Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, now a castaway on "Malhado" Island, on the wild coast of Texas, was a noble of old lineage. He had relinquished high official position in Spain to join Narváez in his adventure. Of the disaster and its remarkable sequel Vaca wrote a circumstantial account which enables us to get his story at first hand. On the island Vaca took command of his comrades in adversity. His first need was to learn if the country was inhabited. So he ordered Lope de Oviedo, who had "more strength and was stouter than any of the rest," to climb a tree to spy out the land. Oviedo discovered Indians and brought them to where the Spaniards lay shivering and exhausted on the beach, some of them too frail to crawl among the rocks for shelter from the biting winds. The castaways must have looked forlorn, indeed; for Vaca, who had a nice literary touch, says that their p27 bodies had "become the perfect figures of death"; and that the Indians "at sight of what had befallen us, and our state of suffering and melancholy destitution . . . began to lament so earnestly that they might have been heard at a distance and continued so doing more than half an hour." Even in his weakness and misery, for Vaca was in a worse condition than many of his companions, his imagination was caught by the strange scene those savages "wild and untaught" presented as they sat among the white men "howling like brutes over our misfortunes." Vaca besought the Indians to take the Spaniards to their dwellings. Thirty savages loaded themselves with driftwood and immediately set off at a run for their camp some distance away. The other Indians, holding up the emaciated white men so that their feet barely touched the ground, followed in short swift marches, pausing occasionally to warm the Spaniards at great fires built by the thirty wood carriers at intervals along the trail. In the village they lodged their guests in huts where they had also built fires, fed them with roasted fish and roots, and sang and danced and wept about them until far into the night. In the morning they brought more cooked fish and in all ways showed much hospitality.
p28 The very next day, much to his delight, Vaca learned that other white men were on the same island. A messenger being sent out, soon Vaca was joined at the village by some of his former companions, Dorantes, Castillo, and their men, who had been wrecked on the island the day before Vaca landed there. Three of the castaways, numbering at this time about eighty, had been drowned in an ineffectual attempt to recover one of the horsehide boats. Terrible as the sea had been to them, they would have dared its storms once more in the desperate hope of coming at last somewhere into a Spanish harbor.
As December waned, bitter cold and heavy storms descended on the coast, stopped the fish supply, and prevented the Indians from digging for the edible roots which grew under water. Starvation and exposure thinned the ranks of the Spaniards. The survivors, to the horror of the Indians, ate the flesh of their own dead. When spring came, Vaca had with him but fifteen men.
A new danger now assailed them. Disease attacked the Indians and destroyed half their number. In their panic the natives accused the Spaniards of having brought the plague upon them by occult means; and they were only prevented from p29 slaying them by the chief who had taken Vaca in charge. If, argued this worthy, the white men could bring the disease upon the Indians, they could also surely have prevented their own people from dying. And "God our Lord willed that the others should heed this opinion and counsel, and be hindered in their design." So the Indians did not kill the Spaniards. But the notion that their mysterious refugees possessed supernatural powers was too pleasant to be given up. Now let those powers be used to cure sick Indians and banish the plague. As Vaca puts it, with his occasional sly touch of humor, "they wished to make us physicians, without examination or inquiring for diplomas." In vain he tried to laugh the savages out of their conviction. They replied that when stones and "other matters growing about the fields have virtue" then certainly "extraordinary men" must be more highly endowed. And if those extraordinary men would not heal, neither should they eat. This was cogent reasoning. After hungering for several days Vaca took the first step towards the remarkable career he was to follow later on as a Medicine Man. He had observed the Indian witch-doctors blowing upon their patients and passing their hands over them, frequently with successful results. And, devoutly p30 religious as he was, he knew that in his homeland the "prayer of faith" uttered by humble petitioners before the wayside shrines frequently wrought the recovery of the sick. Therefore, he seems to have reasoned, a blend of Indian and Christian faiths should be efficacious here. He says:
Our method was to bless the sick, breathing upon them, and recite a Pater-noster and an Ave Maria, praying with all earnestness to God our Lord that he would give health and influence them to make us some good return. In His clemency He willed that all those for whom we supplicated should tell the others that they were sound and in health, directly after we made the sign of the blessed cross over them. For this the Indians treated us kindly; they deprived themselves of food that they might give to us, and presented us with skins and some trifles.
