Join Averill and Sarah this week as they trace the journeys of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, an early Spanish explorer to the southern United States. His writings leave us with a rich picture of his travels, one that complicates the ruthless picture of the Spanish conquistadores that many of us have previously learned.


The Travels of Cabeza de Vaca

July 24, 2016

Sarah Handley-Cousins and Averill Earls

Sarah: We all think we know the story of the first explorations of the Americas. Columbus arrived in 1492 and then was followed by Spanish conquistadors like Hernan Cortez and Francisco Pizarro. That’s my fake Spanish accent.

Averill: Francisco Pizarro.

Sarah: But what happened next? Today we’re going to be talking about the adventures of Alvar Nunez de Cabeza de Vaca. I think I pronounced that right.

Averill: That was pretty good.

Sarah: And his explorations quite a bit north from where Cortez and Pizarro were doing their exploring. In fact, Cabeza de Vaca was one of the first Europeans to ever explore the Southern United States. So today, Cabeza de Vaca and the beginnings of Spanish colonization of the southern United States.

I’m Sarah Handley-Cousins, and I’m Averill Earls, and we are the History Buffs.

Averill: We are going to start today with a story with some of the background information about European exploration of the Americas. The New World. And this starts with Spain and the Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula. The pushing out of the Muslim Moors and the Jews in 1492, which not by accident coincides with Columbus’s first voyage. And we all know that Columbus, or Cristobol Colon, ahhhh, was a Genoese sailor who couldn’t get funding for his proposed sailing to find a new route to India, to access the spice networks, from his own home country so he went to Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. They agreed to fund this quest because they were interested in gaining access to those Eastern ports through a western route. Because they believed that the Atlantic Ocean was a lot smaller than it is in fact. Also the discovery of island chains in the Atlantic that were useful for establishing plantations, gave the Spanish king and queen hope for creating this network of resource cultivation for the Empire.

Sarah: And they’re also really invest… so like the big picture there is that because of the Reconquista, they are enjoying sort of a heightened military power and a recommitment to Catholicism. And so exploration is going to give them both the avenue to becoming more powerful within Europe, more powerful globally, as they know the globe at the time. But also new avenues for spreading Christianity. So this is what we uh, always teach when I taught middle and high school students. We always called this the God, Gold, and Glory. The Spanish motivations was God, Gold, and Glory, in a nutshell. That’s the nutshell. Laughter.

Averill: Fairly accurate. In a very un-nuanced way.

So this is also supported by the Treaty of Tordesillas. After Columbus’s third voyage to the new world, the Spanish-born Pope Alexander the 6th issued an official decree giving Spain jurisdiction over everything west of the Cape Verde islands. Establishing that the land discovered thereafter would belong to Spain and everything east of it would belong to Portugal to avoid conflicts with those two Christian countries. And in 1494 Spain and Portugal met at Tor de Cia Spain and signed this treaty although they moved that line from 270 leagues to 370 leagues west of Cape Verde. And that would sort of establish what we know as Portuguese South America, Brazil. And the rest of the Americas more or less falling into the hands of the Spanish.

Sarah: Europe was already God’s land. Averill just mentioned the Reconquista. This is really before the Reformation. Where we have the split between what is now the Protestant church and the Catholic Church. And the Spanish had just succeeded in pushing the Moors and the Jews off the Iberian Peninsula in the Reconquista and so they were sort of in search of places to spread the word of God. Right? They couldn’t really do much evangelizing in Europe. It already was a Catholic place. Now the discovery of these “untouched,” “unChristianized” lands gave them some place to go and evangelize. And of course it comes along with the promise of riches. So the Spanish crown funds numerous voyages to the New World. They’re really invested, they have multiple reasons to send people, send voyages out to not only explore but also to settle. We already know about the major conquests – Cortez and the Aztecs. Uh, and Pizarro and the Incas two aspects of the Spanish colonization of the New World that are fairly well covered in classes. Although I think they would still be fun to cover in a podcast.

Averill: Mmmhmmm.

