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The Ordeal Of Cabeza De Vaca

July 2024
24min read

Marooned on the coast of Texas, he wandered for eight years in a land no European had ever seen

A crude boat carrying forty exhausted Spaniards drifted close to the long Texas beach. “Near dawn it seemed to me that the tumbling roar of the sea could be heard. Surprised, I called the boatswain and he replied that we were near the coast. We sounded and found ourselves in seven fathoms. It seemed to the boatswain that we ought to keep to sea until sunrise and I took an oar and pulled on the land side until we were a league off-shore. Then we turned the stern to the sea. Near the land a breaker took and threw the boat the cast of a horseshoe out of the water. With the violent blow almost all the men, who were like dead, came to themselves and seeing the beach near the) began to climb from the boat and crawl on hands and knees to some ravines where we made fire and toasted some corn that we had brought and drank some rain water that we found. The heat of the fire restored the men and they began somewhat to exert themselves. The day that we arrived here was the sixtli of the month of November.” The year was 1528.

Thus Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca ∗ of Jerez, treasurer of the ill-fated Narvaez expedition, which had set out from Spain in June, 1527, with five ships and six hundred men to explore and settle the lands between Florida and Mexico, tells how he came with his few remaining companions to the unknown land of Texas. Years before De Soto and Coronado entered what would become the United States, he was to make one of man’s great land journeys, crossing Texas and Mexico from the Gulf to the Pacific Ocean with two other while men and a Negro slave.

∗ The name Cabeza de Vaca means, literally, “head of a cow.” The King of Spain bestowed it upon an ancestor after the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212. This man was a shepherd who had marked with a cow’s skull a trail by which the Spanish were enabled to outflank and defeat a Moorish army.

The Narváez expedition had bad hick from the beginning: bad luck in its commander, the rash Pánfilo de Narvaez, who in 1520 had lost an eye in a fight that occurred when, at the behest of the governor of Cuba, he had attempted to halt Cortés’ march to the interior of Mexico; bad luck at Santo Domingo, the first New World port of call, where two men quit the expedition; bad luck in Cuba, where the ships were scattered by a hurricane and sixty men and twenty horses were lost.

The expedition spent the winter of 1527–28 in Cuba, took on fresh recruits and horses, and sailed in the spring for the little-known shores of Florida. On April 14—Holy Thursday—the five vessels anchored at the mouth of what was probably Tampa Bay. Here Governor Narváez—the title was one often granted by the crown to would-be conquerors—made his most important decision, and so insured the destruction of his expedition. He divided his force. The bulk of his men he took ashore and with them set out northward toward the place which the Indians called Apalache; there, they said, the Spaniards would find much gold. The ships were ordered to run along the coast, and were supposed” to meet the men marching by land at a vague rendezvous. That rendezvous was never kept. Alter a year of fruitless searching along the coast, the ships returned to Cuba.

The three hundred men making up the land party, each with two pounds of hardtack and half a pound of bacon, struggled alone the coast of Florida, battling Indians all the while. When, late in June, they reached Apalache (perhaps near Tallahassee), the Spaniards found a few huts, corn, and hostile natives, but no gold. The invaders pushed inland, but hunger, sickness, and frequent attacks by the Indians made their march a nightmare.

In desperation Narváez turned back to the coast and called a council. Cabeza writes:
We agreed on a remedy most difficult to execute, which was to make boats in which to depart. This appeared an impossibility to all, for we knew not how to do this work, nor were there tools, nor iron, nor a forge, nor oakum, nor resin, nor rigging … But God willed it that one of the company should say that he could make some wooden tubes which, with deerskins, would serve as bellows … and we agreed thus to make from our stirrups, spurs and crossbows and the other things of iron that we had, the nails, saws, axes and other tools of which there was such need … We agreed that every third day we would slaughter a horse to be divided among those working on the boats and the sick.

On September 20, five boats were ready, each thirty-three feet long, calked with palmetto fiber and pitched with pine resin. From palmetto fiber and the horses’ tails and manes the men made rope and rigging, and from their shins, sails. They flayed the horses’ legs entire and tanned the skin to make water bottles.