Scarcity of food continued so that sometimes Indians and white men went without eating for several days at a time. Presently an Indian guide, who had been bribed by a marten skin, departed westward along the mainland coast, taking with him all the Spaniards but three, Vaca, Oviedo, and Alaniz, who were too frail for travel. In the summer Vaca went with the Indians to the mainland foraging for food. The life he led was "insupportable," being practically that of a slave. One of his p31 duties was to dig out the edible roots from below the water and from among the cane. His fingers were so worn from this labor that "did a straw but touch them they would bleed"; and the sharp spikes of broken cane tore his naked flesh.
For nearly six years Vaca lived a slave among these Indians. He had long intended to escape and to set off westward "in quest of Christians"; for, somewhere towards the sunset, lay Pánuco, and, given bodily strength, a brave heart, and faith in God, a man might hope to reach it. But Vaca would not leave his two companions. Then Alaniz died; and Oviedo, however much "stouter" than the other Spaniards in the matter of climbing trees, was not of stout courage. He feared to be left behind and he would not go. Every winter Vaca returned to the island and entreated him to pluck up heart; and every spring Oviedo put him off, but promised that next year he would set out.
Vaca did not let time pass unimproved. To get rid of root-digging and sore fingers, he decided to enter the domain of commerce. He could begin with good prospects because the Indians of the mainland had already heard flattering reports of his skill as a Medicine Man. And perhaps he expected to fit himself for the journey down the coast p32 by acquiring a number of Indian dialects, by becoming a connoisseur of Indian staples and trinkets, and by learning from western tribes on their summer buffalo hunts in Texas some details of the country through which he must pass on his projected journey to Pánuco. Ordinary perils and hardships had lost their terrors for Vaca. Roving naked and barefooted like the tribesmen, his body had become inured to fatigues and to wind and weather; periods of famine had also prepared the erstwhile son of magnificence and luxury to cope with the barren wilderness when the day of escape he had waited for should come at last. He had learned to make the Indians' weapons and to use them in hunting, though, as he admits, he never developed the Indian's subtlety in trailing. He was so satisfactory as a servant, indeed, that his masters were content to have him do their trading for them; and they let him come and go at will. Of his career as a merchant in Texas, Vaca gives a lengthy account, interesting because it is the first record of trade in this now great commercial land.
I set to trafficking, and strove to make my employment profitable in the ways I could best contrive, and by that means I got food and good treatment. The Indians would beg me to go from one quarter to another p33 for things of which they have need; for in consequence of incessant hostilities, they cannot traverse the country, nor make many exchanges. With my merchandise and trade I went into the interior as far as I pleased, and travelled along the coast •forty or fifty leagues. The principal wares were cones and other pieces of sea-snail, conchs used for cutting, and fruit like a bean of the highest value among them, which they use as a medicine and employ in their dances and festivities. . . . Such were what I carried into the interior; and in barter I got and brought back skins, ochre with which they rub and color the face, hard canes of which to make arrows, sinews, cement and flint for the heads, and tassels of the hair of deer that by dyeing they make red. This occupation suited me well; for the travel allowed me liberty to go where I wished, I was not obliged to work, and was not a slave.
Evidently he made an enviable name for himself among the savages as a merchant of their primitive commerce for, wherever he went, he received fair treatment and generous hospitality "out of regard to my commodities"; and those Indians with whom he had not traded, hearing of him, "sought and desired the acquaintance for my reputation." He traveled far afield in pursuit of his "leading object while journeying in this business," which was to find the best way to go forward. "The hardships that I underwent in this were long to tell, as well of peril and privation as of storms and cold," he p34 writes: "Oftentimes they overtook me alone and in the wilderness; but I came forth from them all by the great mercy of God our Lord."