Sarah: They are really typical narratives of the Spanish central and South American encounters that we get. These incredibly brutal campaigns undertaken by Spanish conquistadors. Those are stories of Spanish machismo, with Pizarro’s figurative rape of this virginal land by penetrating into this “untouched” wilderness. But also his literal rape of native women, producing numerous mestizo children who then went back to Europe with Pizarro’s brother after the violent campaigns across Peru, subduing the natives. The way that the Spanish thought about the Native Americans and the Americas seems pretty clear from those narratives. But as stories like Cabeza de Vaca’s show, these encounters were not always cut and dry as we think. They weren’t always just utter domination. Some Europeans regretted the dismal treatment of the indigenous peoples. Some regarded the voyages to the New World as awe inspiring, terrifying, and not to be taken lightly.

Averill: So, at the place where Cabeza de Vaca would ultimately land in Central American, this is the former land of the Aztecs. The land that Hernan Cortez conquered. But just to sort of qualify this, just briefly, and we’ll probably come back to the Aztecs at some point because they are a fascinating story in and of themselves. But Aztec was actually a sort of umbrella term to loosely describe the numerous tribes of Central America and tribal organization is really central to all Native American societies, both North and South America. They were loosely united under the military dominance of the Machica when the Spanish arrived. By the 15th century, there were only nine major tribal organizations in the valley of Mexico, which is sort of this central economic and political region of Central America. With distinct dialects Náhuatl, their main language group. In the 15th and early 16th centuries, the Machica military conquered much territory outside the valley of Mexico. Within the valley they did not even attempt much in the way of conquest. Instead they established alliances and tribute shares with the other major tribes of the valley. Their hold over Central American was tenuous at best. Between what would come Christianity, enslavement, the encomienda system, and population decline, Spanish conquest was really successful in subordinating the Native Americans because it disrupted and destroyed these tribal organizations that had sort of been power shifts throughout the local history but that had established the hold over this region. With the Spanish conquest, part of the conquest was breaking down those tribal divisions. And Hernan Cortez in particular, didn’t actually comprehend local politics, despite his local guides. He ignored the advice of his guides. He still managed to effectively use the tribal divisions to take down the Machica, by establishing alliances with the fren-emies of the Machica.

Sarah: Fren-emies.

Sarah: So broadly conceived, the narrative of Cabeza de Vaca is also about Spanish interactions with the indigenous Americans. But Cabeza is also one of those dissenting voices in the larger narrative of European exploitation and murder of the indigenous population. Like Bartolome de las Casas, the priest who argued that the Europeans were decimating the local population through their physical and sexual enslavement of the natives and that was you know, not a particularly Christian thing to do. Cabeza is also sort of reticent about what is taking place in the “New World.” Cabeza is really not that excited about getting off the boat and swinging this metaphorical penis around in Central America. The language he uses in his diary is that of a man who is really hesitant and awed by this new world and its people. It is very different from the propaganda-like, or machismo-esque language that surrounds the Pizarro incursion into Inca land. Or even Columbus’s letters home to the King and Queen of the grandiose expectations that he had for that expedition.

Averill: This is not to say that Cabeza’s or even de las Casa’s parts in the American conquest didn’t contribute to the overall destruction of native ways of life and populations. They did, but when we read something like Cabeza’s narrative, it provides nuance to the story. It reminds us that even the conquistadors were human, and acted human, sometimes. So it challenges that Black Legend of Spanish conquest of the Americas.

Sarah: So now let’s talk a little bit about Cabeza de Vaca himself, and his actual experiences in the “New World.”

Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca was born in 1490 to a Spanish family that enjoyed minor nobility. The name according to lore came from an ancestor that had helped a Spanish king win a battle by marking a secret mountain pass to help the Spanish king cut off the enemy by going through this secret mountain pass, with a cow’s skull. And therefore the family was bestowed the name Cabeza de Vaca.

Averill: I always wondered.

Sarah: Or head of the cow.

Averill: I was wondering why his name was head of the cow.

Sarah: That’s the story anyway. Who knows if that is accurate?

In 1511 Cabeza de Vaca joined the Spanish military and he served with distinction for many many years. In 1527, he joined an explorer named Panfilo de Navarez on an expedition to the Americas.