Two days later, they ate the last horse. Leaving behind more than fifty companions who had died of diseasc or wounds, some two hundred and fifty survivors crowded into the five frail vessels and sailed from the place they called the Bay of Horses. They followed the shore line to the west, confident, in their ignorance of geography, that before long they would find safety among their countrymen in Mexico.

But the sea was as perilous as the land. The gunwales of the boats almost awash, their corn supply almost exhausted, the horsehide water carriers rotten and useless, the Spaniards groped along the coast, stopping to beg or to fight the Indians for fish and water. Maddened by thirst, some men drank salt water and died. One day the voyagers came to the mouth of a broad river whose current drove the boats away from the shore, but repaid the men with fresh water. It was the Mississippi.

The five boats were blown out to sea by a howling north wind and became separated. At vespers, Cabeza saw two of the boats. His men drew near to one of them, that of Governor Narváez, who told Cabeza that he was going to try to reach the shore, and that the treasurer could do the same if he wished. Cabeza replied’ that in his opinion they should first try to join the third boat, which was farther at sea. But Narváez’s boat began to pull toward the distant land. Cabeza writes:
I, seeing his will, took my oar, as did all those in my boat who were able to do so, and we rowed until almost sunset. But the Governor had the strongest and healthiest of all the men in his Ixiat and we could not by any means follow or keep up with him. Seeing this, 1 asked him to give me a line from his boat so that we could follow him, but he replied that it would be no small thing if they themselves were able to reach land that night. I told him that since he saw the small chance that we had of following him and of doing what he had ordered, he should tell me what it was that he would have me do. He answered that now was not the time for one man to command another, and that each one should do what seemed best to save his own life, and that that was what he intended to do, and saying this, he drew away in his boat.

Cabeza and his men joined the other boat. They sailed together for four days until another storm separated them. Of the crew, only Cabeza and the boatswain had enough strength to work the boat; only they heard the roaring breakers which hurled them upon the Texas shore that day early in November, 1528.

After the castaways had eaten what little corn they had salvaged, Cabeza ordered one of the men, Lope de Oviedo, to climb a tree to survey the country. Oviedo reported that they were on an island. Cabeza sent him off to look around, and Oviedo found some empty Indian huts not far away and took from them a dog, some fish, and a pot, and started back to his companions. Cabeza meanwhile had sent two men to search for him.

They came upon him nearby, and they saw that three Indians with bows and arrows were following him and calling to him and he likewise was beckoning them on. Thus he arrived where we were, the Indians remaining a way back, seated on the shore. Within half an hour, some one hundred Indian bowmen joined the first three, who now, whether they were large or not, our fears caused to seem like giants.

Thus, probably a few miles below the present city of Galveston, on a desolate island now joined to the mainland by the sea’s powerful action and called Velasco Peninsula, Indians and white men met. This first meeting of Europeans and natives in the southwest of lhe United States was peaceful. The Indians brought fish and roots to the starving strangers, receiving trinkets in return. After resting a few days the Spaniards decided to try to re-embark. They dug their boat out of the sand, stripped oft their clothes and put them in it, and with much exertion launched the vessel. Two crossbow shots from shore they shipped a wave that soaked and chilled them. Another wave struck the boat, and it capsized, drowning three men who clung to it; the others were tossed again by the breakers upon the beach.

Naked, the Spaniards huddled among the dunes, chilled by the north wind—the norther that carries the cold of the Great Plains across Texas and deep into Mexico. Here the Indians found them once more, and so sad was the plight of the white men (with two of their dead lying among them) that the Indians sat down upon the sand and howled their ritual lamentation. The natives brought the castaways to their huts and warmed and led them and’ then danced all night, to the terror of the Europeans, who feared that they were being prepared for sacrifice.

The next day some fifty more Spaniards came into camp. Led by Andrés Dorantes and Alonso de Castillo, and including Dorantes’ slave, the Negro-Moor Estevanico, these survivors of the expedition had been wrecked a few miles up the beach the day before Cabeza’s boat had gone ashore.

Together the Spaniards agreed to launch the boat of Dorantes and Castillo. The men who had the strength and will might go in it; the others would make their way along the shore; and all would seek the land of Christians.

This attempt to flee the island also failed. The boat was launched, but it sank immediately. Marooned without provisions and with cold weather coming, the Spaniards decided to winter on the island. But they picked four men from the ranks—all four strong swimmers who might be more successful than some of their companions in crossing the wide bays, lagoons, and rivers—and sent them on down the coast in an effort to reach the Spanish settlements in Mexico.

