Cabeza de Vaca in Florida: The Remarkable Odyssey of the Lost Conquistadors in Florida

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Cabeza de Vaca, Portrait

Spanish conquistador Cabeza de Vaca survived hurricanes, shipwrecks and capture by Indians, and was one of a handful of men to return from an expedition of 600.

The Conquest of Florida Is Planned

The year was 1528, and the new century in the new, largely unexplored world seemed full of promise where conquest and exploitation were concerned.

It was decided by the Spanish that the time was nigh to claim Florida. An expeditionary force of conquistadors, to be led by Pánfilo de Narváez, was arranged. Included in the force was Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, who was destined to be one of the very few survivors to come home again.

The Journey to Florida Gets Underway, but Not Without Considerable Misfortune

After weathering a hurricane off the shores of Cuba, the expedition landed on the west coast of Florida, where the men disembarked near present-day Tampa Bay. As any good conquistador worth his salt would do, Pánfilo de Narváez wasted no time in claiming Florida in the name of the Spanish empire.

From this point on, everything would go downhill for the Spaniards. Narváez decided to send away his ships, that they might later rendezvous with his land forces, which they never did. Without the ships, the conquerors were in dire straits.

A Simple Act of Hostage-Taking Somehow Goes Wrong, With the Result That Thousands of Indians Go on the Warpath

At some point the Spaniards decide that it would be a good idea to take hostage the leader of the local Apalachee Indians. This technique had, after all, worked wonders in bringing down the Inca Empire some years earlier when the Spanish had done the same with the Inca emperor. On this occasion, however, the ploy went badly wrong, and rather than the hostage-taking serving as a way to help placate the Indian population, it stirred up a hornets’ nest. The Indians attacked the Spaniards.

Driven away and harried by the pursuing Indians and suffering from various diseases, the surviving conquistadors retreated to a coastal swamp area. Here, food being scarce, they were reduced to eating their horses.

Even dead and eaten, the horses’ usefulness did not end there. The practical-minded Spaniards built several crude rafts from trees and their horses’ hides and set sail with the hope of making it to Mexico.

Another Day Brings Another Hurricane

The conquistadors seemed to be traveling under a gypsy curse. Another hurricane struck, while Mistress Thirst and Mistress Starvation also had their way with the intrepid Spaniards. Narvaez did not survive. Only a few dozen survivors were able to reach land. One of them was Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca’s, whose raft shipwrecked on an island off the coast of Texas — likely either Galveston or Mustang Island.

The Texas Indian Welcoming Party: At First Welcoming and Friendly, Then Not So Welcoming and Friendly

Local Indians, finding about 80 oddly dressed white men having washed up on their shores, at first took pity on them and gave them food, shelter and other necessities.

It might, by the way, be interesting to speculate what would happen had the reverse occurred: namely, that 80 oddly dressed Indians had washed up on Spanish shores. The initial reaction might have been: “Ah, what luck. Some newly arrived heathen slaves; they can tend our fields for nothing.”

In any event, Spanish conquistadors generally had a way of getting on the nerves of natives in the New World. Before long, about half the local population of natives were dead from a bowel-related disease. The Spaniards were blamed. Most Indians were all for putting the Spaniards on the chopping block. However, a wise old Indian chief counselled against this, reasoning that had the Spaniards been chiefly responsible for the disease, then some of their own number would not now also be dying.

Cabeza de Vaca the Medicine Man

The conquistadors were not so easily let off the hook. It was strongly implied that the Spaniards heal their sick. Though reluctantly at first, Cabeza de Vaca did just that, using a combination of faith in God along with a very rudimentary knowledge of medicine. To his surprise, many of the Indians he treated started to get well.

Cabeza de Vaca the Tradesman

He was also later encouraged by the Indians to be a trader, thus bringing in needed goods from the outside.

Go West of Texas, Young Man

The year was now 1532. Cabeza de Vaca and just three remaining companions decided to try their luck heading west toward Mexico. The four men now became the first Europeans to enter what became known as the American west. They were also the first to see the American buffalo. It is thought that their path led them across present-day Texas and perhaps into New Mexico and Arizona before they reached northern Mexico.

It was not until July, 1536, near Culiacán in what is today called Sinaloa, that Cabeza de Vaca and his comrades came into contact once again with others of their kind.

Alarmed at the poor treatment of New World Indians at the hands of the Spanish, Cabeza de Vaca would later become a voice in defence of the New World Indians, writing extensively on their behalf.

Governor Cabeza de Vaca

The year 1540 saw Cabeza de Vaca made territorial governor of a settlement of Spaniards on the Rio de la Plata, which is now known as Paraguay. With exploration ever on his mind, he explored along the Paraguay River in 1542. He is said to be the first European to see Iguacu Falls.

The year 1545 was an unhappy one for Cabeza de Vaca. The settlement’s fed-up population deposed him and put him on trial. Among the charges were corruption and usurping the authority of the Spanish king. The corruption allegation may in fact have related to his enlightened treatment of the Indians.

Convict Cabeza de Vaca Soon Becomes Judge Cabeza de Vaca and Then Dies, Which Brings This Account of His Life to an End

Cabeza de Vaca was convicted, but a 1552 pardon allowed him to go free. He then went on to become a judge in Seville, Spain. He continued to occupy this position for another four or five years until his death.