Averill: So they had 600 men tasked with claiming and surveying land. And what is now the southern U.S. for the Spanish crown. They landed in approximately September, 1527, we think in Santo Domingo, which is the present Dominican Republic, and stayed there for about a month before proceeding on to Cuba. And while in Cuba, the fleet was hit by a massive hurricane. Probably pretty typical in the Caribbean.

Sarah: Yeah, and unbeknownst to them, they waiting in Santo Domingo for too long. And decided to head out to continue their exploration in the middle of hurricane season, in November.

Averill: They had never experienced a hurricane before because they were from Spain where there are no hurricanes. They were just terrified. Here’s a quote from Cabeza de Vaca’s recollections of this. “On Monday morning we went down to the harbor but did not find the vessels. We saw the buoys in the water and from this knew that the ships were lost so we followed the shore looking for wreckage. And not finding any, turned into the forest. Walking through we saw a fourth of a league from the water, the little boat from one of the vessels, atop the trees. And ten leagues further on the coast were two men of my crew in certain covers of boxes. The bodies were so disfigured by striking against the rocks, as to be unrecognizable. There were also found a cape, and a tattered quilt, and nothing else. Sixty people and twenty horses perished on the ships. Those who went on land the day we arrived, some thirty men, were all who survived of the crews of both vessels.”

Sarah: So they’re really devastated right off the bat by this hurricane. They’ve already lost ships and men. So after this, they decide to spend the winter in Cuba. They finally take off again in the Spring. In April of 1528 they arrive in what is now Florida. And this is the first European explorations of what is now the United States. This always strikes me as really interesting because when we teach this, at least where we are in the Northeast, we talk about Columbus and we immediately skip to Jamestown 1607, and then to the Mayflower 1620. And we never talk about the fact that before the English were even thinking about coming across the Atlantic, the Spanish had already explored a significant portion of the southern United States. At this point, the leader of the expedition, Narvaez, splits the crew. He decides that some of them will continue to explore the Florida mainland while the rest will stay on the ships and move along the coast. And as will become clear later on in his narrative, this is really a huge mistake. Narvaez, even though Cabeza de Vaca tries very hard to be very even handed in his recollections of this, he pretty clearly disagreed with Narvaez in many of his decisions he made regarding this exploration, and thought that he was not fit for the task. And this particular decision ends up being pretty disastrous for them.

Averill: It may have been him editorializing after he rode….

Sarah: It certainly could have.

As Cabeza de Vaca and the men who remained on the mainland moved through Florida, they encounter several different Native groups. For the first part of their experience in Florida, they encounter the Appalachee. This was a native group that lived in the Florida panhandle at the time. Since then, because of the disease devastation that came with European contact, many of them died off and so the Appalachee do not exist as they did the 1520s. Some of them, a very small band of Appalachee, still persist and live now in Louisiana. The Appalachee helped the Spanish quite a bit. They helped them by offering to serve as guides and interpreters. They establish a system of using sign language to communicate. Because obviously the Spanish speak Spanish, and the Appalachee speak their own language, and then there’s a great deal of diversity among the tribes even within that area. So they don’t… not all of the natives speak the same language. So they come up with sort of a system of sign language to communicate. They also share their food.

Averill: From the start, one of the goals of the Spanish as set out by the crown, is the search for gold. The Appalachee suggested that there was a village, Ayute, that had many riches. And so the band of explorers, conquistadors, decided to go in search of it.

Sarah: The idea that there was a village nearby that had gold and also really rich food stores keeps the Spanish going, even they are really starting to suffer in Florida. They are running out of food, they are suffering from a lack of fresh water. Cabeza de Vaca recalls this part of his journey thus, “we had also suffered greatly from hunger. For although we found corn occasionally, most of the time we marched seven or eight leagues without any. And many there were among us who besides suffering great fatigue and hunger had their backs covered with wounds from the weight of the armor and the other things they had to carry as occasion required. But to find ourselves at last where we wish to be, and where we had been assured so much food and gold would be had, made us forget a great deal of our hardships and weariness.”

