Like many of the Spanish conquistadors who made their way to the Americas, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca joined an expedition to explore “Florida” in search of glory and, ideally, an encomienda of his own. (“Florida” is what the Spanish called all of the land around the Gulf of Mexico, including the actual Floridian peninsula.) Unlike most Spanish conquistadors, Cabeza de Vaca ended up lost in the area we now call Texas for the better part of a decade, naked, barefoot, unarmed, horseless, and at the mercy of the natives he encountered–most of whom he couldn’t communicate with beyond gesturing and hoping to be understood. Cabeza de Vaca’s experience of the Americas was brutal at times, as he teetered on starvation, was beaten by his enslavers, and suffered indignities for much of his eight+ years lost in Texas and northern Mexico. Still, his recollection of his “journeys” are nuanced, if inevitably colored by his background and biases. And by the end of his life, he became a champion of indigenous rights, demanding reform so loudly that the other Spaniards of South America had him arrested and sent back to Spain on trumped up charges. Though the writing and travels of Cabeza de Vaca are very much a part of the history of conquistadores, they also stand out.

Are you a teacher? Try this assignment to help your students visualize this episode: Have students track Cabeza de Vaca’s travels throughout the Gulf of Mexico coast and into northern Mexico! Use My Maps in Google to create a custom map of Cabeza de Vaca’s unfortunate journey through “La Florida.” Students can include images, descriptions, and excerpts from the original text. Students can work collaboratively – in small groups, or together as one class.

Transcript for: Lost! Cabeza de Vaca Stumbles through Southwestern North America in the “Age of Exploration”

Researched and Written by Averill Earls, PhD 

Recorded by Averill Earls, PhD and Marissa Rhodes, PhD

Ave: Like many of the Spanish conquistadors who made their way to the Americas, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca joined an expedition to explore “Florida” in search of glory and, ideally, an encomienda of his own. (“Florida” is what the Spanish called all of the land around the Gulf of Mexico, including the actual Floridian peninsula.) Unlike most Spanish conquistadors, Cabeza de Vaca ended up lost in the area we now call Texas for the better part of a decade, naked, barefoot, unarmed, horseless, and at the mercy of the natives he encountered–most of whom he couldn’t communicate with beyond gesturing and hoping to be understood. Cabeza de Vaca’s experience of the Americas was brutal at times, as he teetered on starvation, was beaten by his enslavers, and suffered indignities for much of his eight+ years lost in Texas and northern Mexico. Still, his recollection of his “journeys” are nuanced, if inevitably colored by his background and biases. And by the end of his life, he became a champion of indigenous rights, demanding reform so loudly that the other Spaniards of South America had him arrested and sent back to Spain on trumped up charges. Though the writing and travels of Cabeza de Vaca are very much a part of the history of conquistadores, they also stand out. 

I’m Averill Earls

And I’m Marissa Rhodes

And we are your historians for this episode of Dig!

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Ave: For those of you intimately familiar with the History Buffs back catalog, you’ll recognize this topic from jeez – just over 5 years ago? This is an episode that I like to assign in my World History class, and I’ve been thinking for a while that it needs a solid update (and better recording equipment). The original episode’s bibliography was pretty limited – an English translation of Cabeza de Vaca’s Naufragios (Shipwrecks), plus a couple of books about Spanish conquistadors in Mexico and South America. I wanted a revision of the episode to dig a little deeper into the historiography surrounding Cabeza de Vaca and his place in the historical ethnographies and travel/conquest writings of Spanish “explorers”, but also there’s a great semi-new (2018) book about Esteban, the enslaved Morroccan man with whom Cabeza de Vaca started and ended his shipwrecked story. I also read a couple of different translations of Naufragios, and found the Rolena Adorno and Patrick Pautz’s 2003 edition to be really useful for understanding the geography of Cabeza de Vaca’s travels. 

Marissa: Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca was born around 1490, and was a member of the Spanish minor nobility. According to local legend, his family name, “head of cow,” was bestowed by a Spanish king in the middle ages. One of Alvar’s ancestors helped the king win a battle by marking a special mountain pass with a cow’s skull – thus, “cabeza de vaca.” He was probably from Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain, but like his birth year, we don’t have good records about his early life. In 1511, as a young man, he joined the Spanish military, serving with distinction for many years. Though he was only a minor noble, his military service must’ve allowed him to stand out in the King’s mind, because in 1527, when he joined Pánfilo de Narváez’s mission to the New World, the King appointed Cabeza de Vaca as the expedition’s Treasurer and chief officer of the Emperor (Charles).

Alvar Nuñez de Cabeza de Vaca

Ave: Narvaez was granted authority by King Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire (Charles I of Spain) to explore and conquer “la Florida” — aka, the territory from the Río de las Palmas (the Río Soto la Marina in modern Tamaulipas [Tam-ow-leepus) in Mexico to the Floridian peninsula. (Remember – the Spanish at this time called basically all of the land north of Mexico, especially along the Gulf Coast, “Florida,” which means the Land of the Flowers.) It was still unclear to the Europeans at that point how large the North American continent was, but presumably Narvaez was only granted the coastal region (which is still like, 3000 miles of coastline. Pretty expansive. And ridiculous.) Other leaders were probably better suited for the conquest of the unknown lands of “la Florida,” but evidently Hernan Cortez was on Charles’ shitlist, because he went a-conquering without royal authority along the Pacific coast north of Mexico City and to the south as far as Honduras and Yucatán. Narvaez had the King’s ear, and also hated Cortez, so Narvaez got the expedition. 

