OF DEWITT COLONY TEXAS
© 1997-2001, Wallace L. McKeehan, All Rights Reserved
Texas Under New Spain | New Spain-Index
Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca
The Earliest European in the Future DeWitt Colony
First Texas Merchant, Doctor/Surgeon, Geographer, Historian
Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was born about 1490 near Cádiz, Spain. His parents were Francisco de Vera and Teresa Cabeza de Vaca. His mother's family surname which he used and was known by is said to have arose from an ancestor who contributed to a 13th century Christian victory by marking a pass for the victors with a cow's skull. Cabeza served in the Spanish army under Charles V and his fame in the Americas began with his appointment as treasurer for the expeditions of Pánfilo de Narváez of 1527-28, who has served with Cortés in the conquest of Mexico. Narváez was commissioned to colonize "Florida" which was at that time the entire Gulf Coast from current Florida and Pánuco Province of Mexico. In 1528, Narváez landed on the west coast of Florida from Cuba where he became lost on an overland probe with about 300 men. Thinking that the distance to Pánuco was a few leagues away, the group of about 250 put out to sea from northwest Florida on five vessels improvised from local materials. Following the coast, they made the mouth of the Mississippi River, but were separated by heavy weather and seas. At least two vessels washed up on Galveston Island or in its proximity in Nov 1528. This group of which four survived including Cabeza de Vaca are thought to be the first Europeans in Texas. Because of his resourcefulness, Cabeza de Vaca can be considered the first European merchant, medical doctor and surgeon, geographer, ethnologist and historian in Texas and was clearly the first European to live among, observe and survive to report on the aboriginal cultures of Texas. Because of his writings, he is probably the first Texas author of consequence. Although the detailed location of Cabeza's experiences and journeys are uncertain, it is believed that he traveled and wrote of experiences in the heart of future DeWitt Colony along the Guadalupe River, which he called the "river of nuts" after the abundant pecan trees that grew in the region. From there in 1534, Cabeza and three other survivors which he met there departed for Pánuco and after nearly two years traveled to Culiacán near the Pacific Coast of Mexico. We know of the journey and experiences through the Relación of Cabeza de Vaca in which he recorded his recollections and government reports based on interviews with the four survivors. The seven year experience in Texas and recollections of the survivors provided extensive and earliest insight into aboriginal cultures, the terrain and vegetation. Cabeza de Vaca afterwards continued to serve the Spanish King in 1540 in what became Paraguay, accused of wrong doing and banished to North Africa after being called back to Spain, but later found innocent of charges and died in Spain sometime in the 1550's.
The following is the description of the adventures of Cabeza de Vaca from Carlos Castañeda's Our Catholic Heritage in Texas 1519-1936, published in 1936. Castañeda's main sources for his analysis were Fanny Bandelier's 1905 translation of the original 1542 La Relación which Cabeza de Vaca wrote after returning to Spain and the "Joint Report" prepared by Cabeza and the other two surviving Spaniards for presentation to the Audencia de Santo Domingo (panel of judges over unoccupied Spanish territory). There is no known original of this report which was published as a summary in a contemporary history by Gonzalo Fernández Oviedo y Valdés titled Historia General y natural de las Indias, Islas y Tierra-Firme del Mar Océano. R.T. Hill's series of articles on the topic in the Dallas News in the 1930's; and Davenport and Wells, The First Europeans in Texas, Texas Historical Association Quarterly, 1918 are also frequently cited.
The narrative begins with Cabeza de Vaca alone approaching the Texas coast near Galveston Island or vicinity.
In the morning Cabeza de Vaca's boat found itself out at sea in thirty fathoms of water, alone. A wind had come up and again separated the fleet. At the end of the day he came in sight of two boats. The nearer one was that of the governor. Cabeza de Vaca, coming within hailing distance, suggested they should join the third boat and keep together. The governor declared the other boat was too far out and that he wanted to get ashore. Cabeza de Vaca agreed to follow, but soon found he was unable to keep up with Narváez, who had the strongest men in his boat. He called for a towing rope, but the governor refused to help him, saying "that each should do what he thought best to save his own life."
Shipwrecked on the Texas coast. Left to his own resources, Cabeza de Vaca decided to join the third boat, which waited for him. This was the one entrusted to Captains Téllez and Peñalosa. For four more days they continued painfully along the coast, eating their daily ration of half a handful of raw maize and suffering greatly from thirst. Another furious storm then arose and separated them once more. "Because of winter and its inclemency, the many days we had suffered hunger, and the heavy beating of the waves, the people began next day to despair in such manner that when the sun sank, all who were on my boat," declares Cabeza de Vaca, "were fallen on one another, so near to death that there were few among them in a state of sensibility." Before midnight, Solís succumbed to fatigue and fell asleep. Only Cabeza de Vaca was left to hold weakly to the steering oar. Shortly before dawn, the roar of the surf broke upon their ears. When day dawned, the frail boat was lifted high on one of the rolling waves and thrown abruptly upon the sand. The shock, the spray from the raging sea, the firm ground on which they were tossed seemed to have brought the half-dead men to life. After forty-five days, for it was now November 6, 1528, they were on the coast of Texas, somewhere on the western extremity of Galveston Island, or perhaps on San Luis Peninsula or Bolivar Point, after the most trying and daring voyage ever recorded. Numbed by the cold, the men feebly crawled up the shore and made their way to some ravines nearby, where they built a fire, parched some maize, and found rain water to quench their thirst. Cabeza de Vaca, who seems to have taken charge now, asked Lope de Oviedo, the stoutest of the survivors, to climb one of the neighboring trees and learn what he could of the surrounding country. He reported it looked like an island. A more careful exploration disclosed an Indian village not far away. Before the day was over, the wretched survivors were visited by a large group of Indian archers, who proved friendly and promised to bring food next day. True to their promise, they returned next morning, November 7, and brought a quantity of fish and edible roots. That afternoon they brought more food and their women came with them to behold the Spaniards, who gave them as presents such trinkets as they had saved.
