The Journey of Alvar Núñez Cabeza De Vaca

Author:   Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca

Annotation: Cabeza de Vaca, who lived from about 1490 to around 1557, was the first European to explore North America and leave a written record. His reports that great wealth lay north of Mexico led the Spanish to explore Arizona and New Mexico.

Cabeza de Vaca was a member of a Spanish expedition that set out to colonize Florida in 1527. Under attack from Florida’s Indians, Cabeza de Vaca and a number of other men sailed a makeshift barge westward, hoping to find a Spanish settlement in Mexico. Along the way, the men became the first Europeans to cross the mouth of the Mississippi River.

Cabeza de Vaca and eighty Spanish castaways landed on Galveston Island, along the Texas coast. For the next eight years, he and other survivors travelled overland, living with various Indian tribes, sometimes as slaves and at times as shamans (religious healers). Disease and conflict with Indians killed all but four of the travelers: Cabeza de Vaca, Alonso del Castillo, Andres Dorantes, and Dorantes’s slave, the first African to set foot in what is now the United States, a Moroccan Moor converted to Christianity named Estevanico. In this passage from his journal, Cabeza de Vaca describes his party’s finally meeting up with a group of Spaniards in Mexico–who were in the process of enslaving Indians.

After his epic journey Cabeza de Vaca campaigned against slavery for Indians and Africans in the Americas and served, unsuccessfully, as governor of Paraguay.

Document: We travelled over a great part of the country, and found it all deserted, as the people had fled to the mountains, leaving houses and fields out of fear of the Christians. This filled our hearts with sorrow, seeing the land so fertile and beautiful, so full of water and streams, but abandoned and the places burned down, and the people, so thin and wan, fleeing and hiding; and as they did not raise any crops their destitution had become so great that they ate tree-bark and roots…. They brought us blankets, which they had been concealing from the Christians, and gave them to us, and told us how the Christians had penetrated into the country before, and had destroyed and burnt the villages, taking with them half of the men and all the women and children, and how those who could escaped by flight. Seeing them in this plight, afraid to stay anywhere, and that they neither would nor could cultivate the soil, preferring to die rather than suffer such cruelties, while they showed the greatest pleasure at being with us, we began to apprehend that the Indians who were in arms against the Christians might ill-treat us in retaliation for what the Christians did to them. But when it pleased God our Lord to take us to those Indians, they respected us and held us precious, as the former had done, and even a little more, at which we were not a little astonished, while it clearly shows how, in order to bring those people to Christianity and obedience until Your Imperial Majesty, they should be well treated, and not otherwise….

They had seen the Christians and watched their movements, under cover of some trees, behind which they concealed themselves, and saw the Christians take many Indians along in chains….

Having seen positive traces of Christians and become satisfied they were very near, we gave many thanks to our Lord for redeeming us from our sad and gloomy condition. Any one can imagine our delight when he reflects how long we had been in that land, and how many dangers and hardships we had suffered. That night I entreated one of my companions to go after the Christians, who were moving through the part of the country pacified and quieted by us, and who were three days ahead of where we were. They did not like my suggestion, and excused themselves from going, on the ground of being tired and worn out, although any of them might have done it far better than I, being younger and stronger.

Seeing their reluctance, in the morning I took with me the Negro and eleven Indians and, following the trail, went in search of the Christians. On that day we made ten leagues, passing three places where they had slept. The next morning I came upon four Christians on horseback, who, seeing me in such a strange attire, and in company with Indians, were greatly startled. They stared at me for quite a while, speechless; so great was their surprise that they could not find words to ask me anything. I spoke first, and told them to lead me to their captain, and we went together to Diego de Alcaraza, their commander.

After I had addressed him he said that he was himself in a plight, as for many days he had been unable to capture Indians, and did not know where to go, also that starvation was beginning to place them in great distress. I stated to him that, in the rear of me, at a distance of ten leagues, were Dorantes and Castillo, with many people who had guided us through the country. He at once dispatched three horsemen, with fifty of his Indians, and the Negro went with them as guide, while I remained and asked them to give me a certified statement of the date, year, month, and day, when I had met them, also the condition in which I had come, with which request they complied….

Five days later Andres Dorantes and Alonso del Castillo came with those who had gone in quest of them. They brought along more than six hundred Indians, from the village, the people of which the Christians had caused to flee to the woods, and who were in hiding about the country. Those who had come with us as far as that place had taken them our of their places of concealment, turning them over to the Christians. They had also dispatched the others who had come that far….

Thereupon we had many and bitter quarrels with the Christians, for they wanted to make slaves of our Indians, and we grew so angry at it that at our departure we forgot to take along many bows, pouches and arrows, also the five emeralds, and so they were left and lost to us. We gave the Christians a great many cow-skin robes, and other objects, and had much trouble in persuading the Indians to return home and plant their crops in peace. They insisted upon accompanying us until, according to their custom, we should be in the custody of other Indians, because otherwise they were afraid to die; besides, as long as we were with them, they had no fear of the Christians and of their lances. At all this the Christians were greatly vexed, and told their own interpreter to say to the Indians how we were of their own race, but had gone astray for a long while, and were people of no luck and little heart, whereas they were the lords of the land, whom they should obey and serve….

After we had dispatched the Indians in peace, and with thanks for what they had gone through with and for us, the Christians (out of mistrust) sent us to a certain Alcalde Cebreros, who had with him two other men. He took us through forests and uninhabited country in order to prevent our communicating with the Indians, in reality, also, to prevent us from seeing or hearing what the Christians were carrying on.

This clearly shows how the designs of men sometimes miscarry. We went on with the idea of insuring the liberty of the Indians, and, when we believed it to be assured, the opposite took place. The Spaniards had planned to fall upon those Indians we had sent back in fancied security and in peace, and that plan they carried out….