Marissa: For Europeans, the “discovery” of the “New World” in 1492 was a game changer. As  M. Carmen Gomez-Galisteo has argued, early modern European religious leaders believed that the Americas had been “hidden” until the “right time” for the Europeans to discover it. It represented promise, wealth, and the superiority of Europeans to all other nations on Earth. For the English, the Americas could relieve their crowded, filthy, crime-ridden cities. Land and opportunity were in high demand and low supply, as the European population had recovered rapidly from the Black Death. For the Spanish, to whom went credit for the 15th century “discovery,” the “New World” was an endless supply of potential riches and souls in need of saving. Genoese explorer Christopher Columbus had no interest in governing, which allowed the Spanish Crown to take control, and rule the Spanish American colonies directly. 

Ave: Though every conquistador was a little different in his personal motivations for crossing the Atlantic and stumbling or slashing his way through the American continents, generally the Spanish Crown sought land for Spain and converts for the Catholic Church. Ferdinand and Isabella, also known as the “Catholic Monarchs,” united Spain and expelled the last of the Muslims and Jews from the peninsula in 1492. While Spanish encounters with indigenous Americans were quite different from the Reconquista’s ending of a 700-year long Muslim occupation of Spain, the ideological parallels are hard to ignore. The title of those charged with conquering the Americas was “Adelantado,” a title drawn directly from the Reconquista, one given to Spanish nobles for their service to the Catholic crown in opposition to the Muslim occupiers. And in their various writings, Spanish conquistadors like Hernan Cortez, Ponce de Leon, and Bernal Diaz del Castillo all compared the indigenous American peoples, land, and culture to those of the Muslims. As Gomez-Galisteo suggests, the Spanish invasion and subjugation of the Americas was an ideological extension of the Reconquista. 

Marissa: After Columbus’s third voyage to the New World, the Spanish-born Pope issued an official decree giving Spain jurisdiction over everything discovered 300 miles west of the Cape Verde Islands while new lands discovered east of that line would belong to Portugal. On June 7, 1494, Spain and Portugal met at Tordesillas, Spain and signed a treaty that moved the line to 370 leagues west of Cape Verde. Though even the new line only ceded a small protrusion of South America’s easternmost coast to the Portuguese, the Spanish never contested Portuguese expansion west into the interior of the continent. The treaty, and all of its amendments and revisions in the decades hence, completely ignored the autonomy of the indigenous peoples of North America, South America, and Africa, and effectively cut the other European imperial hopefuls out of the Catholic deal as well. This was only powerful, of course, until the Reformation destabilized the Pope’s authority in European international affairs, after which Protestant nations like England and the Netherlands basically ignored the supposed Spanish and Portuguese “claims” to those lands.  Early Spanish conquest under Ferdinand and Isabella focused on the Caribbean islands, granting encomiendas to conquistadors in Cuba, Jamaica, Barbados, and Hispaniola. (For those who haven’t listened to my episode on Recogimiento recently, the encomienda system was one in which the Spanish King granted an individual the right to demand tribute and forced labor from the Indian inhabitants of an area. Yuck.)

Ave: When Queen Isabella died in 1504, the alliance between the Spanish kingdoms of Castille and Aragon floundered for a decade, until Ferdinand finally died without any new heirs by his second wife, and Ferdinand and Isabella’s grandson, Charles, came to the throne, bringing with him the newly conquered territories of the Holy Roman Empire. Charles invested heavily in expanding the Spanish empire in the Americas, orchestrating wave after wave of violent conquest. He sent the conquistadores responsible for the destruction of both the Aztec and Incan empires, and funded Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe. Charles was convinced that he was destined to be the leader of Christendom. 

Marissa: Charles’ expansionism was undoubtedly fueled by the Reconquista successes of his grandparents, the on-going Muslim threat across the Mediterranean, and the emergent Protestant Reformation – a new challenge to Catholic supremacy on continental Europe. Plus, it quickly became evident that those goods that the Europeans so coveted – sugar, indigo, then coffee, later tobacco – could grow in these strange new lands. The religious motivations persisted – and as we’ll see, Cabeza de Vaca represents the spiritual quest of the conquistador, as much if not more than any of the priests who traveled with the Spanish. But the economic and political motivations for rapid, violent conquest were all too evident in Charles’ agenda. The establishment of plantations on the Caribbean islands brought valuable natural resources to the metropole, thereby increasing the wealth of the growing empire. The rumors of gold and silver in the interior of central America, the Andes, and southwestern North America drew representatives of the Crown like flies to a corpse. 

Ave: Before the Spanish invaded, central America had around 16 million people from several dozen different language groups and tribal organizations. “Aztec” is an umbrella term used to describe the numerous ethnic groups of central America, which were loosely united under the military dominance of the Mexica by the early 16th century. In 1400 ce, there were nine major tribal organizations in the Valley of Mexico – the most important political and economic region of central America – with distinct customs, religious practices, and dialects of Nahuatl [nA-watt-el]. In the 15th and early 16th centuries, the Mexica military conquered most of the territory outside the valley of Mexico, but within the Valley they didn’t attempt much in the way of conquest. Instead they established alliances and tribute shares with the other residents of the Valley, so their hold over central America was tenuous at best. Tribal organization was central to life in the Americas; between Christianity, enslavement, and population decline, Spanish conquest was successful in subordinating the native Americans because it disrupted or destroyed tribal organizations. Hernan Cortez, the leader of the first major wave of Spanish conquistadors on mainland central America, had little knowledge of local politics when he first arrived. Using Malintzin, an indigenous woman enslaved by Cortez, as a translator, Cortez was able to quickly exploit the tense political situation. He found formerly powerful tribes, who were, by 1519, subordinated to the Mexica, and they assisted him in toppling the Mexica in Tenochtitlan. 