Feeling they had supplies sufficient to renew their journey to Pánuco, the emaciated crew dug out their boat from the sand by dint of much exertion. They then stripped themselves, and placing everything on board, proceeded to embark. Before they had gone a hundred yards a large wave swept over them. The cold numbed their hands and chilled their bodies, the grip on the oars relaxed, and the next wave turned the boat over: Solís and two companions who held to the wreck were drowned, while the rest were washed ashore "naked as the day they were born" and half drowned. The little provisions they had were now lost. Their plight was worse than ever. The north wind blew pitilessly and the famished men, without clothes, shivered before the fire they had kindled with the dying embers they left in the previous camp. When the Indians came that evening, they were much surprised to see the Spaniards in such a terrible plight. "The Indians," says the narrator, "at sight of what had befallen us and our state of suffering and melancholy destitution, sat down among us and from the sorrow and pity they felt, they all began to lament so earnestly that they might have been heard at a distance, and continued so doing more than half an hour. It was strange to see these men, wild and untaught," remarks Cabeza de Vaca, "howling like brutes over our misfortunes." Those who had been in New Spain were now seized with grave apprehensions, fearing that their visitors would take them to their pueblos and offer them up as sacrifices to their gods. Disregarding these fears, Cabeza de Vaca proposed to the natives that they take the Spaniards to their village. To this request they gladly acceded, and building fires at convenient distances along the road, they practically carried the half-dead survivors from fire to fire to keep them from freezing on the way. With unexpected foresight, the Indians had prepared a but for them beforehand, where they had kindled several fires. They welcomed the strangers with genuine joy and festivities.
The next day they learned of another crew which was similarly shipwrecked about four miles up the beach. These proved to be the men of the boat of Captains Andrés Dorantes and Alonso del Castillo, all of whom had been saved. They had struck the coast a day before, on November 5, 1528, possibly on the extreme western end of Galveston Island, but they had with them only the clothes they wore. They were much grieved, when they came upon Cabeza de Vaca and his companions, because they were unable to give them wearing apparel to cover their nakedness. Ever hopeful to reach Pánuco, the enduring men began to discuss how they could refit the boat of Dorantes, in order that as many as could might embark for the land of the Christians (New Spain) to carry the news of their misfortunes and bring a rescue party to help those who remained behind. Men of action that they were, they set about to carry out the plan immediately. Tavera, one of the members of Cabeza de Vaca's crew, however, was too exhausted and worn out. Before the boat was ready, he died. After incredible hardships, the men were prepared to launch the patched-up wreck of a sailing vessel. As they tried to set it afloat, the boat fell to pieces. Circumstances now compelled them to be reconciled to the inevitable necessity of spending the winter where they were. It was agreed, however, that four men, the strongest and the best swimmer; of the little band, should start immediately for Pánuco, still believing they were not far off, to carry news of their misfortune and bring to these victims of fate assistance as soon as possible. The four men chosen for this important but impossible mission were Alvaro Fernández, Portuguese carpenter and sailor---very likely the lone carpenter to whose diligence Narváez owed the construction of his five barges at the Bay of Horses---Méndez, Figueroa, a native of Toledo, and Astudillo, a native of Zafra. With the four men went a faithful Indian who had accompanied the expedition from Cuba.
Fate of the various vessels of Narváez. In the meantime what had become of the other three vessels? After the barges of Cabeza de Vaca and Dorantes had been cast ashore in the vicinity of the western extremity of Galveston Island and the present peninsula of San Luis, the boat of Captain Alonso Enríquez and the Bishop-elect Fray Juan Suárez appears to have gone on until it came to the mouth of San Bernardo River, where it was wrecked, some forty miles below Galveston. It was in this boat that all the religious had embarked. After they became stranded, the group tried to continue along the shore. Shortly afterwards they were overtaken by the boat of the governor. Many of his men were tired of the sea and preferred to go ashore to continue their journey on land. It seems that Narváez complied with their request, when he met the survivors of Enríquez. Together they all proceeded along the coast, while the governor went on in the boat to help them across the difficult inlets and rivers. In this manner the men traveled from the San Bernardo, across Caney Creek, which was probably the main course of the Colorado at this time, and on to present Cavallo Pass, the entrance to Matagorda Bay, which appears to be the "Ancón Grande," the large inlet to which Cabeza de Vaca and his companions frequently refer. When the party arrived here, Narváez helped them across the pass. "He took his men and crossed to the other side and returned for the purser [Enríquez], and the friars and all the others." Just how long they stayed at this place is not clear. But it seems that after the governor had ferried the men across, he revoked the commission of Alonso Enríquez as his lieutenant and second in command and appointed Captain Pantoja, one of those in his boat, to replace him. When night fell, according to the narrative, the governor declined to come ashore. He chose to stay aboard with a sick page named Campo and a pilot named Antonio Pérez. He himself was "very feeble and infirm and full of leprosy" at this time. During the day everything had been unloaded and there was neither food nor water on the boat. That night a strong norther blew the helpless barge with only a rock for an anchor out to sea. The unfortunate commander who had seen service in Cuba and Santo Domingo and who had vainly striven for mastery with Cortes, the conqueror of the empire of the Aztecs, was at last to find a grave in the blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Texas, in the vicinity of Matagorda Bay. With his two companions he was spared the sufferings of the survivors.
