A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, by Andrés Reséndez, Basic Books, $26.95
A generation after Columbus landed in the New World, a party set off from Seville to claim a vast strip of North America stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific, including all of Florida and much of what are today Texas and northern Mexico. Charles, the new king of Spain, granted a charter for the lands to Pánfilo de Narváez, one of the Spanish conquerors of Cuba and a rival of Cortés. At his own expense, Narváez outfitted the five ships needed to sail 600 settlers to the new territory of Florida, where they would build and occupy two towns and three fortresses. All of this he would then rule for Spain, a prospect that would lead to “wealth, preeminent social status, and genuine political power,” according to Andrés Reséndez, the author of this engaging book.
What Narváez got instead was death on a raft in the Gulf of Mexico after months of suffering from exposure, hunger, and thirst. Among those in the original group that sailed down the Guadalquivir and left the coast of Spain on June 17, 1527, his fate was not unusual. Crossing the Atlantic in those days was even worse than flying coach today. Although each passenger had more room to himself then (about 1.8 square yards, Reséndez reports), the trip did take about 40 days and the food consisted largely of hardtack (“dependably dry, blackened, rancid, and bitten by rats”). When the ships reached Santo Domingo on the island of Española, almost a quarter of the settlers immediately deserted. After the ships sailed on to Cuba to make final preparations, a large hurricane hit, killing 60 more settlers and destroying two of the ships.
Narváez had not yet found a pilot who knew the waters where he was headed, and he spent the fall and early winter of 1527 searching Cuba for one. Alas, as Reséndez drily writes, the man he hired, one Diego Miruelo, had “skills as a pilot . . . inadequate to the mission ahead.” The ships set sail in February 1528 and immediately ran into shallows where they bounced along for two weeks; if not for a timely storm pushing water ahead of it, they might never have escaped. The plan was to sail due west across the Gulf of Mexico to the Rio de las Palmas on the gulf’s western shore. The lands north of this river, now named the Rio Soto la Marina, were thought to be invitingly rich and the lands to the south were already claimed by other conquistadors including Cortés.
Miruelo went about as far off course as possible. The ships landed just south of Tampa Bay; Miruelo thought that they had missed the river by at most 45 miles. In fact they were 1,500 miles away by land. At this point the decision was made for 100 people to stay on the ships and the remaining 300 to disembark. They would meet at the mouth of the Rio de las Palmas. The 300 walked north up the Florida peninsula for months and eventually reached Apalachicola Bay, losing 50 men along the way. The ships spent a full year searching for the land party, but never found them. Narváez and his men built five 50-man rafts, which they managed to navigate west along the gulf coast, past Pensacola and Mobile bays and the mouth of the Mississippi. Hunger and thirst often drove them to the shoreline, where sometimes the natives cared for them and sometimes attacked them. The five rafts separated but, unbelievably, all of them made it to what is now the coast of Texas, lodging up along a stretch from just south of Galveston Island to Corpus Christi Bay. Two of the groups, totaling perhaps 80 people, reunited and headed south by land. One night Narváez, who slept on a raft while his men camped on the shore, drifted out to sea in a strong wind and was never seen again.
His story ends, but a more dramatic one continues. Among the remaining survivors, only four men are known to have emerged from the wilderness, although not until 1536. They would be the first Western explorers of northern Mexico and the Texas coast. One of them, Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, the royal treasurer for the trip, wrote a narrative of his adventures, published in 1542. He survived along with two other Spaniards and an African slave. The three Spaniards also issued what became known as the Joint Report. The story that Reséndez (a history professor at the University of California at Davis) tells is woven largely from these two famous accounts, although he interprets them with fresh eyes. He also brings a breadth of knowledge to his story, stopping often for welcome excursions into such subjects as the weather patterns of the period or how one navigates (or in Miruelo’s case, fails to navigate) by dead reckoning. The generous elaborations in his endnotes almost form a second narrative.
Cabeza de Vaca was one of the 80 men reunited on the Texas coast. When a tribe of tall, naked Indians discovered them, the Spaniards were nearly dead from hunger and exposure and many of them were naked themselves. The natives built bonfires between the coast and their own village so that the Spaniards could keep warm on the way there, and shared what little food they had. Nonetheless, some 65 of the Spaniards soon died. Eventually Cabeza de Vaca and the other survivors became, in effect, slaves of the Indians from whom they sometimes suffered brutal treatment (some were even killed). After several years Cabeza de Vaca managed to make contact with the two Spaniards and the African, who were with other tribes, and the four began wandering among the tribes of northern Mexico, heading at first toward the south but then, inexplicably, to the west. Along the way the four men gained a reputation as healers and began to perform what seemed even to themselves to be miracles. As they passed from tribe to tribe, they were followed by as many as several thousand natives who brought food to them to be blessed.
The four men were discovered by Spaniards from Mexico who had roamed north to find natives to kidnap and sell into slavery. It is not at all clear that Cabeza de Vaca and the others were anxious to be discovered. Once he was taken to Mexico City and had made his way back to Spain, he began to believe that his long experience with the Indians of North America argued that “a more humane kind of colonial occupation was achievable”—not enslavement and exploitation, but partnership. He later received a governorship in South America where he tried out his ideals on the Europeans who lived there. Neither the Europeans nor the Indians took his ideas at all well, and he was returned to Spain to face a total of 34 criminal charges. He was convicted of some of them and served time in prison, but in the end he exonerated himself. When he died, three decades after his voyage to the New World had begun, his hope for a partnership with the people of that world died with him.