Cabeza de Vaca 2
Illustration: Jonathan Fehr

Naked and barefoot, the intrepid Spanish explorer crossed the continent, performed miracles, and managed to compile one of the most comprehensive chronicles of 16th-century Native American life.

He was one of the first Europeans to see the American West and to cross the North American continent, walking barefoot and naked from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific. His report to the Spanish king, written in 1542, is the first book set in the American West, and one of the most epic adventure stories ever told. It also has a beguiling literary power, because in plain, soldierly, semiofficial prose, the author tries to describe an experience that blew his worldview apart and left him irrevocably changed.

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca arrived in the New World in 1527 at the age of 38, intending to conquer the Florida peninsula and whatever might lie inland of the Gulf of Mexico. He was second-in-command of an expedition led by vain, arrogant, red-bearded Pánfilo de Narváez. Narváez had lost an eye while attempting to usurp Hernán Cortés in Mexico. Later, as governor of Cuba, he sat on his horse and watched his men slaughter 2,500 Taino Indians who were bringing the Spaniards food.

On the Florida expedition, Narváez made one blunder after another. Finding a gold rattle in a fishing net on the coast and hearing from Indians that a city named Apalachen lay north and west, he convinced himself it was another Tenochtitlán, the great Aztec city-state in Mexico that Cortés had conquered and plundered. In his greed and haste to reach it, Narváez cut his men off from the lifeline of their ships and plunged inland.

They rode and marched through immense forests, toiling and hungry, chafed and wounded. Native warriors stalked the expedition and shot arrows with such force that they pierced right through the Spaniards’ heavy armor. At last they came within striking distance of Apalachen. “With its assurance of plentiful gold and food,” writes Cabeza de Vaca, “we seemed already to feel our pain and fatigue lifting.”

They imagined vaults of gold and treasure-stuffed palaces, but upon reaching Apalachen they found a village of 40 thatched huts with some stores of dried corn. The women were dressed in poorly woven shawls, grinding corn into meal in wooden bowls. The men, who had left the village to hunt or socialize, soon returned to attack and harry the Spaniards, who left in bitter disappointment and marched for the coast. Along the way, they lost a third of their number to malaria, dysentery, starvation, and Indian archers. When they reached Apalachicola Bay, they had nothing to eat except their few remaining horses, and no obvious means of survival or escape.

In desperation they fashioned crude barges, melting down their spurs and crossbows to make iron tools and lashing together wood with palmetto fiber and woven horsehair. Hoisting their tattered shirts for sails, they embarked on a horror voyage along the Gulf Coast. It went on for seven weeks, with cap­sizings, drownings, and men dying of hunger, thirst, and dysentery, until a storm smashed their little flotilla to pieces and washed up a few survivors on the beaches of Galveston Island. Cabeza de Vaca was taken as a slave by the Han and Capoque peoples. Of the approximately 580 men who set out to conquer Florida, only he and three others survived.

The Narváez expedition forms a kind of prologue in the book, before the real adventure gets underway. The hardships and privations continue, but not the tone of grimness, despair, and thwarted greed. Instead, the writing is infused with gentle curiosity and a sense of wonder.

A strange episode takes place on the mainland coast, where the Han and Capoque had gathered for their annual dances and festivities. They ordered Cabeza de Vaca and the three other survivors to heal the sick by blowing on them, in the way of tribal medicine men. The captives scoffed, but the Indians refused to feed them until they tried. So they blew on their patients, recited a few Ave Marias and paternosters, prayed to the Catholic God to cure them, and made the sign of the cross. To their astonishment, all the patients rose from their sick beds and declared themselves well.

In the early months of 1530, Cabeza de Vaca escaped from captivity and waded across from Galveston Island to the mainland. He started running errands for the tribal bands on the coast in exchange for food, and, little by little, he managed to establish himself as an independent trader. As a lone, neutral merchant, easily identifiable by his strange bearded appearance, he was able to travel safely between dozens of warring tribes.

On the coast, he picked up shells, sea snails, and what sounds like peyote, and carried them far inland, where he bartered them for hides, ochre, flint, arrow shafts, and other goods. He lived like this for two years, learning five or six languages and ranging as far north, perhaps, as Oklahoma. For reasons he never explains, he didn’t wear moccasins or clothing but went everywhere naked and barefoot, wrapping himself in hides when it was cold. Somewhere near present-day Austin, Texas, at the best guess, he became the first European to see American bison. He mistook the shaggy creatures for a breed of wild cattle and declared their meat superior to the best Spanish beef.

In the winter of 1532, he met a band of Quevenes who said they had seen men like him living as slaves on the coast, perhaps near Matagorda Bay. Cabeza de Vaca went there to help them escape, and instead was captured. Once again, he was required to gather wood, tote water, and spend long hours grubbing up roots. He was subjected to frequent beatings and cuffings, and he was kept alive on an absolute minimum of food. His captors this time were the Mariames. Their existence was so lean that at times they ate ants, worms, salamanders, pulverized snake bones, deer dung, and earth.

Throughout the book, Cabeza de Vaca describes tribal customs and beliefs in detail, and with unusual sympathy and understanding, making his records an invaluable historical resource. One Mariame custom did take the explorer aback slightly, however. He writes that they killed many of their sons and cast away their daughters at birth, allowing them to be eaten by dogs. When they needed a wife, they bought one from neighboring tribes.