The next day the discouraged band, finding their commander had disappeared, attempted to continue their weary march along the coast. The numerous lakes and inlets encountered forced the men to build rafts to cross the waterways. This naturally delayed their progress considerably. Somewhere southwest of Cavallo Pass, they seemed to have crossed over to the mainland. "Going ahead, they reached a point of timber, near the shore. Here they found drinking water, wood, crayfish, and other sea food." It was now late in November and it was decided to spend the winter here. This location was very likely present Live Oak Point the mouth of Cópano Bay" Cold, hunger, and sickness began soon to decimate the ranks of the exhausted survivors. Pantoja, the new appointed lieutenant governor, treated the men harshly. His overbearing and haughty attitude enraged Sotomayor, a brother of Vasco Porcallo, the man who had given supplies and much help to Narváez in Cuba. One day, in the heat of an argument, he struck Pantoja a blow with a stick and killed him. "Thus did the number go on diminishing, the living cutting up the dead." At last only two remained: Sotomayor and Esquivel. The former died and Hernando de Esquivel, following the established custom, fed upon him and kept alive in this manner until March 1, 1529, when an Indian came and took him captive. Of approximately one hundred men, who made up the crews of the barges of Narváez and Enriquez, Esquivel was the only survivor by the spring of 1529. Such was the toll of life of this unfortunate expedition. Only the boat of Captains Tellez and Penalosa remains now to be accounted for. This vessel seems to have continued afloat longer than all the others. The fate of its crew was not learned by Cabeza de Vaca until almost seven years after it was wrecked. While in the land of the tunas (prickly pears) the natives told him that there was another nation called the Camones, who lived farther down the coast. Just where the habitat of these Indians was has not been definitely determined, but it seems they roamed in the vicinity of Aransas Pass, near Corpus Christi, not infrequently crossing over to St. Joseph's and Mustang Islands. It was in this area that the boat finally was destroyed, and, the men were "so emaciated, that they offered no resistance while being killed. Thus they put an end to all of them and they showed us their clothes and arms," declares Cabeza de Vaca. "The barge was wrecked there."
Sufferings and wanderings of the survivors. It is time to return to Cabeza de Vaca and his companions on San Luis Island---now a peninsula. When the men, who were shipwrecked with Castillo and Dorantes four miles above, on present Galveston Island, met the companions of Cabeza de Vaca, on November 7, there were about eighty persons. The Indians were friendly enough at first, but as the winter progressed the' visitors were no longer welcome and before long many of them began to die of hunger, exposure, and sickness. A group of five, who were driven from the Indian camp and took refuge on the coast, were soon reduced to cannibalism. These were Sierra, Diego López, Corral, Palacios, and Gonzalo Ruiz. When the Indians discovered this fact, they were horrified at the terrible aspect and would have put all the rest of the Spaniards to death, had they found out this condition sooner. By the time spring came, only fifteen were alive, and of these several were seriously ill, Cabeza de Vaca among them. Even these scanty survivors had been in grave danger of being exterminated. During the winter an epidemic broke out and many Indians began to die. The natives naturally suspected that the Spaniards had something to do with it. They demanded that they be put to death. But the chief, who had control of Cabeza de Vaca, wisely observed that if the Spaniards were the cause of their illness, it was strange that many of them should have died of the same sickness also. Satisfied with the explanation, the Indians declared that the Spaniards should try to cure them. "They wished to make us doctors without an examination," declares Cabeza de Vaca. Seeing that the Spaniards refused to treat them, the natives adopted the policy of giving the visitors no food until they attempted to restore the savages to health. Forced by circumstances the survivors reluctantly tried their hand at curing. With great misgivings they blew their breath upon those who were ill, as they had seen the native medicine men do, and they prayed most earnestly to God, saying an Ave Maria and a Pater Noster. They then made the sign of the cross over them and trusted in God's mercy to do the rest. Much to their surprise, all those who were treated in this manner felt immediate relief from their maladies. The Indians who lived on Malhado Island were of two different tribes, one called Capoque and the other Han, who spoke different languages. They had excellent physiques and were expert archers. Their arms at this time consisted only of the bow and arrow. Generally they lived on the island from October to February, during which time they subsisted on roots and fish. They then would go to the mainland to eat oysters, where they spent three months. In April they went to the coast to look for berries .