Marissa: The major Spanish conquests — Hernan Cortez over the Aztecs, and Francisco Pizarro over the Incas — are the typical narratives of Spanish-Central/South American encounters that we get. Those are stories of machismo. Contemporaries described Pizarro’s rape of the “virginal” lands; and after their violent campaign across Peru, Pizarro’s brother took the many children that were the product of Pizarro’s literal rape of indigenous women back to Europe. The way that the Spanish thought about the native Americans and the Americas seems clear from those narratives. But Cabeza de Vaca’s story is not one of violent, machismo triumph. 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. 

Ave: Cabeza de Vaca is just one of the dissenting voices in the larger narrative of European exploitation and murder of the indigenous population. Bartolome de las Casas, a priest, argued that the Europeans were decimating the local population through their physical and sexual enslavement of the natives, and that this was not a very Christian thing to do. Similarly, in Cabeza de Vaca’s writings, though he lauds the beauty–and danger–of the “New World,” he is forthright and nuanced in descriptions of the indigenous peoples he encountered. The language he used in his narrative, which he wrote in the early 1540s, is that of a man hesitant and awed by this new world and its people. It is different from the more propagandic or machismo-esque language that surrounded Cortez’s taking of central America, the Pizarro incursion into Inca land, or even Columbus’s letters to the Catholic Monarchs describing the first European investigations of the Caribbean islands.

Monument to Bartolomé de las Casas, Seville, Spain | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Marissa: The Narvaez expedition was an unmitigated disaster. Over 600 Spanish men (and a dozen of their wives) set sail from Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Andalusia, under the command of Panfilo Narvaez in 1527. In the end, only four survived and made it to the capital of New Spain at Tenochtitlán: Cabeza de Vaca, Alonzo del Castillo Maldonado of Salamanca, Andrés Dorantes of Béjar, and Esteban, an enslaved man from Morocco. They were stranded or lost in “La Florida” for eight years, enslaved, alone, and very far from home. But they lived to tell the tale. 

Ave: Based on Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative and Francesco Oviedo’s Historia, Narvaez arrived in the Americas in September 1527, having left Andalusia in July. They landed first at Santo Domingo (present-day Dominican Republic) to refuel, and stayed nearly a month before proceeding to Cuba. Before they left, over 140 men deserted the expedition in Santiago. (And since we have hindsight… they obviously got out while the getting was good!) Four ships waited at a port named Cape Santa Cruz while Cabeza de Vaca led two of the ships to Trinidad, Cuba. While in Cuba, Cabeza de Vaca’s two ships were hit by a massive hurricane. The majority of his crew and soldiers were fresh young recruits from Spain, and had never experienced a hurricane before – Cabeza de Vaca included. They were utterly terrified. Cabeza de Vaca wrote:

Then the rain and storm increased in violence at the village, as well as on the sea, and all the houses and churches fell down, and we had to go about, seven or eight men locking arms at a time, to prevent the wind from carrying us off, and under the trees it was not less dangerous than among the houses, for as they also were blown down we were in danger of being killed beneath them….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 it we saw, a fourth of a league from the water, the little boat of one of the vessels on top of the trees, and ten leagues further, on the coast, were two men of my crew…. The bodies were so disfigured by striking against the rocks as to be unrecognizable. There were also found a cape and a tattered quilt, 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.” 

Marissa: On November 5, Narvaez arrived. He collected the survivors and they sailed down the Cuban coast to Xagua, where the crew convinced Narvaez to winter. They feared another storm like the one who’d killed their friends. Narvaez traveled throughout Cuba seeking supplies and new ships. They finally set sail for La Florida in February 1528 with four ships, a brigantine vessel, 400 men and 80 horses. Narvaez hired a pilot named Miruelo who claimed to know the way to Florida to lead them.

Averill: Miruelo did not know the way. As they attempted to skirt around Cuba and reach Havana for another supply run, the pilot got the ships stuck in shoals for two weeks until a storm swelled and carried them into deeper waters. When they were just 40 miles from Havana – maybe even able to see the port on a clear day – a gusty wind hit, and pushed them into the Gulf of Mexico. On April 12 they saw finally saw land – the Florida peninsula. They sent the foot soldiers and horses ashore to explore inland. As Cabeza de Vaca put it, “on Maundy Thursday we anchored on the same coast at the mouth of a bay, at the back of which we saw certain houses and habitations of Indians.” 

Marissa: The indigneous people they met gave them some food, and then, in the night, abandoned their homes and slipped away in canoes. It seems likely that they’d encountered Europeans before, and the experience was not pleasant. Ponce de Leon had explored most of the modern Florida peninsula coastline in 1513, and scholars suggest that Spanish slaver vessels had raided the Bahamas and as far north as Florida from early in the 16th century. Perhaps the people that Narvaez’s contingent encountered were fleeing lest they be taken and enslaved like their neighbors. Whatever the case, the next day when the Spaniards “investigated” the village, they found the houses empty, and helped themselves to what the natives left behind. Narvaez stuck a flag in the earth and claimed the land – just north of the mouth of Tampa Bay – for the Spanish King Charles I. 

Ave: Cabeza de Vaca noted that they found a few gold trinkets, which of course interested the conquistadors. When the natives finally returned, they were again non-confrontational, and through muddled gesturing seemed (according to Cabeza de Vaca) to be signaling that the Spaniards should leave, but did not threaten violence. Narvaez led a group exploring inland, and they traveled north for most of a day, spent the night in a bay, and then returned to where their ships were. Narvaez sent the brigantine to search for the port that Miruelo assured them was just a few miles away (it was actually about 900 miles away), and the captain/new governor of Florida ordered the brigantine to return to Cuba if they were unsuccessful and return with supplies and more men. The next time the landing party encountered the natives, the Spaniards asked them from where the gold trinkets they’d found came. Through further signing and gesturing, the natives told them of a place called Apalachen, which is where they’d found a Spanish shipwreck with crates of linen, gold trinkets, and the bodies of some Castilian merchants. 