In September 1534, Cabeza de Vaca escaped from the Mariames and linked up with Andrés Dorantes and Alonso del Castillo, who had partnered with him in the healing miracle five years previously. The fourth member of their party was a North African called Estevan, who had joined the Narváez expedition as Dorantes’ slave. They were determined to rejoin civilization but uncertain how to get there. They had bad memories of Florida to the east and wanted to avoid the slaving coastal tribes to the south. They knew there were no Spaniards to the north, so they decided to place their hope in the direction of the sunset, like so many Americans would in the centuries to come.

Of all the westward treks in American history, this one was surely the most extraordinary. They started out dodging potential captors and hiding in cactus patches. But their reputation as a group of miraculous healers preceded them, and they were hailed as holy men. As they walked across the continent, they acquired hundreds, and then thousands, of adoring followers. They became known as the Children of the Sun because they came from the east like the dawn. At every village and encampment along the way, there were dances and celebrations, and the sick were brought out to be healed. Using the same techniques as before, the Spaniards once again worked miracles: “Without exception, every patient told us he had been made well.”

Was it mass delusion, the placebo effect, hallucinations brought on by hunger and religious hysteria? It’s hard for the modern mind to accept these miracle healings, but we can be fairly sure Cabeza de Vaca wasn’t making it up. Fifty years later, other European explorers heard about the great procession and the bearded healers who had brought with them the sign of the cross. The Indians attributed the healings to the power of the sun. Cabeza de Vaca felt sure that God was working through him. Castillo, after initial success, gave up his ministrations because he felt unworthy to receive the divine gift. Estevan, though he did some healing, preferred to play with the children, talk geography with the men, and sleep with the women he was offered.

In what is now far west Texas or northern Mexico, there occurred a “strange new development,” as Cabeza de Vaca describes it. His followers started ransacking every village along the way and claiming all their food and possessions as tribute for the Children of the Sun. Having nothing left, the ransacked villagers would then join the procession and recoup their losses at the next village. Cabeza de Vaca tried to stop the thievery but failed.

In other ways, he had a profound influence. Nearly every tribe he encountered was at war, inflicting “gross atrocities.” But they put aside their enmities to join the procession and learn about this powerful god whose sign was the cross. In addition to healing the sick and blessing countless babies, Cabeza de Vaca left peace in his wake and a favorable impression of Christianity, as far as he was able to explain it.

As they neared the Pacific Coast, probably somewhere in Sonora or Sinaloa, the Spaniards encountered an Indian wearing a sword belt buckle around his neck as an amulet. He told them that bearded men had come and lanced two Natives. It was the first sign of fellow Christians the Spaniards had seen in eight years. “We could hardly restrain our excitement,” Cabeza de Vaca writes.

Traveling south, the explorers’ excitement turned to horror. They found the Native people starving and terrified. Bearded Christians, they said, had razed their towns and villages, taken all the food, and carried off half the people into slavery. A few days later, Cabeza de Vaca came face-to-face with a party of Spanish slavers. They were dumbfounded by the spectacle of a sun-darkened man who wore no clothes, spoke Spanish, talked of the Narváez expedition, and walked at the head of a procession of Indians. When the captain announced his intention to enslave them all, Cabeza de Vaca protested that these were not chattel, but his companions were converts to Christianity.

Although he had arrived in North America to conquer, ransack, and plunder, like these Spaniards he now confronted, Cabeza de Vaca had instead been conquered by America. Despite his own enslavement and all the suffering he had endured on this harsh, hungry continent, he felt kindness and kinship for the Native people and what appears to have been a love of the land. He was no longer a European but a hybrid mixture of Old World and New.

In Mexico, he succeeded in curbing the brutality of his countrymen, though only temporarily, as it turned out. Then he went back to Spain and tried to adjust to urban life — buildings, court politics, wearing clothes. His feet, having walked some 6,000 miles barefoot, resented being encased in shoe leather. At night, he slept on the floor next to his bed, wrapped in a buffalo robe. Desperate to return, he devoted all his energy and influence to getting command of another expedition to North America.

He failed, but after three years he won an appointment as governor of the Paraguayan provinces. Instead of sailing down to Buenos Aires and then traveling the established river route to Asunción, Cabeza de Vaca landed on the coast of northern Brazil, took off his shoes, and led his men on a thousand-mile march through mountains, jungles, and cannibal villages that were thought to be impassable. He lost none of his men, killed no Indians, and gained many converts. The following year he went on another thousand-mile barefoot march and would have gone farther if his men hadn’t refused and threatened mutiny.

In 1543, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was sent back to Spain in chains. He had angered the Spaniards in Paraguay by prohibiting the enslavement, rape, and plunder of the Indians and preaching a gentle Christian approach. He was sentenced to eight years of banishment in Africa, but the Spanish king intervened, annulled the sentence, and awarded Cabeza de Vaca a pension for his services. He died with his honor fully restored in 1557. A bust of him, wholly imagined by a Spanish-born sculptor and dressed in conquistador garb, stands in Hermann Park in Houston.

From the August/September 2015 issue.