Early in the spring, therefore, they all proceeded to the mainland to eat oysters and took the Spaniards along, who, at this time, had been reduced to practical slavery. In April, 1529, the Indians who had control of Castillo and Dorantes, returned to the island, while those with whom Cabeza de Vaca was living remained on the coast eating berries. He was now so very sick that he was not expected to live. Upon his return to the island, Dorantes gathered all the Spaniards scattered over the island and found there were fourteen. Desirous of starting once more in quest of Pánuco and anxious to see Cabeza de Vaca, before their departure, they gave a tribesman, their guide to the main land, the beautiful cloak of marten skins which they had acquired a year ago from Indians on the coast of Alabama. When they left, however, only twelve were able to go: Alonso del Castillo, Andrés Dorantes, Diego Dorantes, Valdivieso, Estrada, Tostado, Chávez, Gutiérrez, Asturiano, a cleric, Diego de Huelva, Estevanico the Moor, and Benítez. The two men who remained on the island because of sickness, were Lope de Oviedo and Hieronimo Alaniz. When the Spaniards reached the mainland, they thought it inadvisable to attempt to visit Cabeza de Vaca, as they had originally planned, for they were told by some natives that he was so critically ill that at any moment he might die. Others stated that he was already dead. Hence the seeming neglect, disloyalty and even desertion of his comrades during his sorry plight was a bitter disappointment to him. They decided to set out along the coast in the direction of Pánuco, still thinking that the river was but a short distance away. On the route they found another Christian, Francisco de Leon. The thirteen survivors, like the four messengers, who had preceded them during the previous winter, traveled along, hoping to reach their desired goal, the nearest settlement of New Spain. Almost seven years later, when only three of this little band remained alive, they beheld with much surprise and astonishment their old companion, whom they had long since regarded as dead.
While Dorantes and his group traveled west, Cabeza de Vaca remained for a whole year with the Indians of Malhado. After he had recovered from his illness the natives had maltreated and abused him to such an extent that his life became unbearable. So tender had his fingers become from pulling roots out of the water during the second winter, that the slightest touch caused him intense pain and made him bleed. He decided to run away from his cruel masters and take refuge with a tribe of Indians, who lived on the mainland, called Charrucos. They proved much more kindly disposed towards him than those of the island. They allowed him considerably more freedom and encouraged him to become a trader. Because of the constant warfare waged by the various tribes, the Indians were not in the habit of traveling far and seemed glad to allow Cabeza de Vaca to go wherever he pleased and bring them many of the things they needed. He was thus able to explore the country as far as thirty and forty leagues inland. It should be noted that his trips during this time must have been to the north and east in the vicinity of Galveston Island. Had he gone south or west, he would have learned about the other survivors, of whom he heard nothing until almost seven years later, when he at last proceeded with Lope de Oviedo along the lower gulf coast. His activities as a trader are of interest as the first relations of their kind in Texas of which we have any record. The chief commodities, he frankly tells us, were sea shells; medicinal beans, used by the natives for their healing powers and for festive occasions; conchs with sharp edges for cutting purposes; beads, ornaments and other trifles gathered here and there in the course of his travels. These things he would carry inland and trade for skins; ochre used to paint the faces of the braves; flint for arrow heads; hard canes as shafts for the same; tufts of deer hair dyed red. Everywhere he went he became well known, was kindly received, and fed abundantly for the fine services which he rendered to the various Indian tribes visited. But there were many severe trials endured, in this primitive trade. "The hardships that I underwent in this [exile] were long, as well as full of peril and privations from storms and cold. Oftentimes they overtook me alone and in the wilderness; but I came forth from them all by the great mercy of God, our Lord. Because of them I avoided pursuing the business in winter, a season in which the natives themselves retire to their huts and ranches, torpid and incapable of exertion. While engaged in this trade, he had occasion to explore the land and to inquire about the country beyond, a knowledge which would prove very useful when he should start in search of the Christians. It is evident that it was ever his hope that some day he would return to the domain of the Spaniards. This expectation seems to have sustained him through his greatest sufferings and tribulations. His faith that God would save him from all evils and take him back to civilization never wavered. At every critical situation, we find him invoking God's help and thanking Him for his deliverance.
Cabeza de Vaca plans escape. Why did Cabeza de Vaca put off his start for the land of the Christians year after year? "The reason for remaining so long," he declares, "was that I wished to take with me a Christian called Lope de Oviedo, who still lingered on the island. The other companion, Alaniz, who remained with him after Alonso del Castillo and Andrés Dorantes and all the others had gone, soon died, and in order to get him [Oviedo] out of there, I went over to the island every year, entreating him to leave with me and go as far as we could, in search of Christians. But year after year, he put it off to the year that was to follow. Finally, in 1534, almost six years after the shipwreck on the Texas coast, Cabeza de Vaca succeeded in getting Lope de Oviedo to go with him. Unable to swim, Cabeza de Vaca had to carry him across to the mainland from Malhado Island, from where they proceeded along the coast in the direction of Pánuco as Dorantes and his companions had previously done in 1529. Across the four rivers that lay between the starting point opposite San Luis Island (peninsula) and Cavallo Pass, he carried the helpless Oviedo. These streams have been definitely identified as Oyster Creek, Brazos River, San Bernardo River, and Caney Creek, which was the main channel of the Colorado at that time. It was at Cavallo Pass that Cabeza de Vaca remarked that this inlet was a league wide and uniformly deep and reminded him of Espíritu Santo Bay, referring to the mouth of the Mississippi as described by Pineda in his map of 1519.