Averill: They made it to Ayute, and were disappointed to say the least, to find that it had been abandoned and burned. They attempted to return to the harbor and there they fashioned ships to get back out of this obviously desolate and terrible place. They made ropes out of the tails and mains of their horses. Shirts into sails, carved oars, made water pouches out of horse skins. Obviously they slaughtered their horses.

Sarah: They were eating their horses the whole time. One of the themes that comes up again and again is their kind of reluctance to eat some of the foods that the natives are offering them. They are kind of distrustful of it. And so they are always in search of corn because they know it is something that is edible from previous Spanish explorations. And they are Europeans so they really like meat. Meat is important, so they are eating their horses as they go.

Averill: By September of 1528 they had eaten all of their horses, were out of food, and they had been on these makeshift ships sailing for 30 days with very little food and almost no water.

Sarah: Things were really rough on this part of their voyage and I say that… things were sort of rough on the entire voyage, but… At one point they find a small island where they think that they might be able to stop and find some water but they don’t find any fresh water. They go back out and he recalls this part of their voyage this way, “While anchored, a great storm overtook us. We remained there 6 days without venturing to leave. And it being five days since we have drunk anything, our thirst was so great as to compel us to drink salt water. And several of us took such an excess of it that we lost suddenly five men.”

And then he goes on to say sort of an… throughout his memoirs of this time he tried to kind of couch all of this within his Catholicism. He says, “I tell this briefly, not thinking it necessary to relate in particular, all the distress and hardships we bore. Moreover, if one takes into the account the place we were in and the slight chances of relief he may imagine what we suffered. Seeing that our thirst was increasing and the water was killing us while the storm did not abate, we agreed to trust God, our Lord, and rather risk the perils of the sea than wait there for certain death from thirst.” It’s really their Faith that in some places keeps them going.

Averill: At the end of October that year natives, probably Choctaws, helped the explorers and gave them water and food. But then, after the sun went down, they attacked the Spanish and the Spanish lost even more men. They made it to Galveston Island, in Texas, where they were shipwrecked and disserted. They came to call Galveston the “island of doom.” They landed in November and had to pass the winter with little clothing, food, or shelter. Uh, luckily they were in Texas which, may I say, at least they didn’t land in Buffalo. [Because Buffalo gets cold.]

Sarah: Right.

Averill: They tried to escape on home fashioned barges but their barges sank and many died.

Sarah: During this time they are interacting with the native people on Galveston Island. And those people begin integrating the Spanish into their own culture. One of the ways they do this becomes rather important for the rest of their experience travelling throughout the southern United States. They force the Spaniards to act as their medicine men. He says, “On the island I’ve spoken of, they wanted to make medicine men of us without any examination or asking for our diplomas.” Which is kind of funny, when you think of it, because the natives would have no concept of a diploma. “Because they cured diseases by breathing on the sick. And with that breath and their hands, they drive the ailment away. So they summoned us to do the same in order to be a least of some use. We laughed, taking it for a jest and said we did not understand how to cure. Thereupon they withheld our food to compel us to do what they wanted. Seeing our obstinacy, and Indian told me that I did not know what I said by claiming that what he knew was useless. Because stones and things growing out of the fields have their virtues and he, with a heated stone, placing it on the stomach, could cure and take away pain. So that we, who were wiser men, surely had greater power and virtue.”

Again we don’t know if this is Cabeza de Vaca showing his cultural superiority, right. Showing that like, ‘surely we were wiser men…’ But there is a certain amount of credibility to the idea that these unusual people showed up and perhaps they were important somehow. So perhaps they did have different powers of healing.

Averill: And so this becomes a kind of currency that the Spanish can use to their advantage. Their able to use the skill that they learn from acting as medicine men to using as cultural capital with the natives in this tribe. And then with natives in different tribes as they forge their way back to the Spanish in Mexico.