Marissa: Narvaez then made a decision that was ultimately the hinging moment of disaster for the expedition. He called aside his officers, including Cabeza de Vaca, told them his intention, and asked for their opinions. He wanted to split the expedition, and send the ships to follow the coast and get to Rio de Palmas – which, because he believed Miruelo, was supposed to be very close – while the 300 or so foot soldiers and 80 horses would travel inland and find a more suitable spot to establish a new colony for the Spanish Crown. Cabeza de Vaca objected to this plan (according to his own account) strenuously. Narvaez offered to let Cabeza de Vaca go with the ships – which seemed the less dangerous option – but Cabeza de Vaca declined. He preferred that it be known he go into the dangerous wilds of La Florida aware that they probably wouldn’t survive than to stay with the ships and have it be said that he did so out of fear. The landing party would never see those ships again.

Ave: For the first three weeks of walking, they saw no one, and found little to eat. They raided villages for food whenever they could, got into a couple of skirmishes and killed a few natives but lost no men themselves, and also took some hostages who told them about a city that had what they were looking for: gold. Mostly they encountered the Apalachee, a native group that lived in the Florida panhandle (some still live in Louisiana). Though in some instances they came into conflict with groups of Apalachee, in others the natives helped the Spanish by serving as guides or sharing food. For the most part, though, the Europeans were on their own. “We had also suffered greatly from hunger, for although we found maize 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 other things they had to carry as occasion required. But to find ourselves at last where we wished 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.” When one of their guides told them of a village called Aute nearby that had much riches, the governor turned his expedition in search of it.

Marissa: All along the journey to Aute, they were hunted by Apalachees who appeared, attacked, and then retreated back into the lagoons and forests. Many of Narvaez’s men died or were wounded. 

Ave: Cabeza de Vaca described the warriors who attacked them as huge, with arrows that could pierce Spanish armor like it was nothing. 

Marissa: Finally they made it to Aute, but found it deserted, the houses burned to the ground, and none of the promised riches. Their only salvation was that there were corn, beans, and squash ready to be harvested. Notably, all along these few months of walking into the Florida panhandle, Cabeza de Vaca urged Narvaez to turn back to the coast, to try to reconnect with the ships, but the governor declined. It wasn’t until they found no gold in Aute that the governor decided to seek out the sea again. They picked their way slowly through the dense forests to the sea, but of course when they got there, there were no ships awaiting them. 

Ave: Desperate to get off the inhospitable Florida panhandle, the crew built rafts. There were no shipwrights or even carpenters among them. According to Cabeza de Vaca: “This seemed impossible to all, because we did not know how to build them, nor were there tools, or iron, or a forge, or oakum, or pitch, or tackle; in short, not one of all the things that are necessary, nor anyone who would know any way to apply ingenuity to [building a ship]. And above all there was nothing to eat while they were being built, nor [were] those that were [able] to work, anyone [who knew] the craft.”

Marissa: But they were left with few choices. So they felled trees for rough hewn lumber, made rope out of the tails and manes of the horses, and stitched their shirts into sails. They made water pouches out of horse skin, and melted down all the iron they had – their horseshoes, saddle tack, personal effects, all of it – to make nails and tools. As they worked, they killed all their horses one by one, feeding the meat to the men who worked on the rafts. When they were out of horses to kill and the barges were seaworthy, they crammed onto them, 50 men to a raft, and set sail, hoping to make it to Rio de Palmas. 

Ave: They sailed for 30 days with very little food, and almost no water. The horse skin water bags rotted. Some men resorted to drinking sea water and got very sick, or even died. Occasionally they stumbled on inhabited islands; the natives fled from their approach, and the Spaniards raided the empty villages for food and water. At the end of October, they met a group, probably Choctaws, who gave them food and water, and promised to bring them more water. Two of the Christians went with the natives, and two natives stayed behind with the Spaniards. When the natives returned, they brought the water but not the hostages. A skirmish ensued, but eventually the Europeans escaped – having to leave their two comrades behind. After another day of sailing they found their way into the Mississippi River basin, where the “sea” water was potable, and they anchored and drank deeply, resting for a couple of days before moving on. 

Marissa: It was nearing the winter storm season, and they needed to reach their destination. Narvaez had the healthiest soldiers on his raft, and rowing their way along the coast, he quickly pulled away from the rest of the rafts. When Cabeza de Vaca asked the governor if they might tie their rafts together, so as not to leave anyone behind, Narvaez replied “He answered me that it was no longer time for one man to rule another, that each one should do whatever seemed best to him in order to save his own life, [and] that he intended so to do it.” The governor left his expedition crew behind, and Cabeza de Vaca never saw him again. 

Ave: Another storm wrecked their rafts and left them on an island – probably Galveston Island, which they named The Island of Misfortune. Those who’d survived the sea journey were weak. When the natives of the island, possibly the Cuchendados, or one of the others in the Coahuiltecan linguistic family, came to them and brought them food and water. After recovering for a few days with the help of the natives, the Spanish decided to try to retrieve their raft and set sail again. They stripped down so that they could dig their raft out of the surf. They got on it, and almost immediately at sea a big wave capsized it and drowned some men. Their clothes were on the boat, and lost along with their men. Those who could swim made it back to the island, and the natives returned to the beach, they were surprised to find the Europeans naked. Cabeza de Vaca explained (through signs and gestures) that they’d attempted to leave the island, but that the sea had taken their raft and drowned their three friends. The natives sat down and wept.