Cold and stormy weather swept the island; the Indians could catch no fish and dig no roots; the flimsy huts gave no shelter; death came. Five Spaniards living apart in one hut became cannibals, “until only one remained who, being alone, there was no one who might eat him.” Of the more than eighty Spaniards who had come to the island, soon only fifteen remained alive. Then half the Indians died of a stomach sickness.

The Spaniards named this place Malhado—Bad Luck Island. But with the help of the Indians, the fifteen Europeans survived. These Indians went naked, except for “the women, who covered their bodies somewhat with a wool that grows in the trees.” The men were large and well-formed; they pierced their lower lips and sometimes their nipples with pieces of cane. They treated their children mildly, engaged in prolonged, lachrymose funeral rites, and had taboos against in-laws. Their beliefs involved the foreigners in a practice which in the end was to save the lives of some of the hapless group. “They wished to make us physicians, without our taking examinations nor asking us for our diplomas,” Cabeza wrote.

They cure illness by blowing on the sitk, and with that breath and the placing on of hands they cast out the sickness, and they ordered us to do the same and to be useful to them in some way. We laughed at that, telling them that it was a farce and that we did not know how to cure. For this they took away our food until we did as they told us … The manner in which we cured was by blessing them and breathing on them and by praying a Pater Nosier and an Avc Maria and by supplicating as best we could God our Lord that he might give them health … God our Lord willed in His clemency that all those for whom we had prayed (and after we had blessed them) told the others that they were sound and healthy. Because of this they treated us well, and they did without food in order to give it to us, and they gave us skins and trinkets.

In the spring of 1529, the Spaniards separated. Two, Lope de Oviedo and Alaniz, remained on Malhado because they were too weak to travel. Cabcza had earlier been isolated from his fellows, for he had been taken to the mainland by some of the Indians during the winter and there had become desperately ill. Thirteen (one more Spaniard had appeared during the winter) started off toward Mexico. Cabeza’s illness prevented him from joining his concernions in their journey; he was left behind, the lone white man, so far as he knew, on the vast and unexplored mainland of North America above Mexico.

For Cabeza de Vaca this was the beginning of lour years of prolonged hardship, a period that called on all the castaway’s courage and vitality. He suffered bad treatment from the Indians and from nature. “Among many other tasks, 1 had to get out roots to eat from under the water and from among the reeds where they grew in the ground and from this my fingers were so worn that they bled if a straw touched them, and the reeds, many of which were broken, tore my flesh in many places.” Hunger and cold beset him. Sometimes he was alone, without even Indian companionship; at other times he was no more than a slave.

To free himself from dependence upon his Indian masters and to learn more about the surrounding country, Cabcza gradually set himself up as a trader between his tribe and others of the region, traveling among the often hostile Indians to exchange the shells, sea beans, and goods lrom the coast for the skins, ocher, and flints of the interior.

Each year Cabcza returned to Malhado to visit Lope de Oviedo, hoping to persuade his comrade, who was now the only white man on the island, to depart with him in search of Christians. Not until 1533 did Oviedo agree. He could not swim, but Cabeza managed to get him to the mainland and across the first four rivers whit h they encountered. Down the coast near a great bay the two Europeans came upon other Indians who told them that farther on there were three men, two of whom looked like the Spaniards. These Indians also knew of the fate of other members of the expedition who had tome that way more than four years earlier. All had died of cold or hunger or had been killed by the natives—for sport or in obedience to omens which had come to the Indians in dreams.

Cabeza and Oviedo waited there by a river (probably the Guadalupe) because these natives told them that the strangers who looked like themselves would soon be brought by their Indian captors to the river, where the tribes gathered to eat the nuts which grew plentifully on the trees lining the banks. While Cabeza and Oviedo waited, the natives abused them, slapping them and holding drawn arrows against their chests and telling them that they were going to be killed. Oviedo’s courage failed him, and he decided to return to Malhado. Cabeza implored him to remain but he would not; he turned and went back with some Indian women who had come with him from Malhado, and disappeared from history.