Sarah: One other thing about this experience they have as medicine men, it shows a form of sort of religious syncretism that’s starting to take place between the Spanish and the natives. Cabeza and his men need to perform these rituals because their food is being withheld from them. But they also need to find a way to perform them that doesn’t violate their Catholic faith. At least, within their mindset. So he comes up with sort of a compromise with himself and the other Spaniards. He says, “The way we treated the sick was to make over them the sign of the cross while breathing on them. Recite a Pater Noster, or an Our Father, and an Ave Maria, and pray to God, our Lord, as best we could to give them some good health and inspire them to do us some favors. Thanks to His will, and the mercy He had upon us, all those for whom we prayed, as soon as we crossed them told the others that they had been cured and felt well again.”

So this is a way they are able to perform this act that the natives want them to perform, while also sort of evangelizing and being true to their own faith. Perhaps these strange prayers they are incanting over the natives lend an unusual air to what they’re doing and make the natives believe that they are wise men.

Averill: Cabeza de Vaca gets very sick. He’s unable to escape and he becomes a slave to the natives for six years in which time his masters/owners forced him to work like a woman. Essentially doing women’s work.

Sarah: There’s a root that the people that are holding him, value very highly. And it’s women’s work to gather these roots out of the water. When they enslave de Vaca, they actually make him work as one of the women. With the women. The women all work naked, standing in the water for hours, pulling and gathering these roots, and they make Cabeza de Vaca do the same, and he finds this incredibly insulting and shameful.

Averill: When he’s finally able to escape, he ends up reunited with a friend from his crew, Andreas Terrantez plus two others, Alonzo de Castillo Maldondo and a black slave, Estabianco.

Sarah; This is what they finally learn what happened to Narvaez and those men that left on the ships. In short, they encountered incredible devastation and died not long after they separated. So now this tiny little crew of these four men, stick together and they are able to escape. Cabeza de Vaca, during the time he was a slave, was able to make some contacts with some other native people as a trader. And so he was able to, with some help from his new contacts in those other groups, and along with the other thee Spaniards that he was able to reconnect with, were able to leave. As they wander, trying to desperately, in hope with connecting with more Spanish, getting back down into Mexico where they know there are Spanish settlements, they are unwittingly exploring Texas. They recall Texas this way, “All over the land and vast and handsome pastures with good grass for cattle and it strikes me the soil would be very fertile were the country inhabited and improved by reasonable people.”

I like that quote because it is so true of what we know of Texas, right?

Averill: Cows…. Pastures….

Sarah: Right. Yeah exactly.

Averill: Reasonable people.

Sarah: “Reasonable people” yes. Yes. Texas is full of “reasonable people.”

Averill: Especially Elizabeth Garner Masarik.

Sarah: Exactly.

Averill: Oh wait, she left. She came to Buffalo. Very reasonable.

Sarah: Laughter. Reasonable choice to leave the warmth of Texas and move to Buffalo.

Averill: Beautiful Buffalo…

Sarah: And so they are trying to find clues to reunite them with the Spanish they know are in Mexico. Eventually after much, much walking they encounter a native man who is wearing a necklace that has a horseshoe nail in it. They ask him where he came upon this nail. He says, “during this time Castillo saw on the neck on and Indian, a little buckle from a sword belt and in it was sewn a horseshoe nail. He took it from the Indian and we asked what it was. They said it had come from heaven. We further asked, who had brought it and they answered that some men with beards like ours had come from heaven to that river. That they had horses, lances, and swords and had lanced two of them.” This was incredible news to Cabeza de Vaca and his men, that they had wondered so far and finally had word of the Spanish.

He says, “We gave God, our Lord, many thanks for what we had heard. For we were despairing to ever hear of Christians again.”

Averill: Cabeza de Vaca and his band of Spaniards head South and are basically falling in the wake of other Spaniards and as they get closer and closer to finally reuniting with other Spaniards they notice that the landscape is changing. And not in a positive way. Villages are burned. The farmland is destroyed. And the natives are fearful and hide their blankets and goods and don’t want to interact with Cabeza and his group because their encounters with these Spaniards that are ahead of them have been so negative. So Cabeza de Vaca and his people…

Sarah: they really need help from the natives to survive…to keep traveling

Averill: right… and they get that by using the skills he learned as a slave and medicine man. And selling that skill, using it, again as we noted, as cultural capitol, to prove to the natives that they were not the same kind of Spaniards.