Marissa: Cabeza de Vaca wrote, “The Indians, on seeing the disaster in which we were with so much misfortune and misery, sat down among us and with the great pain and pity they felt on seeing us in such fortune, they all began to weep forcefully and with such sincerity that it could be heard far away.” The Cuchendados offered to bring the Europeans back to their homes to take care of them.  Many of the Spaniards on the crew had been to New Spain, and heard tales of human sacrifice, and were convinced that such would be their fate if they went with them. But Cabeza de Vaca went with them, dismissing his compatriots’ assumptions that all American “indians” were the same. 

Ave: The Cuchendados helped care for the Europeans through the winter, even reunited Cabeza de Vaca’s group with one of the other barges that had washed ashore at a different part of the island. The strongest Spaniards decided to try to take one of the rafts and continue on the journey, promising to get a proper ship and come back for those too weak to continue on. Those who sailed away ultimately died – their raft came apart in the water, and they were shipwrecked on an island without food. At least five resorted to cannibalism. 

Marissa: In total there were 80 survivors and two rafts left on Galveston Island. The survivors wintered there with the Cuchendados. Most of their illnesses, malnutrition, and wounds were too much; by February 1529, only 15 of the 80 lived. Those 15 were enslaved by several different groups of natives, and separated. Cabeza de Vaca, who became very ill, was taken to the mainland by some of the natives there. Most of the other survivors eventually crossed from Galveston Island to the mainland, but they left two behind. Cabeza de Vaca was in no shape to travel, nor did he want to abandon the two still on the island, who could not cross because they couldn’t swim. So 12 of the shipwreck survivors headed west. 

Ave: After being left behind, Cabeza de Vaca was enslaved by a family of natives, possibly the Chorruco, and forced to work digging up the edible roots that made up the local diet. He was treated so badly that he resolved to escape his enslavers, which he did after a year, and then he became a merchant, traveling to various communities throughout the region, but always returning to his countrymen on Galveston Island. According to his account, he was at this for the better part of six years, but most scholars estimate that he was a merchant for four years. 

Marissa: While Cabeza de Vaca was working as a merchant in the southeast Texas region, most of his fellow countrymen and women were perishing from starvation, disease, native attacks, or drowning. As far as we know, there would ultimately be only three other survivors, with whom Cabeza de Vaca would eventually reunite –  Andres Dorantes, Alonso del Castillo, and Esteban. While Cabeza escaped his enslavers and worked as a free merchant, Dorantes, Castillo, and Esteban remained captives of the Yguases Indians. 

Ave: Castillo and Dorantes were, like Cabeza, minor Spanish nobles. Esteban was an enslaved man from Morocco. While scholars debated for the  better part of the 20th century about whether he was an Arab man from Morocco, most agree now that he was likely a Black man. Esteban was one of an unknown number of enslaved Black men on the Narvaez expedition, but is the only known survivor. Through the surviving records, both Naufragios and Francesco de Oviedo’s Historia, Esteban is referred to as “el negro”, or “the Black man,” or as Estebanico, a nickname that means “Little Steven” and was undoubtedly meant to mark Esteban as a slave – not a man worthy of the adult version of his name. Dorantes was Esteban’s enslaver. 

Marissa: Despite Dennis Herrick’s efforts to reconstruct Esteban’s life, we still know very little about him other than what can be gleaned from the ways that Cabeza de Vaca, Francesco Oviedo, and another Spanish friar (who traveled with Esteban in a second expedition into the American southwest) described him. Most historians agree that he was a Muslim who converted to Christianity. He was from Morocco, and thus likely born into Islam, but throughout the text Cabeza de Vaca lumps Esteban in with the Europeans when he calls their group “Christians.” An early 16th century law required that enslaved Africans brought to the Americas as personal slaves be Christian. Esteban was likely fluent in at least Arabic and Spanish before the Narvaez expedition, and possibly several other languages as well; an ear for languages may have helped him in learning half a dozen (or more) indigenous American languages, as well as the sign language they used to communicate between tribes. 

Ave: It seems likely that Esteban’s difference from North and South Americans and Europeans would have been significant to the indigneous peoples that the Christians encountered. Dennis Herrick argues that the Hopi, Zuni, and Rio Grande pueblo katsina spirit being known as Chákwaina was created in memory of Esteban’s arrival in southwestern North America. Though the conquistadors brought enslaved Black men and women into South and central America as early as 1501, few if any of the indigenous peoples of northern Mexico and modern-day New Mexico would have encountered an African person. While Cabeza de Vaca wrote that the natives seemed convinced of the Christians’ healing gifts, which we’ll discuss at length later, because they came from “the East” or “the Sky/Ocean,” it is just as possible that Esteban’s uniqueness was also a powerful tool of influence. Yet, according to Cassander Smith, Cabeza de Vaca “marginalize[d] Esteban’s participation in the healing rituals” and the account more broadly. 

Marissa: This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Cabeza de Vaca wrote the account knowing that it would be read by the King. He would not have heaped an enslaved man with accolades, or chalked his own survival up to a Black Moroccan, because that would have hindered his own ability to leverage his survival for a new post in the New World. Instead he markets himself as the primary hero of his narrative, with his three sidekicks along the way. And the only other record of the expedition came from the formal report that Castillo, Dorantes, and Cabeza de Vaca made to the governor of New Spain, which also would not have imbued Esteban with the credit that he was likely due in the matter of the Spaniards’ survival. 

Ave: While Esteban, Castillo, and Dorantes were enslaved by the Mariames and Yguases Indians in the vicinity of the south-most bend of the Nueces River, only a few days walk from the Rio Grande, Cabeza de Vaca made his living as a merchant. He traded pearls, conch shells, snails, bison and deer hides, red ochre, and more; he learned several of the languages of the peoples within 100 miles of Galveston Island, and got to witness much of the local flora and fauna of southeastern Texas. He continued to make frequent visits back to the Island to visit the two stranded Spaniards who couldn’t swim and thereby refused to leave. When one of the stranded men died, Cabeza de Vaca finally carried the other, Lope de Oviedo, across the inslet himself. Finally they could go find other “Christians” and make their way to New Spain. 