Three times Vaca saw "cattle" and tasted their meat. And he has contributed to historical narrative the first description of the American buffalo:
I think they are about the size of those in Spain. They have small horns like the cows of Morocco; the hair is very long and flocky like the merinos. Some are tawny, others black. To my judgment the flesh is finer and fatter than that of this country [Spain]. Of the skins of those not full grown the Indians make blankets, and of the larger they make shoes [moccasins] and bucklers. They come as far as the sea-coast of Florida, from a northerly direction, ranging through a tract of more than •four hundred leagues; and throughout the whole region over which they run, the people who inhabit near, descend and live upon them, distributing a vast many hides into the interior country.
From these travels Vaca returned each year to the island to see how Oviedo fared and to urge him again to dare the wilderness with him. History gives us few instances of greater loyalty than Vaca's. It was not in him to deal with comrades as Narváez had dealt with his followers after leaving the Bay of Horses, saying that "each should do p35 what he thought best to save his own life; that he so intended to act." At last Vaca overcame Oviedo's timidity and the two men set forth. Perhaps Vaca swam to the mainland with Oviedo on his back, or towed him over on a piece of driftwood; for he says, "I got him off, crossing him over the bay, and over four rivers in the coast, as he could not swim." The two men were naked, armed only with bows and arrows and conch-shell knives, and Vaca carried his trader's pack of shell trinkets. After crossing the fourth river they went to the sea at Matagorda Bay, where they met with a tribe whom Vaca calls the Quevenes. These Indians told him that they had seen men like himself in the custody of another tribe farther down the coast. Vaca knew that the men must be his old companions, who had left the island four years previously; and he resolved at once to seek them and with them to escape. But this new peril in prospect, added to the rough manner of the Quevenes, was too much for the timid soul of Oviedo. And, deaf to all Vaca's imploring, he turned back toward the island — and out of history — leaving the man who had stood by him so faithfully to pursue his dangerous way alone. Who knows but that some giant Karankawa chief, of those who in the p36 nineteenth century pestered Austin's colonists in Texas, was a descendant of this Oviedo?
The Quevenes intended to hold Vaca as a slave: but he slipped away and stole out along the river bank — the Colorado, it seems — where, as he had heard, the Indians who had white men with them were gathering pecans for their winter's food store. Here he found Dorantes and Castillo and a Christianized Moor named Estevanico. These three were all that now remained of the twelve who had left the island; some had been lost in the wilds, others drowned in an attempted escape, and five the Indians had killed "for their diversions." Says the devout Vaca: "We gave many thanks at seeing ourselves together, and this was a day to us of the greatest pleasure we had enjoyed in life. . . . Thus the Almighty had been pleased to preserve me . . . that I might lead them over the bays and rivers that obstructed our progress."
Dorantes told Vaca the melancholy history of Narváez's end. He had heard it from a captive in another tribe who was presumably the sole survivor; and he had learned later that this survivor had been slain because a native woman had dreamed he was about to kill her son. Of those three hundred adventurers who had landed with p37 Narváez on the west coast of Florida, some the sea had swallowed up, others had fallen prey to bitter weather, disease, cannibalism, Indian "diversion," and superstition; and now but three Spaniards and the Moor Estevanico were left alive, and these were naked, destitute, the slaves of a fierce and savage tribe. Vaca, on his appearance among the two tribes at the pecan gathering, had been seized as a slave by the cross-eyed master of Dorantes. This was a contingency he had been prepared to face. It was in the knowledge that the effort to escape might mean enslavement, or even death, that Oviedo had turned back — and Vaca gone on.
Secretly the captives laid plans for their escape, which they would postpone, however, until the summer, when their masters would go westward to gather prickly pears. Then "people would arrive from parts farther on, bringing bows to barter and for exchange, with whom, after making our escape, we should be able to go on their return."
