From a twenty-first century perspective, the colonization of North America can seem to be the inevitable consequence of titanic historical forces. We think of the United States expanding like a balloon from the original thirteen colonies to our present fifty states, with Canada and Mexico buttressing its movement like two obstinate boulders. American Indians appear as an afterthought, wilting away from Europeans like weak flowers before a summer sun. While we  disavowed the doctrines of Manifest Destiny that drove much of our nation’s expansion, we cling to the notion of the inevitability, and ‘naturalness’ of it, aided in our error by our hindsight. If we look at the records of early European explorers from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries we get a very different story. Their contacts with the American Indians are more complicated and more interesting than a simple conquest narrative would suggest. This is especially true of the Narváez expedition as told by Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, one of the four survivors of a group that originally numbered six hundred. In his narrative, we see how Europe’s early attempts to conquer the New World were not always as triumphant or successful as we might imagine.

cabeza-de-Vaca-Portrait-1Cabeza de Vaca wrote his account of the journey safe in Spain fifteen years after the 1542 expedition, but this narrative is vivid. Unless otherwise noted, it will be this account that I will draw from. ((Cabeza De Vaca, Alvar N. “The Journey of Cabeza De Vaca.” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 14 Aug. 2013)) In deference to Cabeza de Vaca’s own usage, I will use the term “Indian” as he did to refer to native peoples of the Caribbean, the GulfCoast, and Mexico. If it seems difficult to follow where exactly Cabeza de Vaca was at any given time, it is because he was hopelessly, desperately, lost.

When the expedition sailed from Spain in 1527, it sailed under orders to “conquer and govern the provinces that extend from the river of the Palms to the Cape of the Florida, these provinces being on the main land.” Essentially, this six hundred person expedition was expected to seize control over the entire Gulf Coast, an area about which they knew almost nothing. Cabeza de Vaca was the ship’s treasurer, a midlevel position not without prestige but also without much authority.

From the start, the expedition was in trouble.

When they stopped in present-day Haiti to resupply, one hundred and forty men decided en masse that it would be a better idea to stay there than to continue on to Florida. From there they sailed to Cuba, where Captain Narváez knew several people who could help supply the expedition. Two of the ships sailed alone to pick up supplies near the port of Santiago on the southeast coast of Cuba.

One ship carried Cabeza de Vaca.

The journey’s first major calamity happened about halfway to Santiago, in the port of Trinidad. Trinidad was a small town that had only been founded thirteen years prior. (( “Trinidad”. Retrieved 2007-10-07.)) Spain’s foothold on the port, as on much of Cuba, was not terribly firm. Here Cabeza de Vaca shows his flair for the dramatic, telling of the warnings of sailors who “told us that we should leave as soon as possible, since the harbor was very unsafe and many vessels had been lost in it.” Soon after, the sea began to churn and the wind to blow. Local villagers rowed out in a canoe on two separate occasions to beg Cabeza de Vaca to come ashore, an offer which he only accepted because he thought his presence on shore would enable the ships to leave this dangerous harbor more quickly. In another bit of foreshadowing, Cabeza de Vaca writes that he instructed the men to “to run the vessels ashore, when men and horses might be saved” in case the winds became too much to handle. Sure enough, the storm increased in fury:

the rain and storm increased in violence at the village, as well as on the sea, and all the houses and the churches fell down, and we had to go about, seven or eight men locking Arms at a time, to prevent the wind from carrying us off, and under the trees it was not less dangerous than among the houses, for as they also were blown down we were in danger of being killed beneath them. In this tempest and peril we wandered about all night, without finding any part or place where we might feel safe for half an hour.

The men were caught, with no shelter and in a strange land, in the middle of a hurricane. While a map of the time would have confidently proclaimed that Cuba was controlled by the Spanish crown, the Spaniards living there did so at the pleasure of nature, a pleasure which was often suddenly and cruelly revoked.

Surveying the damage the next day, Cabeza de Vaca found bodies splattered across the rocks, scattered planks of destroyed ships, and a lifeboat perched in the trees a mile inland. Of the ninety men who stopped in Trinidad, only thirty were alive. Reuniting with Narváez, who had weathered the storm better, the men decided to winter in Cuba.

Setting sail the next spring, the men arrived in Florida after weathering a series of storms. The Spaniards made some contact with the Indians, but the day after they arrived found the Indian camps “abandoned and deserted.” Thinking this as good a time as any to proclaim his rule over an entire region he had arrived at the day before, Narváez proclaimed himself governor. The next day the Indians returned, apparently not abandoning their dwellings. If Narváez felt a need to inform the Indians that they had been conquered in the interim, Cabeza de Vaca’s report omits it.