Marissa: They followed rumors of other Christians for weeks, encountering several hostile groups of natives, who threatened them and harassed them. Oviedo eventually abandoned Cabeza de Vaca, going back to the tribe that he’d grown accustomed to. Shortly after Oviedo left, Cabeza de Vaca found Dorantes, Castillo, and Esteban. The Mariames and Yguases indians traveled seasonally to capitalize on foragable food – from pecans near Goliad, TX to the places where the prickly pear cactus grows in abundance, most likely a few miles south of the Nueces River bulge. According to Cabeza de Vaca, the three men were treated badly by their enslavers, and wanted to escape. It took six months of planning and waiting until the natives were feasting on prickly pear fruit and not paying attention to the captives before the four could escape. It was then that the last leg of Cabeza de Vaca’s journey began, sometime in late 1534, in which he, Dorantes, Castillo, and Esteban traveled through southwest Texas and northern Mexico in search of a way to New Spain. 

Ave: On the road, the Spaniards learned several different indigenous languages, and relied on Esteban as a broker between the Spaniards and the indigenous peoples they encountered. Though Cabeza de Vaca only occasionally refers specifically to Esteban’s role in his account, scholars have determined that the enslaved Moroccoan man was essential to the survival of Cabeza, Dorantes, and Castillo. In at least one telling moment, Cabeza de Vaca writes of their Christians’ introduction to the Avavares. “ Pursuing our course that day with great fear that the Indians would follow us, we saw some spires of smoke. And Going Toward Them, after vespers we arrived there, where we saw an Indian who, as he saw that we were coming toward him, fled without wanting to wait for us. We sent the black man after him.” Where the indigenous people were afraid of the white men – and often had good reason to be, based on the activities of Cortez’ army and other conquistadors who raped and pillaged their way across Mexico – it seems that the darker-skinned Esteban was able to better communicate, and establish a better report with the locals. 

Marissa: Building on their successes during their first year with the Cuchendados, on their path across northern Mexico/southwestern Texas, the four men became famous healers among the Avavares. The natives believed that the Europeans had healing gifts, and insisted that they lay hands on sick men and women. According to Cabeza, “they tried to make us be physicians without examining us or asking us for our titles, because they cure illnesses by blowing on the sick person, and with that breath of air and their hands they expel the disease from him. And they demanded that we do the same and make ourselves useful. We laughed about this, saying that it was a mockery and that we did not know how to cure. And because of this, they took away our food until we did as they told us. …In short, we found ourselves in such need that we had to do it, without fearing that anyone would bring us to grief for it.”

Ave: Though the Europeans resisted at first, the response from the natives they laid hands on was such that, in time, Cabeza de Vaca and others came to believe in their own healing power. As Cabeza de Vaca and three other survivors were making their way across northern Mexico, their reputation as powerful healers became a kind of social currency that helped them gain safe passage. Their healing ritual involved touching the afflicted, blowing on them as other native healers did, and then saying a prayer and making the sign of the cross. Cabeza de Vaca centered his role as a superior spiritual healer in his narrative. In one instance, he touched and prayed over the body of a man who appeared dead. The next day, that man walked around the camp, claiming to be completely healed, and the natives were both awed and fearful of the Christians’ power. 

Marissa: They established their healing authority while wintering with the Avavares people. “And each one of the sick people offered their bow and arrows. And he accepted them, and at sunset he made the sign of the cross over them and entrusted them to God our Lord and we all prayed in the best way we could that we might bring  them health, since he saw that there was no other means by which to make those people help us so that we could leave so miserable a life. And he did it so mercifully that, come the morning, they all awoke so fit and healthy, and they went away as vigorously as if they had never had any malady whatsoever. This caused very great wonder among them.” For eight months they lived with the Avavares, and many came to visit them and seek their healing power. Eventually word spread, and when they set out again on their search for New Spain, tales of their healing prowess preceded them. 

Ave: Though Cabeza de Vaca represents himself in his narrative as someone who resisted stereotypes and assumptions about indigenous Americans from the very beginning, he undergoes a powerful spiritual transformation from the time he was abandoned at Galveston Island to the end of his journey. Like a normal Catholic Spaniard, he regularly gave thanks to God for surviving this and that tragedy. When God delivered him and the majority of his men from the sea during storms, or deigned to allow him to recover from injury and illness, or allowed him to only be wounded in the face by a native arrow and not pierced like so many of Narvaez’s party, his genuflection seems almost trivial. But during his journey across northern Mexico and southern Texas with Castillo, Dorantes, and Esteban, the holy spirit moves him in new ways. Reflecting on that first major healing with the Avavares people, he wrote that “it moved us to give many thanks to our Lord and to experience more fully his mercy, and to maintain firm the hope that he would deliver us and take us to where we could serve him. And for myself I can say that I always had complete faith in his mercy that he would deliver me from that captivity. And so I always said to my companions.” Whatever humor and skepticism that he and his countrymen felt about touch healing when they were first forced to do it on Galveston Island, but the time they reached Cuilican, Cabeza de Vaca reports on the natives healed by his touch as if it is a fact – a God-ordained fact. Rather than claiming land for the Crown, their journey seemed to shift in tone. From Goliad to Mexico City, they sought to enlighten the indigenous peoples of the power of the Christian God. 