Two days later Alonso de Castillo and Andrés Dorantes, and Estevanico, his slave, were brought by their Indian masters to the “place of the nuts,” and the four men rejoiced much at finding each other alive.

The Spaniards agreed that they must conceal from their captors their desire to escape. They plotted to stay with these Indians, and to wait until the coming of summer when the tribe that held them prisoners would move to the prickly-pear grounds to feast on tunas, the purple fruit which grows from the edges of the flat-leaved, spiny cactus. To the tuna grounds came natives from distant places; with them the Spaniards might continue their !light to the south and west. Cabeza and the others were taken as slaves by various Indian families; but before being separated from his comrades he heard from Dorantes the story of the fate of the eleven men who had left Malhado for Mexico with Dorantes and Caslillo four years before, when Cabeza had been too ill to accompany them. Cabeza also learned what had become of others of the expedition who had come ashore in their rickety boats.

Thirteen had left Malhado in 1529. Six died (four by drowning) during their march along the coast. During this journey of approximately 180 miles, the survivors had come upon another Spaniard, Figueroa. He was one of the four men who had been sent ahead from Malhado in the first weeks after the wreck of Cabeza’s and Dorantes’ boats to try to reach Mexico and bring assistance to the castaways wintering on the desolate island. Figueroa told Dorantes that two of his companions had died of starvation and exposure; the Indians had killed the third.

But there had been yet another Spanish survivor in the land, one Esquivel, to whom the Indians had brought Figueroa. Esquivel had described to him how his boat had been wrecked far back along the coast and how he had been found by Narváez, who had employed his own boat in ferrying the men from Esquivel’s boat over difficult stretches of the coast. But, “one night the Governor did not wish to go ashore and a coxswain and a sick page remained with him. In the boat there was neither water nor anything to eat and only a stone for an anchor. In the middle of the night the norther came up so strongly that it took the boat out to sea without anyone observing it and they never learned anything of him again.” The survivors of the boats of Narváez and Esquivel had struggled for life along the shore as their comrades were doing elsewhere on the coast, but these castaways too began to die during winter; the living dried the flesh of the dead and ate it, until only Esquivel remained.

Dorantes later learned from the Indians what had become of Esquivel. He “had wished to run away because a woman had dreamed that her son had to kill him and the Indians went after him and killed him and they showed Andrés Dorantes the sword and beads and book and the other things he had.” Figueroa, who had encountered Esquivel, himself became separated “farther down the coast” from Dorantes and the survivors of the group of thirteen, and no more was ever heard of him. All the others, after the journey from Malhado, were enslaved by the Indians and then killed, except Dorantes and Castillo and Estevanico.

For more than a year the three Spaniards and the Negro lived as slaves of their Indian masters. These Indians fed mainly on the roots, but also ate spiders, worms, caterpillars, lizards, snakes, and ant eggs. (“I believe,” Cabeza writes, “that were there stones in the land they would eat them.”) Though Cabeza describes them as thieves, liars, and drunkards, they were at the same time “a merry people, considering the hunger they suffer.” The women did the camp labor. The men were tireless runners and could follow a deer from morning to night. Sometimes the Indians set afire the grass of the plains to aid in capturing game and to drive away the intolerable hordes of mosquitoes that swarmed in the summer.

Cattle came here, [Cabeza states] and I have seen them three times, and partaken of them. It seems to me that they are the size of those of Spain. They have small horns … and very long hair, flocky, like a merino’s. Some are tawny, others black, and it seems to me that they have better and fatter meat than those of [Spain]. From the smaller ones the Indians make blankets to cover themselves, and from the larger ones they make shoes and shields. They come from the North over the land to the coast, spreading out over all the country more than four hundred leagues, and along their route and the valleys by which they come, the people who live nearby descend upon them and live off them.

Thus, the first description left by a white man of the American buffalo.

When the summer of 1533 came, the Spaniards and the Negro were brought by the Indians to the prickly-pear fields (most likely south of San Antonio). Before the prisoners had a chance to escape, the Indians fell to quarreling and took up their lodges and left. The four Christians (for Estevanico was a Christian) were denied by this dispute an opportunity to escape, and were separated once again, to spend another year in captivity.