Summer came. On the prickly pear plains, somewhere west of the Colorado, the captives had made all ready for escape when their plan was balked by an Indian quarrel. One of the factions departed at once, taking Castillo with them. So the Spaniards were again separated; and again p38 Vaca postponed his journey for another year. Next summer the Indians would return to the prickly pear plains and, if Castillo were still alive, then he should find that his comrades had not abandoned him. That Vaca himself and the two with him might be done away with for Indian "diversion," or by the blasts and want of another winter, was also a probability. But Vaca seems to have brooded little over his own dangers. His actions prove his words that he ever had trust that God would lead him "out from that captivity, and thus I always spoke of it to my companions."
Another year was passed in slavery, during which time Vaca led a pitifully hard life. Three times he ran away, so badly was he used, but each time he was pursued and taken back. In November of the following year — it was now 1534 — a third time the Spaniards met on the prickly pear plains. Escaping at last they fled west to the Avavares, whom Vaca had met farther east when a trader. At this village there was a sick native in one of the tents, and his tribesmen demanded that Vaca cure him. He restored the patient to health and was rewarded with a supply of meat and fruit. As the Indians told him that the country to the westward was cold and predicted from certain p39 natural signs a severe winter, he counseled patience once more.
For eight months the white men continued with the Avavares, and the fame of the new Medicine Man was on every tongue. His companions were also called to the sick bed, since they might be supposed to partake of his talents. But it seems that neither Castillo nor Dorantes relished the rôle of physician. Castillo, indeed, went about his new occupation with shaking knees. He much doubted the approval of high heaven and feared, moreover, that his sins would weigh against his healing efforts. Vaca's sturdy soul knew no misgivings. He did not believe that he was dowered with mystic powers; yet he saw the sick rise up after he had blown upon them in the native fashion and made the sign of the cross over them in Christian manner. This was, to him, proof positive that God willed the preservation of himself and his friends and blessed his efforts accordingly.
When summer came (1535) the four Spaniards, turning southward, passed on to the Arbadaos. These Indians evidently lived in the great sand belt between the Nueces and the Río Grande. They were kind, but food was scarce in their desert land, and while with them the Spaniards suffered p40 more than ever the pangs of hunger. "In the course of a whole day we did not eat more than two handfuls of fruit, which was green and contained so much milky juice that our mouths were burnt by it." In their straits they were helped out by the purchase of two dogs, for which Vaca gave the skins which covered his nakedness. He made combs, bows and arrows, nets, and the mats which formed the walls of the savages' temporary dwellings, and traded these for whatever increase of food he could get and occasionally for skins. Sometimes he was set to scraping and softening hides, and he says that the days of his "greatest prosperity" were those when he was given skins to dress, for "I would scrape them a very great deal and eat the scraps, which would sustain me for two or three days." Sometimes a piece of meat was thrown to the fugitives and they ate it raw; for, if they had put it to roast, the first native happening along would have snatched it and devoured it. Vaca remarks slyly that "it appeared to us not well to expose it to this risk."
Having consumed the dogs, the Spaniards continued their journey southward, and soon crossed a river which appeared to them to be as wide as the Guadalquivír at Seville. It was the Río Grande.
p41 By this time the Miracle Man's fame had spread from tribe to tribe along his route. And his progress now became a triumphal march, with flocks of feathered Indians — sometimes to the number of four thousand — following in his train. His red-skinned disciples greatly impeded his travel, for they all wished to touch him and his friends or some part of their clothing; and not a man of the thousands of them would eat a morsel of food until one of the Spaniards had blessed it. At the same time they hunted and dug for food along the march, killing hares, deer, opossums, gathering fruit, roots, and nuts. They never presumed to eat until they had fed their physician; nor to rest until they had erected houses for him and his three friends. Their women wove mats and blankets for the white men and made their moccasins. The natives from one village would go as far as the next; there they would proclaim to the astonished inhabitants Vaca's wondrous works, and, at the same time, plunder the village of everything worth taking. Vaca was grieved at this wholesale robbery but dared not attempt to check it. "In consolation," he says, "the plunderers told them that we were children of the sun and that we had power to heal the sick and to destroy; and other lies even greater than these, p42 which none know how to tell better than they when they find it convenient. They bade them conduct us with great respect, advised that they should be careful to offend us in nothing, give us all they might possess, and endeavor to take us where people were numerous; and that wheresoever they arrive with us, they should rob and pillage the people of what they have, since this was customary."