Marissa: For all these years, the four Christians walked naked through the Americas. This vulnerability too contributed to Cabeza de Vaca’s spiritual transformation. “And with the sun and wind, there appeared on our chests and backs some very great ulcerations, which caused us very great distress on account of the large loads we carried, which were very heavy and caused the ropes to cut into the flesh of our arms. And the land is so rugged and impassable that many times when we gathered firewood in the dense thickets, when we finished taking it out we were bleeding in many places from the thorns and brambles that we encountered, for wherever they ensnared us they broke our skin. Sometimes it happened to me that, after shedding much blood in gathering wood, I could not haul it out, either on my back or by dragging it. I did not have, when I saw myself in these difficulties, any other remedy or consolation but to think about the Passion of our Redeemer Jesus Christ and the blood he shed for me, and to consider how much greater had been the torment that he suffered from the thorns, than that which I had to endure at that time.”

Ave: So obviously here Cabeza de Vaca is using that Christian imagery to liken his spiritual journey to that of Christ – he’s being cut by brambles and thorns, like Christ’s crown, he carries these heavy loads on his back – the cross to bear – and he’s suffering on God’s path. He’s holy!

Marissa: For eight months they stayed with the Avavares peoples. When they finally left the Avavares, who were a tribe that lived on the mainland, away from the coastline, Cabeza de Vaca convinced his companions to travel inland, rather than along the coastline, because he believed the coastal natives to be more hostile. All agreed, because their experiences with coastal Indians had been enslavement and deprivation, because most of the coastal natives were nomadic and forced to travel from food source to food source seasonally, with lots of hungry times in between. With few exceptions, the indigenous peoples that they met while journeying across northern Mexico and southern Texas were good to the Christians. They fed them, celebrated them with long nights of parties and the dances known as arietos, and brought sick people and children to be touched by the famous healers. After they crossed the Guadalquivir River, the peoples they stayed with started escorting the four. When the escorting group reached the next village, the escorts would take all the valuables of the people with whom they left the Christians. At first this worried Cabeza de Vaca and his companions, because they worried that if their arrival in a new village came with looting, then word would travel and they would not be welcome. But they were reassured by the villagers who’d just received them.  “the same Indians who lost their households, on seeing our sadness, consoled us by saying that we should not be grieved by that, because they were so content to have seen us that they considered that their possessions had been well employed, and that farther ahead they would be compensated by others who were very rich.” So from village to village the cycle played out, and their arrival and departure were celebrated. 

Ave: They traveled across at least seven rivers and through the town of Corazones. They searched for clues that might lead them to the Spanish outpost in western Mexico, Culiacan. Once they noticed a horseshoe nail in a Native’s necklace, and asked about it. The man said he got it from  “men with beards like [yours] had come from the East to that river, they had horses, lances, and swords”. Upon learning this, Cabeza de Vaca and his companions “gave God our Lord many thanks for what we had heard, for we were despairing to ever hear of Christians again.” 

Marissa: In his narrative, Cabeza de Vaca took the time to record details of the landscape, the flora and fauna, the customs and language groups of the indigenous peoples. His are the first written records of American bison, of the prickly pear cactus fruit on which the coastal peoples feasted when they were in season, on the pecan trees native to the south and southwestern coastal region of the United States – and more. But as they got closer to territory conquered by the Spanish, the landscape changed: villages were burned, farmland had been destroyed, the Natives hid their blankets and goods to protect them from Spanish raiders. Those peoples were afraid of Cabeza de Vaca, Castillo, and Dorantes, for despite their nudity and reputation as healers, they were still Spanish. Though he doesn’t say so explicitly – after all, his narrative was intended for a royal audience, and it probably would not have served him to judge the Spanish army too harshly – Cabeza de Vaca seems to see the damage the Spanish left in their wake and regret them. After over five years living with and getting to know the indigenous peoples of northern Mexico and southern Texas, Cabeza knew that there were more effective ways to work with the locals. He found greater success when he established effective ways to communicate, provided services like healing for goods and protection, and avoided making assumptions about the southwestern tribes based on experiences with the central American nations. 

Ave: In the winter of  1536, the four were finally reunited with other Spaniards, and made it to the Spanish outposts in Culiacan, then eventually on to Mexico City. In the spring of 1537, Cabeza de Vaca sailed for Spain, but returned to South America in 1540 with an assignment from the King to explore and govern the Rio de la Plata in South America, in Argentina, Paraguay & Uruguay. As before, the King hoped that Cabeza de Vaca would find silver and gold mines, but he was unsuccessful. While in Paraguay, Cabeza de Vaca was sympathetic to natives and treated them well. He began advocating for indigenous rights and protections, which angered some of the other Spanish in the area who wanted to continue to enslave Natives and take their territories. The other Spanish governors banded together to charge Cabeza de Vaca, ironically, with mistreatment of natives, and he was sent back to Spain in chains in 1544. He never returned to the Americas, and died in Spain in 1558. 

Marissa: Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative is not one of the successful domination of the indigenous peoples of southwestern North America. It’s barely even a record of a successful evangelical mission. But it didn’t need to be a successful conquest to provide useful results. Scholars have noted how important his record of the war tactics of the indigenous groups he encountered would be to future conquistadors. Knowing how the natives used canoes, lagoons, forests, night raids, and powerful archers would have been valuable information to those seeking to defeat those groups. Even if Cabeza de Vaca may have meant these descriptions to be a warning of the futility of engaging those peoples in war, it may well have accomplished the opposite. For future scholars of the early Americas, Cabeza de Vaca gave us (if poorly transliterated) names of the southwestern tribes – the Caoques from Galveston island, the Chorruco on the mainland nearest Galveston; west from Galveston, also on the coast, the Doguenes, and yet further, the Quevenes. Inland from the Quevenes were the Mariames, for whom Dorantes worked for a while. To their west resided the Yguazes, and nearer to the coast were the Guaycones. The Avavares, who’d been so good to the Christians that they’d stayed with them for eight months, lived inland from the coast, in sedentary agricultural villages.  