After the passage of these hard months, the Indians reassembled to gorge on the tunas. The strangers gladly joined in feasting on the juicy, pear-shaped fruit. “There are many kinds of tunas,” Cabeza tells, “among them some which are very good, although all of them seemed so to me, for hunger never gave me time to choose.” By no means all the land was covered by cactus: “Throughout the countryside are very large and fine pastures of very good grass for cattle and it seems to me that it would be a fruitful land if it were worked and inhabited by civilized people.” Here the four men learned that they were indeed the last survivors of the Narváez expedition, for “the Indians told us that there were other Indians farther on, called Camones, who lived near the coast. They had killed all the men who had come in the [fifth boat from Florida], who had arrived so enfeebled that they could not defend themselves even when being killed.”

As the moon grew full in September, 1534, the Spaniards and the Moor slipped away from their masters. Not far off they came upon another tribe, the Avavares, who received them well. “That same night of our arrival some Indians came to Castillo and told him that they had great pains in their heads, and begged him to cure them. After he had blessed them and commended them to God, instantly the Indians said that the evil had left them and they went to their houses and brought many tunas and a piece of venison.”

Winter was not far off, and the natives told the Spaniards that the country ahead was poor in game and abandoned by the Indians in the cold months. The travelers decided to remain where they were. They stayed with the Avavares for eight months; during most of that time they were in great want.

We went naked in that land, and since we were unaccustomed to that, in the manner of serpents we cast our skins two times each year. The sun and the air made great sores on our chests and backs, which pained us much because of the large, heavy loads which we carried. Often, after we brought wood from the thickets, blood ran from our bodies in many places … Sometimes, when it was my turn to get wood, and after it had cost me much blood, I was not able to bring it out, either by carrying or dragging. When I found myself in such labors I had no other remedy or consolation but to think of the Passion of Our Redeemer, Jesus Christ, and of the blood that He shed for me, and to consider how much more serious was the torment from the thorns which He suffered than that which I was suffering. Sometimes the Indians would order me to scrape and soften hides, and the greatest good fortune that I had there was the day in which they gave me something to scrape, because I scraped very much and I used to eat those scrapings and they would sustain me for two or three days.

Castillo and, increasingly, Cabeza were obliged to attempt cures upon the Indians. The white men did so fearfully, and with many prayers that God might indeed make their ministrations effective. The Indians, at least, always responded favorably, including one man whom Cabeza restored to health, although he had “all the appearances of death.”

Cabeza describes many of the customs of the tribes with whom he and his companions lived and among whom they traveled (probably between the Colorado River and the Rio Grande in southern Texas) when they resumed their journey in 1535. Children were suckled until they were twelve years old; this was often the only nourishment they could be given. Quarrels in the tribe were settled with fists and clubs, not bows and arrows, and were followed by a period during which the contestants went to live apart from the tribe. In enemy territory at night the Indians dug trenches around their camp; thus concealed, they were ready to fight surprise with surprise. Emerging from their huts in the dark, they crouched down to escape detection; this also gave them a chance to observe any unfamiliar object that might stand out against the sky. In battle they bent low and leaped about to escape enemy arrows.

He who would fight the Indians, Cabeza warned, should be advised that they show no weakness nor covetousness for their goods. While war lasts they have to be treated rigorously, for if they discover fear or covetousness in others they are men who know how to take the opportunity for vengeance and they take strength in the fear of their adversaries … They see and hear better and have keener senses than any men I know of in the world. They are great in withstanding hunger and thirst and cold, as though they were more accustomed to these and made for them more than other men.

In the late spring or early summer of 1535 the wanderers started again on their quest for Mexico. Now the pattern of their lives changed. They had acquired a reputation as medicine men, and as they moved from tribe to tribe those whom they visited met them with rejoicing; those left behind wept. Their diet also changed, although not for the better: now they ate beans of the mesquite tree, mashed and mixed with water and earth.

Perhaps at this stage of their journey they crossed the lower Rio Grande and entered Mexico. They were still lost, and still hundreds of miles from the nearest Spanish settlements to the south at Pánuco. But their march took on the character of a triumphal procession, or at least that of a successful traveling medicine show. At each village the Indians crowded around them, brought children and the sick to be touched and cured, and then escorted the travelers to the next settlement.