They crossed the inlet in the company of some native women of the Deaguenes and found on the opposite bank other natives who had come to meet those in their company. These Indians informed them that farther down the coast there were three other men like the Spaniards. These were Castillo, Dorantes, and Estevanico. When Cabeza de Vaca inquired about the rest of the Christians, he was told that most of them had died of cold and hunger. They told him how the Indians beyond, who were very cruel, had killed Diego Dorantes, Valdivieso, and Diego de Huelva simply because they had gone from one house to another and how the Indian children amused themselves by pulling out the beards of the Spaniards. Other Indians, they said, who were their neighbors and among whom Andrés Dorantes was now living, had killed Esquivel and Mendez because of forebodings presented by a woman's dream. They assured Cabeza de Vaca that the land beyond this place was a desert waste; that there was consequently no food supply and that but few people inhabited that region which was very cold in winter; that there were no fur-bearing animals and hence no skins to provide warm wearing apparel when it was most needed. The savages said, however, that if the visitors wanted to see the other Christians, they might do so within two days, when the Indians who controlled these Spaniards, would come to eat nuts in the valley of a river which was a league hence. This river has been definitely identified with the Guadalupe. Although the natives gave Cabeza de Vaca the desired information, they soon showed him and his partner their true character. "They threw mud at us," he says, "and pointed their arrows at our hearts every day, saying they would kill us in the same way as our other companions. Fearing this, Lope de Oviedo, my companion, said he preferred to go back with some women of the Indians in whose company we had crossed the ancón, and who had remained behind. I insisted he should not go and did all I could to prevail upon him to remain, but it was in vain. He went back, and I remained alone among these Indians who are named Quevenes.
Cabeza de Vaca meets Dorantes and Castillo. Two days later, just as the Indians had told Cabeza de Vaca, those who had Dorantes and Castillo came to the river of nuts (the Guadalupe). This tribe which Cabeza de Vaca called Mareames were perhaps the Jaranames. The other Christians had, evidently, been informed of the presence of Cabeza de Vaca, for he says: "Andrés Dorantes came out to see who I was, the Indians having told him a Christian was coming [to see him]. When he saw me, he was much surprised, having considered me dead for a long time, as the Indians had told him [I had died]. We gave many thanks to God for being together again. This was one of the happiest days of our lives. Together they went to see Castillo and Estevanico, who inquired when he was going. To this Cabeza de Vaca replied that his greatest desire was to reach the land of the Christians. It was then that "Andrés Dorantes said that for many days he had been urging Castillo and Estevanico to go farther on, but they did not risk it, being unable to swim and afraid of the rivers and inlets that had to be crossed so often in that country.
Cabeza learns fate of survivors. Dorantes and his companions acquainted Cabeza de Vaca with the fate of the band of thirteen who had started from Malhado in the spring of 1529 and of the lot of the four messengers, who had been sent before to carry news of their misfortunes to Pánuco. He learned how the thirteen men whose names have already been listed, went along the coast to a large river which was beginning to rise because of the rains. This was evidently Oyster Creek. Here they had been forced to build rafts to reach the opposite bank. Three leagues beyond they came to another river, the Brazos, which flowed directly into the sea in a swift and turbulent stream. Once more they constructed two rafts. The first crossed without mishap, but the second was carried out to sea because the men on it, weakened by their hardships and lack of food, were unable to control it. Two men were drowned, two others saved themselves by swimming, and a fifth hung on to the raft and was taken a league into the sea. When he was out of the current he stood up and, making a sail of his body, succeeded in drifting back to shore. There were now only ten left of the first twelve who set out, but it was here that they found another survivor which brought the total to eleven. Undaunted by their misfortunes, the eleven men resumed their march and three leagues farther on they came to another river, the San Bernardo, where they saw the wreck of the boat in which Alonso Enríquez and Father Fray Juan Suárez had sailed with the others. Continuing on their journey to the southwest, they went on to still another river five or six leagues beyond, which was no other than Coney Creek, the former main stream of the Colorado. Here they found two Indian ranchos, but the natives fled upon the approach of the Spaniards. From the opposite side, however, other Indians crossed to meet them, who knew Christians because they had seen the survivors of the boat of Enriquez. They assisted them over in a canoe and welcomed them in their homes, giving them the little fish supply that they had. The weary travelers spent the night with the Indians.
The following day they set out again and after traveling four days they came to a wide ancón, about a league wide and rather deep. On the opposite bank, in the direction of Pánuco, there were large mounds of white sand, visible no doubt for a great distance out at sea. ''There is no question that they were now at Cavallo Pass, the entrance to Matagorda Bay. On the last four days' march two men had died from exhaustion, leaving now only nine in the little band led by Dorantes. After being detained for two days, they found a broken canoe which they repaired as best they could and used it in crossing the inlet. Once more they resumed their wearisome journey, much exhausted by hunger and exposure, until they arrived in a small ancon, about twelve leagues below Cavallo Pass. This was, no doubt, Cedar Bayou, the strait between St. Joseph's and Matagorda Islands. An Indian came out to meet them, bringing with him a Christian, who proved to be Figueroa, one of the four stout swimmers who had been sent from Malhado in the winter of 1528 to find a way to Pánuco to secure aid. From him they learned the fate of the four messengers. Two of them, Alvaro Fernández, the Portuguese sailor and carpenter, and Astudillo of Zafra had died of hunger. The faithful Indian, who came with the expedition from Cuba, and who accompanied the four Spaniards on their perilous mission, had also succumbed. Figueroa and Mendéz tried to go on, but they were soon after captured by the Indians and reduced to slavery. Mendéz had later tried to escape from his cruel masters but the Indians soon tracked the runaway and put him to death. It was while living among these Indians in the vicinity of Cedar Bayou that Figueroa had heard of another Christian who was among other Indians not far away. This was Hernando de Esquivel, the sole survivor of the crew of the two boats of the governor and Enriquez, who was with the Mareames. Figueroa later met Esquivel and learned from him the terrible fete of the men of the crafts here mentioned. Figuero declared that he tried to induce Esquivel to go with him in search o Pánuco, but that he had refused, saying that the friars had told him they had left Pánuco behind them, for which reason he preferred to stay where he was. The little band of nine survivors under the leadership of Dorantes who had traveled now as far as present Cedar Bayou, not far from Corpus Christi Bay, spent a few days with Figueroa after which his Indian master refused to release him and took him across the ancón. Of the nine Christians, only two could swim. These passed over the inlet with Figueroa and his master to obtain some fish from the Indian village on the opposite bank. One of them was Asturiano, the last of the five priests of the expedition who seems to have joined Dorantes' party in this place, and the other was a young man whose name is not recorded. When the two Spaniards arrived in the Indian village the natives decided to keep them as slaves and to prevent them from returning to their companions. They consequently began to load their houses, which were made of mats, on canoes, and planned to carry the Christians with them, saying they would soon return; that they were going to gather a certain leaf which they steeped in water and used as a beverage (yupon). Before leaving, however, they allowed one of the Christians to go back next day to tell the others of the plan and to ask them to wait and not be alarmed. With the messenger the Indians sent some fish.