Ave: His descriptions of indigenous customs and society, while colored by his Christian/Spanish standards, are an important early ethnographic account of the southerwestern American peoples. He discussed the common practice of breastfeed children until they were twelve to ensure that they made it through the hungry times, and the regularity of same-sex desiring men who lived in couplings without, to Cabeza de Vaca’s shock, being put to death for sodomy (as would have happened in Spain.) He describes the frequency of social gatherings and celebrations, marked with dancing, which he found surprising considering how often those same people went hungry in between harvests or the gathering of ripe seasonal foodstuffs. We have few written or preserved first hand accounts from the indigenous peoples of the Americas. One exception is the Tira de Tepechpan, which recorded the history of the city of Tepechpan from 1298 through 1596 in pictographs, but which, as Lori Diel notes, are shaped by their own grandiose biases! So, though certainly problematic, the works of conquistadors like Bernardino de Sahagún, Bernal Diaz del Castillo, and Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca  are essential to our current understanding of early American history.

Marissa: When they reached New Spain, Dorantes, Castillo, and Cabeza de Vaca made a formal report to the governor in 1537, before going their separate ways. The original report to the governor was lost long ago, but a 16th century Spanish historian, Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes, drew heavily from it to write his comprehensive Historia general de las Indias, published in several dozen volumes between 1526 and 1553. The Historia and Naufragios are two of the earliest written works cataloging the peoples, flora, fauna, topography, and climate of southwestern North America. Both are colored by the biases of their authors – Christian, European imperialists – and those biases are evident in the text, even if they are harder to identify than they would in, say, accounts of Pizarro or Cortez’s conquests.

A map of Cabeza de Vaca's travels
A map of Cabeza de Vaca’s travels. | David Lavender, De Soto, Coronado, Cabrillo Explorers of the Northern Mystery, public domain, Project Gutenberg

Ave: It’s an interesting conquistador narrative – a counterpoint to the Pizzaros and Cortezes of Spanish imperialism, but still written from the perspective of a man who understood himself and his religion, customs, and way of life as superior to that of the Americans he encountered. He marginalized Esteban, a Black man, even though as Dennis Herrick suggests, Esteban was essential to the Spaniards’ survival. We can also see his biases in what Cabeza de Vaca took notice of and what he didn’t. In that way Cabeza de Vaca’s writing is important because of what it contributes to our knowledge of this period in the history of the Americas, but also because it challenges us to read the silences in imperialist records. 

Marissa: That’s it! Thanks for listening. Be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter @dig_history. If you’re looking to bedazzle yourself in some epic Dig swag, visit our Tee Public store! Find the link to our Swag store, as well as transcripts and bibliographies for all of our episodes, at


There are several English translations of Cabeza de Vaca’s text available. Fanny Bandelier’s is usable, but Adorno and Pautz’s is excellent, with thorough annotation and cross referenced footnotes utilizing Oviedo and other sources. 

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (transl. Rolena Adorno and Patrick Charles Pautz), The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca (University of Nebraska, 2003).

Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, edited by Fredrick Hodge, The Narrative Of Alvar Nuñez Cabeça De Vaca, in Original Narratives of Early American History: Spanish Explorers in the Southern United States 1528-1543. (1907) digitized by Project Gutenberg

Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Marco da Nizza, Antonio de Mendoza, Adolph Francis Alphonse Bandelier, The journey of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca and his companions from Florida to the Pacific, 1528-1536 (AS Miller, 1905)

Project Gutenberg also has a Spanish-language version digitized: 

Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Naufragios de Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (orig. 1542, digitized by Project Gutenberg 2004)

Secondary Sources:

Learning From Cabeza de Vaca,” Texas Beyond History 

TSHA | Cabeza de Vaca, Álvar Núñez 

Andrea Phiana Borunda, “Performing Cultural Memory in Cabeza de Vaca’s La Relacion,” Pennsylvania Literary Journal; Cochran Vol. 8, Iss. 2,  (Summer 2016): 92-119,169.

Lori Boornazian Diel, Tira de Tepechpan : Negotiating Place under Aztec and Spanish Rule (University of Texas Press, 2008).

Rafael Varón Gabai, Francisco Pizarro and His Brothers: The Illusion of Power in Sixteenth-century Peru, (University of Oklahoma Press, 1997). 

Alex D. Krieger and Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes, We Came Naked and Barefoot : The Journey of Cabeza de Vaca Across North America, edited by Margery H. Krieger (University of Texas Press, 2002). 

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

Dennis F. Herrick, Esteban: The African Slave Who Explored America. (University of New Mexico Press, 2018).

Carlos A. Jáuregui, “Going native, going home. Ethnographic empathy and the artifice of return in Cabeza de Vaca’s Relación,” Colonial Latin American Review, 25: 2, (2016). 175–199.

Baker H. Morrow and Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, South American Expeditions, 1540-1545, (University of New Mexico Press, 2011).

Kathleen Ann Myers, Nina M. Scott, and Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes, Fernandez de Oviedo’s Chronicle of America : A New History for a New World (University of Texas Press, 2017)

Mariah Wade, “Go-between: The Roles of Native American Women and Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca in Southern Texas in the 16th Century,” The Journal of American Folklore , Summer, 1999, Vol. 112, No. 445, Theorizing the Hybrid (Summer, 1999), 332-342.

Thayer Watkins, “Cabeza de Vaca’s Travels Through Mid-North America 1528-1536,” San José State University Faculty Website 

Ali Shehzad Zaidi, “The Spiritual Evolution of Cabeza de Vaca in Shipwrecks,” Theory in Action, Vol. 7, No. 3, July (© 2014)


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