[So] began another novel custom: those who accompanied us began to act badly, taking the goods and looting the houses of those who received us so well, without leaving anything. It worried us greatly to see those who received us well badly treated, and also we feared that this would cause dispute … but the Indians who lost their goods, knowing our sadness, consoled us, telling us that the matter should not grieve us but that they were so content to see us that they considered their goods well bestowed, and that farther on they would be repaid by others who were very rich.

When the wanderers came in sight of the mountains of northeastern Mexico, they made what seems a strange decision. They turned from the coastal plain and headed inland, away from the direct route to the Spanish settlements. Cabeza gives the reason for this change: fear of the evil disposition of the coastal Indians, in contrast to the good treatment received from the inland tribes. Cabeza also hints that these indomitable men swung away to the west and north in search of that discovery of untold riches, that conquest of fabled cities, which had eluded them since they had sailed from Spain eight years earlier.

Perhaps also they took pleasure in their prosperity and power. Laden with gifts, which they distributed as fast as they were received, and exercising such authority over the awed and superstitious Indians that none dared to take a drink of water without permission from the strangers, the four wandered on. Their followers engaged in chain-reaction plundering while extolling to the plundered their own example and the magical powers of the Children of the Sun.

Along river valleys and across mountain ridges they went west and northwest through northern Mexico. The land was rugged and dry, except in the verdant valleys. The natives continued their attentions, presenting the strangers with ceremonial rattles and a bell of copper, and introducing them to pifiones, the nuts of the pinon tree. In this country the travelers were given corn flour. And Cabeza worked a true cure (of his other “cures” he was always careful to point out that the Indians believed that they had been cured). He operated on an Indian who had been shot by an arrow, removed the arrowhead from deep in the man’s chest, and with a deer bone as a needle sewed up the wound.

Now they had roast quail and venison to eat and rabbits killed by throwing-sticks, and they blessed the food of the crowds of natives who frequently accompanied them. On they went, crossing “a great river,” probably the Rio Grande again, near the Big Bend; then, after journeying 250 miles through dry, rough country, they again forded “a very large river,” having come back once more to the Rio Grande, farther north. Here they saw the first habitations that looked like houses rather than huts, and the Indians gave them corn, pumpkins, and beans.

The Indians’ superstitious fear grew as the journey went on, until the Spaniards themselves began to pray that the terrorized natives would not flee, abandoning their new-found alien gods in the wilderness. Despite their fear, the Indians continued to care for the strangers and to hand them on from tribe to tribe as they moved westward toward a land reported to be rich in maize.

The years had hardened the four men physically and confirmed them in their faith.

We used to walk all day without eating until night, and we ate so little that the Indians were astonished to see it … We possessed much authority and influence with the Indians, and in order to preserve these we seldom spoke to them. The Negro always spoke to them, keeping himself informed of the routes we wished to follow … We passed through a great many [peoples of] diverse tongues; with all of them Our Lord God favored us, for they always understood us, and we them. We asked and answered questions by signs as well as though they spoke our language and we theirs, because, although we knew six languages, we were not able to use them everywhere, there being a thousand variations. In all those lands those who were at war made peace so as to come and to receive us and to bring us all they possessed. In this manner we left the land in peace, and we told them by signs which they understood that in Heaven there was a man Whom we called God, He Who had created Heaven and Earth, and we adored Him and held Him as Our Lord, and that we did as He commanded us and that all good things came from His hand and that if they did thus all would go well with them. Their comprehension was so great that had we had a language by which we could have made ourselves perfectly understood we would have left them all Christians.

Week after week they walked westward from the Rio Grande, across northwestern Mexico, over the passes of the Sierra Madre, down the western mountain valleys toward the coast, into a land of relative plenty where there were corn and beans, fixed habitations, and cotton cloth. The Indians brought the Spaniards corals from the Gulf of California and turquoises that came from a land of lofty mountains and large buildings far to the north—the Pueblo country of Arizona and New Mexico. In one town Dorantes was presented with six hundred open deer hearts: this place they named Corazónes. It was near what is now Ures, in Sonora, “the entrance into many provinces on the South Sea.”

It was the spring of 1536. There were no other Christians, nor rumors of them, here in the unexplored far northwest of Mexico.