The Spaniards set about exploring their newly conquered territory, but found their reputation preceded them. The Indians they encountered already had “pieces of linen and cloth, and feather head dresses that seemed to be from New Spain” which they had used to adorn their dead. Finding this practice idolatrous, the Spaniards burned the corpses. When asked if they knew where to find gold, the Indians directed the Spaniards to the far north, perhaps to encourage them to leave and to stop burning their dearly departed loved ones.

Coat of Arms of Cabeza de Vaca from the Archivo de Indias, Sevilla, Spain. Reprinted in The Odyssey of Cabeza de Vaca by Morris Bishop. New York: The Century Co., 1933.
Coat of Arms of Cabeza de Vaca from the Archivo de Indias, Sevilla, Spain. Reprinted in The Odyssey of Cabeza de Vaca by Morris Bishop. New York: The Century Co., 1933.

Narváez asked the officers what they thought the expedition should do next. Cabeza de Vaca replied that, given they were in a strange land in which they did not speak any of the local languages, that their supplies were running dangerously low, and that the port in which they had set down anchor was unsafe, that they should seek another harbor. The other officers offered what proved to be a more persuasive argument: There might be gold. Narváez offered Cabeza de Vaca the command of a ship that would take an alternate route, but he felt abandoning the agreed-upon path would jeopardize his honor and that he would “would much rather expose of my life than, under these circumstances, my good name.”

The expedition, with the help of native guides, travelled across Florida, until they reached the land where gold was reputed to be found. Cabeza de Vaca tells us that they “Gave many thanks to God for being so near it, believing what we had been told about the country to be true, and that now our sufferings would come to an end after the long and weary march over bad trails.” Written in hindsight, these words drip with bitter irony. The Spaniards arrived in the village, in which they found only women and children. Soon, the men returned, raining down arrows on the Spaniards. After a brief battle the Spaniards repelled the Indians, who apparently had not been notified that they were now under the control of Spain. The men, famished from their journey, were relieved to find that these Indians cultivated corn and other products. After staying in the village for a month, the men again set out in search of gold.

Here again we see how the Spanish conquest of Florida was in no way pre-ordained. The men were time and time again attacked by bands of natives, who struck quickly and then disappeared into the forest. Each time, they wounded men and killed horses. Some men swore they saw arrows shoot through thick trees, “which is not surprising if we consider the force and dexterity with which they shoot.” Due to their size and strength, “at a distance they appear giants.” Even several years’ removed, Cabeza de Vaca’s fear is palpable. His report of this period is a succession of Indian raids, the casualties thereof, and the explorers’ fear of the next one.

Soon, an even graver threat appeared:  starvation.

The men were lost, starving, and afraid. Even if they could find Indians who weren’t hostile to their presence, they wouldn’t know how to speak to them. At the same time, “it became manifest how few resources we had for going further.” Some of the men, especially those with horses, began to desert the expedition, escaping in the cover of night. Unknown tropical diseases began to afflict the men. As if that wasn’t enough, it was August in Florida. Even the healthy men were weary. Gold seemed far from their minds. They now wished only for survival. Desperate, the men resolved to build a ship. This was difficult because, as Cabeza de Vaca explains in his ever-lucid prose, “none of us knew how to construct ships.” Furthermore, they had no supplies for doing so. The men began to melt down their spurs, helmets, and other metal objects for nails, saws, and hatchets. Every three days they killed another horse, and divided its tough meat among the surviving crew. Eventually, they managed to build five small “barges” to sail for help.

The threat posed by hostile natives did not abate during the building of the barges, with one group “killing ten of our men in plain view of the camp, without our being able to prevent it.” They were wearing armor, but the arrows pierced clean through.

Undeterred, the surviving sailors set out in their makeshift boats, “without any one among us having the least knowledge of the art of navigation.” How none of the surviving sailors knew how to navigate might seem remarkable, but it is important to remember that the attrition rate on this expedition was incredibly high. Since landing in Florida, over forty men had died of disease, and about a dozen more had been killed by Indians. Still, setting sail did not significantly improve their fortunes, and soon they “found ourselves often on the verge of drowning and so forlorn that there was none in our company who did not expect to die at any moment.”

At one point, the barge that Cabeza de Vaca commanded became separated from the other three. He and his men rowed furiously towards the other boats, eventually coming within shouting distance. Cabeza de Vaca asked Narváez for help, which he declined to extend. He then asked what his orders were, and Narváez “Answered that this was no time for orders; that each one should do the best he could to save himself; that he intended to do it that way, and with this he went on with his craft.” The chain of command, strained already, now snapped completely. Cabeza de Vaca did manage to meet up with another barge, with whom he travelled for four days before that barge capsized in a storm, killing every sailor on it. The sailors on Cabeza de Vaca’s barge despaired, refusing to row and lying in a heap on the floor of the barge. Only Cabeza de Vaca and his skipper continued rowing. Cabeza de Vaca “thought of anything else but sleep.”