Sarah; Right. So as they move, now, word of these powerful medicine men is traveling ahead of them. So when they move from group to group, rather than being treated as bad Spanish, ya know, bearded white men… instead their being received as powerful medicine men that it’s in their best interests to help.

In the winter of 1536, Cabeza de Vaca and his three comrades are finally reunited with other Spanish conquistadors. Eventually they make it to the Spanish outposts in Mexico, in modern day Culiacan. Then eventually, make it to Mexico City. And in the spring of 1537, what, almost ten years?

Averill: Ten years, yup.

Sarah: Ten years after arriving for the first time in the “New World” in Santo Domingo, Cabeza de Vaca finally sails for Spain. He sails home. In fact, what’s interesting is that his comrades opt to stay. The three other men opt to stay.

Averill: He actually ends of returning to the “New World” in 1540, to be effectively the governor of the Rio de la Plata in South America in Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay.

Sarah: And of course, because they are Spanish, and they are always looking to be able to find silver and gold mines in this region. And so did some explorations into this region but never succeeded in finding any mines.

Averill: In his tenure as governor, de Vaca was sympathetic to the natives and he treated them well. This angered some of other Spanish in the area who wanted to use the natives as slaves on their encomienda and take their territories. This backfired for Cabeza, who was eventually kicked out and forced to return to Spain in 1544.

Sarah: And that is where he died in 1558. He never did return to the New World again.

Averill: This is that alternate narrative. He’s still a conquistador, he’s still claiming land to be his, taking it from natives, but he also had to find in his tenure in the Americas, ways to negotiate and live almost peacefully with the Natives. He realized from those first moments when he was starving and stranded in the middle of Texas that, or even before, that they, the Spanish needed the natives to navigate these dangerous new worlds. And that’s the sort of language you get when you read Cabeza de Vaca. We’ll post a full version of the text, available through open source Google books. He speaks about the awe… he speaks about being naked and vulnerable in this new world. Which is not the sort of language that you would expect of someone going in guns blazing.

Sarah: Right. Yeah. The only reason that Cabeza de Vaca was able to write this narrative and give us all this incredible information about what Texas was like before European contact, is because of the native people. They are the ones that keep him alive. I also find this interesting because the narrative is also flipped in many places. Where Cabeza de Vaca is entirely at the mercy of the natives. Very much unlike the stories that we get about Spanish colonization where men like Cortes and Pizarro and going in and utterly dominating the native people who kind of passively acquiesce or die or…

Averill: or join in an alliance to destroy their enemies.

Sarah: Right. So instead the powerful people in this narrative in many places are the natives.

Averill: Right. This isn’t a… with the exception of those moments when Cabeza de Vaca is on the trail of another Spanish group, which is clearly a slash and burn campaign of Spanish aggression, his, at least the way he recalls his “adventures” in the new world, is yeah, he is on the other side in many ways. He not only needs the Native Americans, but he grows to sympathize with them and feel something for them as people.

Sarah: Right. Which ends up being his downfall with the Spanish because they don’t… There’s no room in their plans for the “new world” for that kind of treatment of the Native Americans.

Averill: Which is consistent with that Spanish narrative of machismo and aggression in subduing the natives.

Sarah: So very similar to Bartolome de las Casas who has a very similar experience. Feeling very conflicted about what he is seeing the Spanish colonizers doing and how he feels about the native peoples.

Averill: Thanks for joining us. From the History Buffs I’m Averill.

Sarah: And I’m Sarah.

Averill: We’ll catch you on the flip flop.


Show Notes and Further Reading

The Treaty of Tordesillas

Cabeza de Vaca, Alvar Nunez. Chronicle of the Narvaez Expedition. Penguin, 2002.

Gibson, Charles. The Aztecs Under Spanish Rule: A History of the Indians in the Valley of Mexico, 1519-1810. Stanford University Press, 1964.

Varon Gabai, Rafael. Francisco Pizarro and His Brothers: The Illusion of Power in Sixteenth Century Peru. University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.

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