A day after the others were gone, the seven, who were on the east side of Cedar Bayou, saw two Indians who came to observe if the mulberries were ripe. It seems they were in the habit of visiting this region every year for a period of two months, during which time they subsisted on this fruit. The Spaniards called to them and they crossed over to the spot where the white men were and greeted them with indifference as "people for whom they [the natives] had little respect." Without asking leave, they helped themselves to the scanty food the Christians had. In spite of this distressing incident, the Spaniards, urged by a desire to pass over the Bayou and filled with the hope of meeting their other two companions and of continuing with them on their way to Pánuco at all cost, asked the Indians to take them across. This they did in a canoe. When they reached the opposite bank, their hosts promptly carried them to their village, which was not far from there and fed them some fish. Next day they all went fishing. On their return they again gave the Christians some fish. But the following morning the Indians moved camp and took the seven survivors along as slaves. They never again saw their absent comrades. The food being extremely scarce, the Indians soon found it was too great a burden to feed their slaves, for which reason they unceremoniously asked five of them to transfer to an. Indian tribe who lived on another inlet about six leagues further on in the direction of Panuco. This inlet was Aransas Pass, the entrance to Corpus Christi Bay. They kept Alonso del Castillo, Pedro de Valdivieso, cousin of Andrés Dorantes, and Diego Huelva. Of the five who were driven out, two went to the coast where they lost their lives in the impassable marshes. In the meantime, Andrés Dorantes, Diego Dorantes, and Estevanico had gone with the Indians at Cedar Bayou, who had used them as carriers of equipment and supplies for a few days and then ran them out of camp to die of hunger. "They wandered painfully some days without hope of assistance; and going thus through those marshes, naked, because the other Indians with whom they had spent the night, had stripped them of their clothes, they came upon the two dead Christians, who were of the five the Indians had previously driven out and dismissed." Soon thereafter, Andrés Dorantes and his companions located the tribe who had control of the other three comrades. While with them, Valdivieso told them of the fate of Asturiano, the cleric, and the young swimmer with whom the priest had earlier crossed Cedar Bayou. It was just a short distance beyond Aransas Pass that Asturiano, the last of the five clergymen, met his end. It seems the Indians maltreated him when they learned that he wanted to escape and they pierced his arm with an arrow. Whether he died as a result of the wound and the beating which he received, will never be known. Andrés Dorantes saw his cassock, his breviary, and a book of hours in the rancho of the Indians on Cedar Bayou. These same Indians killed Valdivieso a few days later, when he returned from a futile effort to escape. Not long after this they put Diego de Huelva to death because he went from one lodge to another. Thus one by one, all the survivors died until there were left only Alonso del Castillo, Andrés Dorantes, Estevanico the Moor, and Cabeza de Vaca from the formidable expedition of three hundred Spaniards who landed so proudly in Florida in 1528.
The last four survivors planned their escape. After almost seven year of incredible sufferings, these lone survivors at last met at the river of nuts (the Guadalupe) and there Cabeza de Vaca heard from Dorantes the fate of all the others. One idea still animated the four, however: to escape from the Indians and to find their way back to the land of the Christians. They now made plans to accomplish this long cherished dream for which they had endured so many hardships and suffered so many privations. It was decided that the time for leaving was not opportune. It would be better to wait until the time of the tunas (prickly pears), according to Dorantes. "At that time they [the natives] pluck this fruit," he said, "other Indians from beyond come to them with bows for barter and exchange," and when thus engaged, it would be easy to join them and escape. In the meantime the plan had to be kept secret from the Indians. The mere suspicion of it would be fatal to all of them. Cabeza de Vaca agreed, therefore, to become the slave of the Mareames, with whom Dorantes lived, and to wait until the time of the tunas. Patiently he remained for six months in spite of hardships and abuse. At last the Indians set out for the prickly pears, thirty leagues hence, somewhere west of Corpus Christi Bay, which would place them in the vicinity of Helena, in Karnes County. It was now the early summer of 1534. Just as they were about to start, a quarrel between the Indians who had control of the remaining Christians occurred over a woman and "each one took his lodge and went his own way. So we Christians had to part, and in no manner could we get together until the year following. In spite of disappointments and unforeseen circumstances, when the next year rolled around the Spaniards met again in the land of the tunas, somewhere in Karnes or DeWitt Counties. Not until September 8, 1535, however, did they finally succeed in escaping. When they at last came together, "all three praised the Lord, and resolved as Christians (and gentlemen, which each of them was), that they would not live this life of savages, which separated them from the service of God and from all good reason. And with this good resolution, like men of good caste and determination, they went; and thus Jesus Christ, in His infinite mercy, guided and worked with them, and opened the roads, in a land without roads; and the hearts of the savages and untamed men, God moved to humble themselves to them and obey them."' Quietly they stole away with a band of Indians, the Anagoados, and began their remarkable trek across the continent which was to take them over a large portion of Texas before they reached the Pacific coast and civilization again.