Finally, the barge came to an island, and the weary men crawled towards the shore. One of them found the strength to climb a palm tree and report that the island was inhabited by Indians. The next step was, obviously, to steal from them. When he did not return, Cabeza de Vaca sent a few men to find him. They found with him “three Indians, with bows and arrows, were following and calling to him, while he did the same to them by signs.” Apparently the Indians were unable to make their meaning clear, so they brought in a hundred archers to drive the point home: give us back our stuff. The message got through, because, according to Cabeza de Vaca “our fright was such that, whether tall or little, it made them appear giants to us.”

The Indians took pity on the beleaguered sailors. They brought them fish, roots, and nuts, and let them stay in their camp for a few days. The sailors after then thought themselves ready to sail again, and set out in their small barge. At a distance of “Two crossbow shots from shore,” a swell overturned the boat, drowning three sailors and sending the other back to the shore. They lost every piece of their remaining supplies, including the beads which they intended to trade for basic survival goods. Cabeza de Vaca reports that “It was in November, bitterly cold, and we in such a state that every bone could easily be counted, and we looked like death itself.” The Indians again came to their rescue. They offered food, but also something more necessary and rarer: compassion. The Indians “sat down with us and all began to weep out of compassion for our misfortune, and for more than half an hour they wept so loud and so sincerely that it could be heard far away.” Despite the lack of a common language or culture, the Indians felt for their would-be conquerors. The Indians agreed to house the sailors, and even carried them on their backs to the village. They treated them so well that they “became reassured, losing somewhat our apprehension of being butchered.”

Miraculously, the Indians told the Spaniards that another group like them had landed on the island. It was another barge from the original expedition, weary like Cabeza de Vaca’s but carrying alive its full membership. Cabeza de Vaca narrates, “When they came near us they were much frightened at our appearance and grieved at being unable to give us anything, since they had nothing but their clothes.” The now reunited sailors agreed that the men who were able would repair one of the barges, while the others would recuperate with the Indians until they were strong enough to continue on in search of “a land of Christians.” The moment it was in the water, the barge sank. As they had done the previous year, the sailors decided to stay where they were for the winter.

Sickness set in, and by the springtime only fifteen of the eighty men who arrived on the island in the two barges remained alive. The sickness soon spread to the Indians who correctly guessed that the disease came from the sailors, and resolved to kill them lest they infect more people. One Indian interjected, reasoning that, in the words of Cabeza de Vaca, “if we had so much power we would not have suffered so many of our own people to perish without being able to remedy it ourselves.” Without the benefit of immunology this logic prevailed, and the Spaniards were spared.

The winter spent on what they called “The Isle of Ill-Fate” gave Cabeza de Vaca the time to study the customs of the natives, recording details of their dress, the child-rearing, and their funeral practices. He reports these practices almost scientifically, not judging them or comparing them to European society. The Indians even compelled him to participate in their healing ceremonies, which he described in detail. During their stay on the island Cabeza de Vaca became sick, and was unable to continue on with the fourteen others. The Indians of the island traded him, now considered a slave, to another group on the mainland. He stayed with these Indians for more than a year until he eventually became a trader. While trading goods on behalf of his hosts, Cabeza de Vaca tried to survey the surrounding area and figure out some way to escape. He spent six years this way, trading in the warm months and living with the Indians during the winter.

The reason Cabeza de Vaca remained was that, unlike Narváez, he refused to leave behind men in his command. One of the men had remained on the island, too weak to leave with the others. Each year Cabeza de Vaca would visit him, but like a Spanish Homer, he found life on his tropical island home more appealing than the precarious existence he had previously enjoyed. Finally, Cabeza de Vaca persuaded him to come with, and the two were reunited with their countrymen. All three of them.

Predictably, disease and Indians had gotten to the rest of the group, and the three remaining became the lowest slaves of their native captors. The Indian children “kicked them, slapped their faces and beat them with sticks.” Apparently Cabeza de Vaca’s companion, the one with whom he had pleaded for six years, thought so too, and set out for the island that they had christened the Isle of Ill-Fate. Cabeza de Vaca was reunited with the other three, and “that day was one of the happiest we enjoyed in our time,” a time admittedly without much in the way of competition. During this reunion, the three other men related to Cabeza de Vaca the deaths of the other men. Among the four of them they could account for the deaths of every other man who set foot on Florida. They were the only survivors.

