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Four Shipwrecked Castaways Cross Sixteenth Century America

Posted By Paul Comstock On December 19, 2007 @ 1:05 pm In History,Native American,Non-Fiction Reviews | 2 Comments

Andrés Reséndez

CLR INTERVIEW: Andrés Reséndez, author of A Land So Strange, discusses the incredible journey of four survivors of a disastrous Spanish expedition to America in 1527.

A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza De Vaca : The Extraordinary Tale of a Shipwrecked Spaniard Who Walked Across America in the Sixteenth Century
by Andrés Reséndez
Basic Books, 314 pp.

What was the Narváez expedition?

In 1527 five ships carrying some six hundred Spaniards—including ten women and a sprinkling of African slaves—departed from Spain toward the New World. Their aim was to explore and permanently occupy Florida and the adjacent territories.


What happened after they reached Florida?

The Florida expedition landed around present-day Tampa Bay, Florida more than one thousand and five hundred miles away from the closest European outpost on the continent. However, owing to a colossal navigational mistake, the expeditionaries were under the impression that they were merely a couple of hundred miles away from that outpost. Based on such an erroneous assumption, the leader of the expedition, Pánfilo de Narváez, made the momentous decision to have the ships sail along the coast while most of the men disembarked and walked through the interior of Florida hoping that this overland contingent would rejoin the ships just a few days later. In reality the ships and the land party would never meet again, leaving some 300 men and 40 horses stranded in an unexplored continent.

The long journey of the four survivors


What was the path they took to make it to what is now Mexico, and how long did it take?

The overland party walked north through the entire length of the Florida peninsula eventually emerging somewhere south of present-day Tallahassee in the Florida panhandle. By then, the men of the Florida expedition had became so desperate that they decided to kill their horses to feed themselves while they constructed five rafts on which to sail along the Gulf of Mexico coast. This desperate bid succeeded remarkably well, enabling the survivors to reach what is now the coast of Texas. But at that point most of the expeditionaries perished as a result of Indian attacks, illness, and starvation. In fact, several expedition members resorted to cannibalism to stay alive. Eventually, out of three hundred men comprising the original land contingent, only four survived. These four castaways remained as slaves of the coastal Indians of Texas for six years until they finally made their escape into what is now northeast Mexico.


How did they survive all that time? What did the natives make of them?

At first the castaways survived only through the generosity of the coastal natives who fed them fish and roots. Over time the last remaining survivors overstayed their welcome and became fully enslaved. It is impossible to know precisely what the coastal natives thought of these odd-looking survivalists—three Spanish officials and an African slave. But certainly the natives of Texas came to believe that these outsiders had come from very far away and that, perhaps for that very reason, they possessed special powers to cure. This is how, little by little, the survivors made their stunning transition from captives to medicine men.

Cabeza de Vaca is still remembered in some quarters for his daring medical procedures. Painting by Tom Lea. Courtesy of the Moody Medical Library, University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.


Were they literally practicing European medicine, or were they just playing the part of medicine men to survive?

It was a bit of both. Initially, the Indians were the ones who compelled the last survivors to cure by denying food to them until they said a Pater Noster or made the sign of the cross over ill Native Americans. However, with the passage of time the castaways’ medical interventions became bolder and involved real surgical procedures like making incisions to pull out arrowheads and giving stitches. It is interesting to note that the healers and the healed explained these amazing cures in different ways. The Europeans had become convinced that their preternatural interventions reflected God’s divine plan for North America. They would have been unable to cure by themselves, but they had been turned into God’s intermediaries and thus derived the power to heal. In the meantime, Native Americans had always believed that certain individuals were capable of manipulating the natural and supernatural orders. Both misinterpreted each other but also found an accommodation with each other.


What changes were happening within the Native American population during that time?

Even during these very first encounters, Native Americans were undergoing drastic changes due to epidemic diseases inadvertently introduced by the conquering Europeans. The survivors of the Florida expedition, the first outsiders to venture into the interior of North America, were among the first to report stunning instances of population decline among the natives, thus anticipating the demographic catastrophe that would soon engulf much of the continent. At the same time, they depicted a world that was full of Native Americans. This is especially important when we consider that most of the accounts that we have of “early America” in fact correspond to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries at a time when most Native American communities had already been greatly diminished, and the flora and fauna had reclaimed the abandoned lands. Thus, it is no wonder that we are prone to imagining native North America as a sparsely populated Eden inhabited by small bands of Indians who were themselves primeval and incapable of conquering nature. Yet the castaways offer a much-needed corrective to this seductive but ultimately distorted image of pre-contact North America by presenting a world that was alive and full of native peoples who vigorously exploited the environment, developed intricate trading networks, and waged war on one another.

The castaways were the first to describe the North American buffalo. Here is a seventeenth-century European representation of an animal that would become synonymous with the vast interior of America.


What was the terrain and environment like during Cabeza de Vaca’s trek and how did it differ from what later explorers would find?

Almost five hundred years ago the world was in the midst of a sustained cold spell that specialists have called the “Little Ice Age.” This is why Cabeza de Vaca in his account often complains about being cold even as he is walking through Florida over the summer! Surviving through the winter as a slave of various native groups must have been daunting indeed. We must also imagine North America at a time before horses and cattle and wheat, all of which were introduced from the Old World. Instead, we have a world of native grasses and deer and open prairies. Cabeza de Vaca was the first European explorer to come across buffalo which he describes as “cows” with “long hair.” In the sixteenth century the range of these animals, the largest mammal in North America, reached into southern Texas. But while the environment was substantially different, it is also remarkable to think that Cabeza de Vaca often refers to rivers and mountain ranges that are still there today as he crossed the entire continent, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, along what is now the American Southeast and Southwest as well as northern Mexico.


What became of Cabeza de Vaca after he returned to Europe?

In the course of his long adventure, Cabeza de Vaca became convinced that Spain, far from having to resort to naked coercion, should seek cooperation with the peoples of the New World. Accordingly, he lobbied the Spanish court to receive the charter of colonization for the lands he had visited in the hopes that he would broker a grand alliance between the Spanish court and the peoples of North America. Unfortunately for Cabeza de Vaca, the court had already given away the Florida charter to a ruthless expedition leader named Hernando de Soto. While Cabeza de Vaca briefly considered joining forces with de Soto, in the end he decided against it because, as he put it, he did not wish to go to the New World under the banner of another leader. It would take Cabeza de Vaca three more years of persistent lobbying before he was made governor of a territory in South America. However, it was a disappointing experience. His fellow European colonists there rose up in rebellion against his authority and ultimately shipped Cabeza de Vaca back to Spain where he faced numerous charges and a lengthy trial. Cabeza de Vaca was able to clear his name after considerable time and effort, but he would never return to the New World.


Why do you think this story is not better known?

One reason is that the passage of time has rendered the two main accounts of this disastrous expedition increasingly difficult to read. Since these sources were written for sixteenth-century Spaniards, certain passages have become downright perplexing to modern readers as they offer little by way of context. These sources tell us nothing about how the expedition was conceived, why the leaders became involved in this venture, and what exactly they intended to do upon reaching Florida. Context is even more sorely lacking once the expedition lands on the continent and begins interacting with Native Americas. Another important reason is that modern boundaries tend to obscure the significance of this venture. Cabeza de Vaca and his companions walked across the continent long before the border between Mexico and the United States came into being. But now the route of their journey is bisected by this national boundary, relegating their story to the fringes of both nations—neither a wholly American story nor a Mexican one.


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