The march to the Rio Grande. From the Anagoados the four went on without knowing exactly where they were traveling until they came, after two or three days, to a new tribe of Indians who spoke a different language and were called Avavares. Just who they were and where they lived has been a question of much discussion, but it seems they belonged to a higher culture than those of the coast with whom the Spaniards had been for almost seven years. The fame of the Christians as healers had preceded them and they were now well received. These Indians appear to have been in the habit of bringing bows and arrows to trade with the coastal tribes and they carried their houses, which were made of mats, with them. The place, where they were met by Cabeza de Vaca and his companions, seems to have been in the Washington Prairie area, just east of the Balcones Escarpment. Hardly had they arrived when some of the Indians came to Castillo and complained of severe headaches and wished him to cure them. Unable to refuse their request, he made the sign of the cross over their heads and prayed to God to make them well. To the surprise of all present, the Indians declared they were well. They immediately went to their lodges and brought many prickly pears and a piece of venison, "a thing we had almost forgotten," says Cabeza de Vaca. As the news spread others came to be treated and brought with them pieces of venison "and they were so plentiful we knew not where to put the meat. We gave many thanks. to God because each day His favor and mercy increased." The Indian; celebrated the occasion with great rejoicings and danced for three days. It was October, 1535, and the Christians were anxious to continue or their long journey in spite of their kind hosts. They inquired of them concerning the nature of the country beyond, of its people and the food they might find. The Indians replied that prickly pears grew in abundance but the season was now over. Because of this fact, there were no people there now, all having gone home after eating the tunas. They said the land was "very cold," and there were few skins to be had there.'' As winter was approaching, Cabeza de Vaca and his companions decided to stay with these Indians until the spring.
Five days later they all went in search of another place where tunas were still plentiful. It took them five days to get to a river where they put up their lodges. On the way they suffered great hunger because they found no prickly pears. This barren stretch was perhaps the Claiborne Eocene formation which lies between the Washington and Black prairies that separate the middle and western tuna countries." Here they hunted for the fruit of a certain tree that resembled peas. While engaged in this search, Cabeza de Vaca strayed from the rest of the party and there being no roads became lost. Fortunately he found a burning tree before nightfall; no doubt where some of his friends had camped during the day. He spent the night by the fire and next morning, taking a firebrand in his hand and some wood, started to look for his friends. For five days he kept this up. Each night before sunset he would dig a hole in the ground near a thicket. Gathering wood, he then built four fires in the shape of a cross around the ditch and thus passed the night comfortably. To keep warm, he furthermore pulled the long rushes that grew along the stream and placed them over his naked body, for he had no clothes. One night the wind blew stronger than usual, and a spark from one of the fires kindled the straw that covered him. "Although I hurried," he says, "to get out of my hole as quickly as possible, I still had marks on my hair of the danger to which I had been [exposed]."" When he at last met his friends by a river, they were surprised to see him, having long since thought him dead from the bite of some snake. Next day the Indians and the Spaniards set out again and soon came to another place where the prickly pears were abundant. Here many Indians, who had heard of the cures, came to see them and brought five patients who were very sick and unable to move. Once more Castillo and his companions prayed earnestly that the Lord might give them health and their prayer was answered. Going on they met other Indians who were called Cutalches and Maliacones, who spoke a different language from the Avavares. With them were the Susolas and the Coayos. In another part of the tuna fields were the Atayos, who were at war with the Susolas. Two days after their arrival, their fame as healers now being the talk of all the natives, there came some Susolas to Castillo and asked him to go and treat several who were sick, one of whom was dying. Castillo seems to have been afraid to try to cure them because of his sins, consequently he refused to go, whereupon the Indians turned to Cabeza de Vaca and asked him to do it. They said they knew him and liked him because he had healed them, when they met him at the river of nuts (the Guadalupe) at the time he had gone there to meet the other Christians. He agreed to go with them and took Dorantes and Estevanico along with him. When he arrived at the rancho he noticed that the patient appeared to be dead from the way his relatives behaved. "When I arrived, I found the Indian with his eyes turned, and with no pulse and with all the appearances of death, as it seemed to me and as Dorantes himself said. I removed the mat he had over him as a cover, and as best I could I prayed to our Lord to be pleased to give him health," declares Cabeza de Vaca. He then made the sign of the cross and blew his breath over him, after which he went on to treat others. Next day the Indians came to tell him that the man who was dead had risen whole in the morning. Whatever the circumstances of the cure, this incident filled the Indians with awe and admiration. Henceforth the natives considered them truly the sons of the sun.