The four hatched a plan to escape together, but the Indians got wind of it and separated them. They escaped anyway, and miraculously found each other. The men reached a group of Indians Cabeza de Vaca called the “Avavares.” The Avavares treated them well. They believed that the Spaniards had healing powers, and claimed to feel immediately better after one of them made the sign of the cross above their afflicted bodies. The Avavares were apparently very impressed with these powers, and allowed the four to stay the winter with them. Cabeza de Vaca performed healing rites throughout the winter, though he worried that his sins might interfere with God’s healing powers. Given that these Indians subsisted on cactus fruit and that the land is described as dry and treeless, it is likely that they lived somewhere in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, or northern Mexico. For all Cabeza de Vaca’s clarity, he provides few geographic details to orient a present-day reader.

The winter stretched to spring, then summer, until finally eighteen months had passed with the friendly and credulous Avavares. The Avavares eventually told them of other Indians who shared their language, and the four set out again in search of Christians who could take them back to Spain. Among these Indians, Cabeza de Vaca continued his quasi-anthropologic observations. In these we see nothing but respect and admiration, none of the chauvinism that would define so much of European-Indian relations. There is only one sentence that particularly sticks out for its prescience: “Horses are what the Indians dread most, and by means of which they will be overcome.”

The four Spaniards travelled from village to village, performing healing rites and even once performing surgery on a man who had a flint from an arrow lodged in his skull. Because of their healing abilities and aided by their knowledge of local languages, they encountered none of the difficulties in dealing with Indians as they had earlier in the journey. No longer were they clad in armor, brandishing muskets at shadows in the woods. They moved openly now, announcing their arrival in as best an approximation of the local dialect as they could. This proved a much more successful strategy.

After months of travelling in this way, one of the four “saw, on the neck of an Indian, a little buckle from a sword belt, and in it was sewed a horseshoe nail.” They asked where the man had gotten such an item, and they said that they had traded for it with some men in boats with beards much like those of the four. Finally, after years of wandering, the four felt that they were close to fellow Spaniards, men who could take them away from this strange and dangerous land and back to the Spain they knew and loved. Their relief was tempered, however, by the worry that “those people had come by sea for the sake of discovery only.” If this were the case, it could mean that the Spaniards were by now hundreds of miles away. Cabeza de Vaca promised that, if the Indians helped them find the other Spaniards, he “would tell them not to kill Indians or make them slaves, nor take them out of their country, or do any other harm.” They agreed.

Along the way, the Indians told the four terrible stories of the rapacious “Christians” who had come before. Cabeza de Vaca saw firsthand the ravages that his beloved country had brought to these people. He saw burned out huts, fields thick with crops left to rot, and whole towns abandoned. Cabeza de Vaca reported that his narrative, next to the hostility these acts of war engendered among the natives, showed that, “in order to bring those people to Christianity and obedience unto Your Imperial Majesty, they should be well treated, and not otherwise.” His plea, as we now know, largely fell on deaf ears.

When Cabeza de Vaca finally did find other Spaniards, he reported that, “They stared at me for quite a while, speechless; so great was their surprise that they could not find words to ask me anything.” He was eventually able to convince them that he was a Spaniard, and they led him to Diego de Alcaraza, their leader. They had finally reached the northern frontier of New Spain. The strife was not yet over, and Cabeza de Vaca wrote that “we had many and bitter quarrels with the Christians, for they wanted to make slaves of our Indians, and we grew so angry at it that at our departure we forgot to take along many bows, pouches and arrows, also the five emeralds, and so they were left and lost to us.” Diego de Alvaraza was still operating under the dominant paradigm of Imperial Spain. He had not depended on the Indians for sustenance, for shelter, and for kindness, and still viewed them as less than human. Diego told the Indians not to listen to Cabeza de Vaca, that he had been away from Spanish territory for too long and did not know what he was talking about. The Indians objected, saying that the four survivors healed the sick while the invaders killed the healthy, that they sensibly travelled around the desert naked, while the invaders wore heavy armor in the hot sun, that they asked for nothing save what they needed, while the greed of the invaders was insatiable. The Indians had difficulty believing Cabeza de Vaca and Diego de Alvaraza were from the same nation at all.

In these two men, we see two histories, one possible, one actual. If the Spanish and the other colonial powers had taken Cabeza de Vaca’s account to heart, the history of North America might have turned out very differently. Europeans might have learned to adopt Indian customs in order to survive in a strange world. They might have respected their practices, instead of demanding tribute. Cabeza de Vaca remains the rare European who became humbled by the skill and ingenuity of the native peoples he encountered. He came to respect their unique and, to him, alien practices for coping with the diverse environments of North America. In his reporting on his native guides’ inability to reconcile his actions with those of Diego de Alvaraza, he hints that his experience among the Indians caused him to reflect critically on his own culture, and especially on its imperial ambitions. If nothing else, his story should lead us to question how the story of European colonization has been told. It should chasten us against depicting it as the only logical conclusion of contact between Europeans and American native peoples. This portrayal demonstrates the same arrogance that Diego de Alvaraza clung to, and that Cabeza de Vaca let go.

For more information:

Leave a Reply