The Long Walk of Conquistador, Cabeza de Vaca

“dumbfounded at the sight of me, strangely dressed and in the company of Indians. They (his countrymen) just stood staring for a long time unable to speak.”

–Cabeza de Vaca

What a long, strange trip it’s been!

The Narváez expedition was a Spanish attempt during the years 1527–1528 to colonize Spanish Florida. It was led by Pánfilo de Narváez, who was to rule as adelantado.

The crew initially numbered about 600. Making stops along the way to Florida at Hispaniola and Cuba, the expedition suffered a hurricane, among other storms. After landing near Tampa Bay, they were subject to attacks by American Indians, and suffered the effects of poor food and disease. Over the years, only four of the original party survived.

In 1536, four survivors—Álvar Núñez Cabeza de VacaAlonso del Castillo MaldonadoAndrés Dorantes de Carranza, and his enslaved Moor Estevanico—finally managed to rejoin Spanish countrymen in present-day Mexico. After returning to Spain, Cabeza de Vaca was notable for writing about the ill-fated expedition in his La Relacion (The Report), published in 1542 (in later editions, it was renamed Naufragios).

The Infamous Route of De Vaca and the Survivors

On May 1, 1528, Narváez decided to split the force into land and sea contingents. He planned to have the army of 300 march overland to the north while the ships, with the remaining 100 people, sailed up the coast to meet them. He believed the mouth to Tampa Bay to be a short distance to the north (it was south). Cabeza de Vaca argued against this plan, but was outvoted by the rest of the officers. Narváez wanted Cabeza de Vaca to lead the sea force, but he refused as a matter of honor, as Narváez had implied he was a coward.

Despair sets in

The men marched in near starvation for two weeks before coming upon a village north of the Withlacoochee River. They enslaved the natives and for three days helped themselves to corn from their fields. They sent two exploratory parties downstream on both sides of the river looking for signs of the ships. With no sight of the ships, Narváez ordered the party to continue north to Apalachee.

Several years later, Cabeza de Vaca learned what became of the ships. Miruelo had returned to Old Tampa Bay in the brigantine, and found all the ships gone. He sailed to Havana to pick up the fifth ship, which had been supplied, and brought that back to Tampa Bay. After heading north for some time without finding the party on land, the other three ships decided to go back to Tampa Bay also. After meeting, the fleet again searched for the land party for nearly a year before turning around and heading to Mexico. Juan Ortiz, a member of the naval force, was captured by the Tocobaga. He was enslaved by them and lived at Uzita for nearly twelve years before being rescued by Hernando de Soto‘s expedition.

By 1532, only three other members of the original expedition were still alive: Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, and Estevanico, an enslaved Moor. Together with Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, they headed west and south hoping to reach the Spanish Empire’s outpost in Mexico. They were the first men of Europe and Africa to enter Southwestern North America (present day Southwestern United States and Northwest Mexico). Their precise route has been difficult for historians to determine, but they apparently traveled across present-day Texas, perhaps into New Mexico and Arizona, and throughMexico‘s northern provinces.

In July 1536, near Culiacán in present-day Sinaloa, the survivors encountered fellow Spaniards on a slave-taking expedition for New Spain. As Cabeza de Vaca wrote later, his countrymen were “dumbfounded at the sight of me, strangely dressed and in the company of Indians. They just stood staring for a long time.”

What happened to the slave named Estevanico? (“black Stephen”)

In 1539, Estevanico was one of four men who accompanied Marcos de Niza as a guide in search of the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola, preceding Coronado. Estevanico traveled ahead of the main party with a group of indigenous servants instructed to send back crosses to the main party, with the size of the cross equal to the wealth discovered. One day, a cross arrived that was as tall as a person causing de Niza to quickly progress forward. Estevanicos had entered the Zuni village of Hawikuh (in present-day New Mexico) and for some reason offended the inhabitants so they killed Estevanico and his indigenous servants were sent from the village. De Niza witnessed the results and quickly returned to New Spain.

The exact reason is not precisely clear, but accounts suggest the Zuni did not believe his account of representing a party of whites, and further that he was killed because of his demand for women and turquoise. Roberts & Roberts write that “still others suggest that Estevan, who was black and wore feathers and rattles, may have looked like a wizard to the Zuni”. Another theory, published in 2002, claims that Estevanico was not killed by the Zuni, and that he and friends among the Indians faked his death to achieve his freedom.

There are legends that the Kachina Chakwaina is based upon Estevanico.


Biography Channel web site.

Wikipedia article

Fine Art America web site.