For eight months, from October to June, they lived among these Indians until it was time once more for the prickly pears to ripen. For six months they had experienced much want for lack of food, because they had no corn, nor nuts, nor acorns, nor fish. When the tunas ripened, they silently stole away one day, unnoticed, and went to the Maliacones and from there to a place where the natives were accustomed to live for ten or twelve days on the fruit of a certain tree. "Here we met the Arbadaos, whom we found to be so sick, emaciated and swollen [an effect of starvation] that we were greatly astonished." In spite of their poverty, the Indians took the travelers by the hand and led each to one of them lodges. For a while they stayed among these people where they suffered extreme want. Cabeza de Vaca relates how the happiest days spent here were those on which they gave him skins to clean, for he would then eat all the scraps. "The country is so rough," he says, "and overgrown that often, after we had gathered firewood in the timber and dragged it out, we would bleed freely from the thorns and spines, which cut and slashed us wherever they touched . . . In all that trouble, my only relief and consolation was to remember the passion of our Saviour, Jesus Christ, and the blood He shed for me, and to ponder how much greater His sufferings had been from the thorns than those I was then enduring." Their hunger was such that they purchased from the Indians two dogs in exchange for some nets, a skin with which Cabeza de Vaca covered himself, and other things. "After we ate the dogs," he says, "feeling that we had some strength to proceed on our way, we commended ourselves to God our Lord to guide us. We took leave of these Indians and they led us to others who spoke their tongue and were near. But they proved as poor as the first, for which reason the Spaniards stayed with them only a short time. The natives had become so fond of the Christians that they wept when they departed.
Continuing their journey, they seem to have traveled rather north than west until they came to another group of Indians who received them kindly and gave them flour of mesquite beans. They had now reached the area of the thorny forests, where mesquite and underbrush abound. The Indians were no longer nomads. They now lived in houses and had villages, generally along springs or rivers. The travelers were unmistakably approaching the area of the Balcones Escarpment along which springs and rivers are found from Austin to Devil's River in the neighborhood of Del Rio. They were at this time in the vicinity of the headwaters of the San Marcos. Here came a group of women from another village which was farther ahead. They offered to guide the Spaniards to their ranchería next day, but they would not wait. Their haste in leaving, however, availed them little, because they lost their way and were overtaken the following day by the women who finally conducted them to their village. They found there were one hundred huts. The natives came out to meet them at a short distance, and when they first caught sight of the weary travelers, they set up a loud yelling and vigorously slapped their hands on their thighs, making much noise. They brought pumpkins (gourds) bored with holes and pebbles inside, which they held in great reverence. These appear to have been used in connection with healing and their great festivals. But before the little group arrived, they crossed a large river, as wide as the Guadalquivir in Spain, which was almost one hundred yards wide and whose water came up above their waist. This was, it seems, the Guadalupe, and not the Rio Grande as. suggested by some. According to the route they were following, they must have passed very near the present site of San Marcos springs. It was in this region that they first saw mountains. They had reached the Balcones Escarpment along which there is a series of springs and spring rivers such as Barton Springs in Austin, San Pedro and Olmos Springs in San Antonio, and others all along the road to Del Rio.
The Indians were so anxious to touch the now famous medicine men of whose wonderful cures they had heard that they almost crushed them to death in the scramble. They carried them bodily to the village amidst great rejoicing. From here on, with one or two exceptions, the progress of the heretofore weary travelers became a continuous triumphal march, the people of one village escorting them to the next and looking after all their wants. Their fame spread like wildfire and their escort soon developed a tradition whereby they shared in the triumph of the strange medicine men. Thus it became the established practice that the people of each village had to give presents to the Spaniards, which in turn were distributed among those who had escorted them from the previous village, who returned happily to their homes. Those of the village visited went on to the next and there received the offerings of the visited. After a short while the custom of pillaging the villages visited by those accompanying the survivors developed, which grieved the Spaniards deeply, but there was nothing they could do to prevent it and the natives themselves did not seem to resent it. After spending a day in the village of one hundred huts they went for a short distance, perhaps four miles and came to another village of seventy huts, located, it seems, on present Comal Springs, near New Braunfels. It was here that the robbing of the visited by the visitor; began.
Cabeza de Vaca. reaches the San Antonio area. Continuing on the journey they traveled about sixteen miles and arrived at a ranchería where many of the Indians were blind. "The greater part were clouded of an eye, and others in like manner were entirely blind," says Cabeza de Vaca. "They are people of fine figure, agreeable features, and white than any of the many nations we had seen until then." They had now reached the Cibolo." "It was here we began to see mountains; they appeared to come in succession from the North Sea." It was towards the mountains that the travelers steered their course now. "We set forth in a direction towards them with these Indians arid they guided us by the way of some kindred of theirs, and were not willing that their enemies should come to such good luck, as they thought it was to see us." When they arrived at the next village they were kindly received and given presents of ochre, beads, and a few little bags of silver which Oviedo says should be margarite (pearl-mica)." They were by this time in the vicinity of present day San Antonio, where the Indians had established a rancho because of the natural facilities of the region for settlement. "If this deduction of mine is true," declares Dr. Hill, after many years of careful and painstaking study, "then San Antonio is the oldest identifiable village within the present limits of the United States."
From here the four marched to the Del Rio area and on toward Pánuco reaching after nearly two years Culiacán near the Pacific Coast of Mexico.
SONS OF DEWITT COLONY TEXAS
© 1997-2001, Wallace L. McKeehan, All Rights Reserved