To the south the wanderers made their way, threading the valleys between the mountains and the ocean^ One day, while waiting for a rain-swollen river to subside,
Castillo saw at the neck of an Indian the buckle of a sword belt and stitched to it a horseshoe nail. We took them and we asked the native what they were: he told us that they had come from the sky. We questioned him further as to who had brought them thence. They all replied that some men who wore beards like us had come from the sky and arrived at that river, bringing horses and lances and swords, and that they had lanced two [Indians]. With as much dissimulation as we could attain we asked them what these men had then done. They replied to us that they had gone to the sea and put their lances beneath the water and that they themselves had gone beneath the water and that afterward they saw them go on the surface toward the sunset. We gave many thanks to God, Our Lord, for what we heard, for we were’ despairing of ever hearing of Christians.

The four hurried on with their retinue. News about the other Christians became frequent, but it was bad news, at least for the Indians. The fertile countryside deserted, the villages burned, and the remaining inhabitants hidden in the mountains—all told of a Spanish slaving expedition from across the frontier of European settlement to the south. Still the four travelers were joined by awed Indians bearing gifts; still the Indians who had come with the four men from as far as three hundred miles back along the trail continued to journey on, assured by Cabeza of his protection.

Signs of Christians became numerous. Only the day before, some Indians reported to Cabeza, they had seen them. On the morning of the next day, near the Petatlán River (now the Sinaloa), Cabeza
came upon Christians on horseback, who received a great shock to see me, so strangely dressed and accompanied by Indians. They stared at me a long time, so astonished that they neither spoke to me nor drew near to question me. I told them to bring me to where their captain was … and I asked him to give me a certificate of the year and the month and the day on which I had arrived there and the manner in which I came, and thus it was done.

By the Sinaloa River, not far from the Pacific Ocean and about one hundred miles north of the border settlement of San Miguel, the odyssey of Cabeza, Dorantes, Castillo, and Estevanico ended. The Indians accompanying the gods did not wish to abandon them until they had been conveyed into the safekeeping of other Indians; nor did these Indians wish to lose their protectors, for fear of the other white men.

Cabeza relates that the slave-hunting Christians
took offense at this and made their interpreter tell [the Indians] that we were like themselves, and that we had been lost a long time, and that we were people of no account, and that they were the lords of that land, who had to be obeyed and served. But all this that was said to them the Indians reckoned as little or nothing, and conversing among themselves they said that the Christians lied, because we came from where the sun rises, and they whence it sets; that we healed the sick, while they killed the sound; that we came naked and barefooted, while they came clothed and on horses and with lances; and that we were not covetous of anything, but at once all that was given to us we gave away and we remained with nothing, while the others had no aim but to rob everything they found and never gave anything to anyone.

Cabeza finally persuaded the Indians to return to their homes and fields, and he thanked them and dismissed them in peace. With an escort the four travelers started on their way to Mexico City. But their efforts to protect the natives from the slave-hunters had endangered their own lives. Only the arrival of a well-disposed higher official saved Cabeza and the others from possible death at the hands of their own countrymen. At the request of this official, Cabeza and his companions pacified the frightened and rebellious Indians of the country through which they passed.

From the border settlement of San Miguel they pushed on three hundred miles to Compostela, where the cruel governor of the province resided; then another five hundred miles to Mexico City. There they were joyfully received and honored by the viceroy, Mendoza, and by the conqueror Cortes. The harsh imprint of their journey was still upon them, for Cabeza tells that it was some time after returning to the land of Christians before he could stand the touch of clothes upon his body, or sleep anywhere but upon the ground.

Cabeza reached Spain the following summer, but by 1540 he was again in the New World, now as governor of Paraguay. Political difficulties led to his recall and imprisonment; he returned to Spain and obscurity until his death, perhaps in the 1550’s.

Castillo and Dorantes settled in Mexico.

It was the Negro Christian from North Africa, Estevanico, who died like the conquistador he was. Incited by the rumors of civilizations and treasures in the unknown lands to the north of the regions crossed by Cabeza and his companions, Viceroy Mendoza sent out an expedition led by Fray Marcos de Niza. Its guide was Estevanico. Carrying the medicine rattle which he had picked up on his journey from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the Negro-Moor from Azamor, on the coast of Morocco, was killed in 1539 by Indians in the Pueblo country of New Mexico. He had blazed the trail that would be followed, a year later, by Coronado.

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