remained. Finally the latter died, and Cabeza de Vaca and Oviedo again sought the main in the hope of reaching Christian people. Journeying southward along the coast, they crossed the Brazos and other rivers, and finally reached San Antonio Bay. Here Oviedo, owing to ill-treatment by the Indians, deserted Cabeza de Vaca, who shortly after also stole away from the savages and joined Dorantes, Castillo Maldonado, and the Moor (the sole survivors of the party of twelve who had left Malhado years before), whose Indian masters had come down the river, evidently the San Antonio, to gather walnuts.

  7. Once more together, the Christians planned to escape six months hence, when all the Indians from the surrounding country gathered on the southern Texas plains to eat prickly pears. But again were they doomed to disappointment, for although the savages assembled in the tuna fields, a quarrel arose among them (there was "a woman in the case"), which caused the Spaniards to be separated for another year. Their escape was finally accomplished in the manner they had planned; but their departure for the Christian land was not at once effected, by reason of the inhospitable character of the country, which compelled them to sojourn among other Indians until the beginning of another prickly-pear season.

  8. While among the Avavares, with whom the Spaniards lived for eight months, they resumed the treatment of the sick, a practice that had first been forced on them, by the natives of Malhado Island, under threat of starvation. With such success did the Spaniards, and especially Cabeza de Vaca, meet, that their reputation as healers was sounded far and wide among the tribes, thousands of the natives following them from place to place and showering gifts upon them.

  9. There are few Spanish narratives that are more unsatisfactory to deal with by reason of the lack of directions, distances, and other details, than that of Cabeza de Vaca; consequently there are scarcely two students of the route who agree. His line of travel through Texas was twice crossed by later explorers, -- in 1541 by the army of Francisco Vazquez Coronado, on the eastern edge of the Stake Plains, and again in 1582 by Antonio de Espejo, on the Rio Grande below the present El Paso. These data, with the clews afforded by the narrative itself, point strongly to a course from the tuna fields, about thirty leagues inland from San Antonio Bay, to the Rio Colorado and perhaps to the Rio Llano, westward across the lower Pecos to the Rio Grande above the junction of the Conchos, thence in an approximately straight line across Chihuahua and Sonora to the Rio Sonora, where we find Cabeza de Vaca's Village of the Hearts, which Coronado also visited in 1540, at or in the vicinity of the present Ures. Soon after he reached this point traces of the first Christians were seen, and shortly after the Spaniards themselves, in the form of a military body of slave-hunters.

  10. As to the character of our chronicler, he seems to have been an honest, modest, and humane man, who underestimated rather than exaggerated the many strange things that came under his notice, if we except the account of his marvellous healings, even to the revival of the dead. The expedition of Narvaez was in itself a disastrous and dismal failure, reaching "an end alike forlorn and fatal"; but viewed from the standpoint of present-day civilization, the commander deserved his fate. On the other hand, while one might well hesitate to say that the accomplishment of Cabeza de Vaca and his three companions compensated their untold sufferings, the world eventually became the wiser in more ways than one. The northern continent had been penetrated from shore to shore; the waters of the Mississippi and the bison of the plains were now first seen by white men; and some knowledge of the savage tribes had been gleaned for the benefit of those who should come after. There is no blatant announcement of great mineral wealth -- a mountain with scoria of iron, some small bags of mica, a quantity of galena, with which the Indians painted their faces, a little turquoise, a few emeralds, and a small copper bell were all. Yet the effect of the remarkable overland journey was to inspire the expedition of Coronado in 1540; and it is not improbable that De Soto, who endeavored to enlist the services of Cabeza de Vaca, may likewise have been stimulated to action.

  11. After the three Spaniards returned to Mexico they united in a report to the Audiencia of Española (Santo Domingo), which is printed in Oviedo's Historia General y Natural de las Indias (tomo III., lib. XXXV., ed. 1853). In April, 1537, they embarked for Spain, but the ship in which Dorantes set sail proved to be unseaworthy and returned to Vera Cruz. invited to the capital by the Viceroy Mendoza, Dorantes was tendered a commission to explore the northern country, but this project was never carried out.

  12. Cabeza de Vaca, in reward for his services, was appointed governor, captain-general, and adelantado of the provinces of Rio de la Plata. Sailing from Cadiz in November, 1540, he reached Brazil in March of the following year. Here he remained seven months, when he sent his vessels ahead to Buenos Ayres and started overland to Asuncion, which he reached in March, 1542, after a remarkable experience in the tropical forests. But the province seems to have needed a man of sterner stuff than Alvar Nuñez, for he soon became the subject of animosity and intrigue, which finally resulted in open rebellion, and his arrest in April, 1543. He was kept under close guard for about two years, when he was sent to Spain, and in 1551 was sentenced to banishment in Africa for eight years -- a judgment that does not seem to have been carried out, for after serving probably a year or so in mild captivity at Seville, he was acquitted. He died in 1557.

  13. Of the subsequent career of Castillo little is known. He returned to New Spain, became a citizen of the City of Mexico, married a widow, and was granted half the rents of the Indian town of Tehuacan.