The coast Indians had been hostile, but these were friendly, so the direct route to Pánuco was abandoned. Turning westward now through Coahuila, and then northward, Vaca recrossed the Río Grande west of the Pecos, struck it again at the mouth of the Conchos, and followed it to the vicinity of El Paso. And over all these leagues of wilderness the hordes of Indians continued with him. In one town Vaca performed a surgical operation with a conch-shell knife, cutting a flint arrowhead from a man's shoulder. The patient recovered; and the arrowhead was carried like a saint's relic, throughout the land, that men might marvel. From the region of El Paso, Vaca and his friends pressed westward over the arid plains of Chihuahua and crossed the Sierra Madre Mountains after many days of hard going. "The Indians," says Vaca, "ever accompanied us until they delivered to p43 others; and all held full faith in our coming from heaven. . . . Thus we . . . traversed all the country until coming out at the South Sea."
At a town on the Río Yaqui the Spaniards were presented with over six hundred "hearts of deer," and five arrows tipped with "emeralds" — probably malachite. This Town of the Hearts, as Vaca named it, was in the region of Sahuaripa, Sonora. Descending the Yaqui River, which empties into the Gulf of California, Vaca came upon Spaniards on a slave-hunting foray on the frontier of New Galicia. The surprise occasioned by the apparition there of these four haggard, battered, bearded, skin-clothed, paint-bedaubed Europeans can be better imagined than described. Glad indeed were the poor wanderers to see once again men of their own race, and they "gave many thanks to God our Lord."
But Vaca's feeling was not one of unmixed joy, for on every side he saw the devastation the Spaniards had wrought among the natives; half the men and all the women and boys, he says, had been carried away as slaves. The six hundred natives who had accompanied Vaca down the Yaqui offered a rich and easy prize to these slave hunters; and Vaca's urgent protests resulted only in deceitful p44 promises. He says, "We set about to preserve the liberty of the Indians and thought we had secured it, but the contrary appeared; for the Christians had arranged to go and spring upon those we had sent away in peace and confidence. They executed their plans as they had designed."
Vaca and his comrades went on southward through Culiacán to Compostela, then the principal town of New Galicia. Here they were hospitably received by Nuño de Guzmán, the Governor who gave them beds, and some of his own wardrobe to screen their nakedness. But after eight years of Indian life the wanderers found that they could not wear clothes with comfort, "nor could we sleep anywhere else but on the ground."
Vaca reached the City of Mexico on July 24, 1536; thence he went to Santo Domingo, and from there to Spain. In all places his story bore fruit. In Spain he was disappointed in his ambition for the governorship of Florida. One wonders why he should have wanted it! That office head already been taken by Hernando de Soto. Vaca was invited to accompany De Soto, but his experience with Narváez had made him unwilling to take part in an expedition not commanded by himself. After three years of hopes and disappointments, Vaca p45 was made adelantado of Río de la Plata, in South America. In this venture he expended all his means. In the South American wilds he made marches almost as heroic as his journey from Texas to Sonora. But his humane treatment of the natives won for him the hostility of his turbulent compatriots. He was seized, on trumped-up charges, and sent in chains to Spain. There he lay in prison for six years. He was then condemned by the Council of the Indies, stripped of his honors and titles, and sentenced to exile in Africa. Meanwhile he had become the subject of a learned controversy among clerical pamphleteers as to the propriety of a layman's performing miracles. His end is not known, though he is said to have been living in Spain twenty years later. Of his companions only the black Estevanico played a conspicuous part in later history in America. We shall hear anon how Estevanico became a permanent figure in Indian tradition.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
The Spanish Borderlands
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
if its URL has a total of one *asterisk.
If the URL has two **asterisks,
the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use.
If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 2 Apr 16