  14. Dorantes, as has been stated, for some reason did not carry out the plan of exploring the north, perhaps because of the projected expedition of Coronado, the way for which was led by Fray Marcos de Niza in 1539 with the negro Estévan as a guide. Dorantes served Mendoza in the conquest of Jalisco, and married Doña María de la Torre, a widow, by whom he had a large family. One of his sons, Balthasar, sometime king's treasurer of Vera Cruz, was born about the middle of the century, and on the death of his father inherited an encomienda that produced an income of five thousand pesos a year. Another son, Gaspar, inherited the encomienda of the pueblos of Ocava; and another, Melchior, "an encomienda of Indians and of very good rents."

  15. Of Estévan there is somewhat more definite information. Well on the road toward the north in 1539, he was sent ahead by Fray Marcos to report the character of the country and its people, and with rattle in hand and accompanied by many Indians of the present Gila River region, entered Háwikuh, the first of the Seven Cities of Cibola. Here Estévan and most of his Indian followers were put to death by the Zuñis; those who escaped fled to Fray Marcos, whose life was threatened but who saved himself by regaling the natives with the contents of his pack.

  16. There was another survivor of the inland expedition of Narvaez -- Juan Ortiz by name. This Spaniard, who had been enticed ashore by the Indians of Florida, led practically the life of a slave, like his countrymen on the Texas main, until 1539, when he was rescued by De Soto, but he died before the expedition returned to civilization.

  17. The Relacion of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca was first printed at Zamora in 1542, and with slight changes was reprinted, with the first edition of the Comentarios on the Rio de la Plata, at Valladolid, in 1555. The editio princeps was translated into Italian by Ramusio, in the third volume of his Navigationi et Viaggi (Venice, 1556), and this was paraphrased into English by Samuel Purchas in volume IV. of Purchas His Pilgrimes (London, 1613, pt. IV., lib. VIII., cap. 1). The Naufragios (or Relacion) and Comentarios were reprinted at Madrid in 1736, preceded by the Exámen Apologético of Antonio Ardoino, who seemed to feel it his duty to reply to an Austrian monk named Caspar Plautus, who, in 1621, under the name Philoponus, published a treatise in which he maintained that laymen like Cabeza de Vaca should not be permitted to perform miracles. This edition of the narration of Cabeza de Vaca is included in volume I. of Barcia's Historiadores Primitivos de las Indias Occidentales, published at Madrid in 1749. The Naufragios of Alvar Nuñez, from the edition of 1555, appears in volume I. of Vedia's Historiadores Primitivos de Indias (Madrid, ed. 1852). The letter to the Audiencia of Española, "edited" by Oviedo, has already been alluded to. A "Capitulacion que se tomó con Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca," dated Madrid, 18 Marzo, 1540, is found in the Colección de Documentos Inéditos del Archivo de Indias (tomo XXIII., pp. 8-33, 1875). A Relación by Cabeza de Vaca, briefly narrating the story of the expedition until the arrival of its survivors in Espíritu Santo Bay, with his instructions as treasurer, is printed in the Colección de Documentos de Indias, XIV. 265-279 (Madrid, 1870). The most recent Spanish edition of the more famous Relacion reprinted in the following pages forms a part of volume V. of the Colección de Libros y Documentos referentes á la Historia de América (Madrid, 1906), which also contains the Comentarios.

  18. The single French translation was published as volume VII. of Henri Ternaux-Compans's Voyages (Paris, 1837), from the edition of 1555, while the Commentaires form volume VI.

  19. In 1851 a translation of the edition of 1555 into English, by (Thomas) Buckingham Smith, under the title The Narrative of Alvar Nuñez Cabeça de Vaca, was published privately at Washington by George W. Riggs; and shortly after Mr. Smith's death, in 1871, another edition, with many additions, was published in New York under the editorial supervision of John Gilmary Shea and at the expense of Henry C. Murphy. It is this edition of the Narrative that is here reprinted. A paraphrase of the 1851 edition of Smith's translation appears in Henry Kingsley's Tales of Old Travels (London, 1869). The first fourteen chapters of W. W. H. Davis's Spanish Conquest of New Mexico (Doylestown, Pa., 1869) are also a paraphrase of the same work. Chapters XXX.-XXXVI. of the 1871 edition of Smith, somewhat abridged, were printed in an Old South Leaflet (Gen. Ser., No. 39, Boston, 1893). A "Relation of what Befel the Persons who Escaped from the Disasters that Attended the Armament of Captain Pamphilo de Narvaez on the Shores and in the countries of the North," translated and condensed from the letter published by Oviedo, is printed in The Historical Magazine (vol. XII., pp. 141, 204, 267, 347; September-December, 1867). The most recent English edition of the Cabeza de Vaca Relation, translated from the very rare imprint of 1542 by Mrs. Fanny Bandelier, and edited, with an introduction, by her husband Ad. F. Bandelier, was published in New York, in 1905, under the title, The Journey of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, as one of the volumes of the "Trail Makers" series.

    F.W. HODGE.