In 1527, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca served as treasurer on an ill-fated expedition to the Florida Peninsula. Early on, the expedition was shipwrecked near what is now Tampa Bay. Cabeza de Vaca tried to convince the expedition’s leadership that they should remain on the shore until rescue arrived, but the thirst for gold and the mistaken belief that there were Spanish settlements nearby resulted in a disastrous attempt to explore inland. The 600 survivors soon became lost and desperate enough to kill their horses for food. Just over 200 managed to live long enough to make it back to the Gulf coast.
There, they constructed five small boats and set sail for Mexico, hugging the Florida coastline only to be separated by the Mississippi River’s currents and the Gulf’s stormy weather. Cabeza de Vaca never saw any of the men on the other four boats again. He managed to get his own boat to what is now Galveston, Texas, which his men christened The Isle of Misfortune. Over the following eight years, a dwindling number of survivors would wander from Native American tribe to Native American tribe throughout the American Southwest, possibly as far as what became New Mexico and Arizona.
Four of the original 600 men survived.
Upon his return to Spain, Cabeza de Vaca published an account of his journey which featured some of the first descriptions of Native American tribal life Europeans had ever read. It was a sensation.
But it’s not a pretty picture.
For example, for a time, Cabeza de Vaca was enslaved by a tribe that promoted its own security by killing all female children born into the tribe. They argued that girls would grow up to marry men from other tribes and bear them sons who would become their father’s enemies. Since they had no daughters, this tribe purchased or seized women from other tribes as a means of getting wives who could bear them sons of their own.
The little research I’ve done beyond reading this book suggests that an account like this one is probably true. Cabeza de Vaca began his journey just seven years after the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan fell to Cortez. The Aztecs required enormous numbers of captives for sacrifice producing a large network of organized raiding parties and slave markets reaching as far north as the Mississippi River.
In another example, Cabeza de Vaca spent several years serving as a trader between two tribes who feared each other so much that neither would ever travel into the other’s territory. Cabeza de Vaca, however, as an outsider, could move freely between them both. Situations like these and many of the others described by Cabeza de Vaca are possible the result of Aztec influence.
While other tribes treat Cabeza de Vaca fairly well, enough to make him an early advocate for tribal rights, there are no Noble Savages in The Shipwrecked Men. However, it should be pointed out that the violence Cabeza de Vaca describes in his encounters with Native America tribes is not much different from what was going on in Europe at the time. It should also be pointed out that Cabeza de Vaca did not begin writing this account until after he had returned to Europe. He is writing based solely on memory, often memory many years old. If you’re a scholar of this subject, I love to hear how reliable you find Cabeza de Vaca to be.
But in the end, while The Shipwrecked Men is difficult reading at times, it is also a fascinating account of the early exploration of North America, one that is well worth reading today.
This review first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. several years ago. Cabeza de Vaca is one of the most interesting overlooked explorers from this period of time. I’d wager most people have never heard of him, but his story is certainly compelling. I’d love to take a short class on him. Is his book really true or is he a subject of as much controversy as Marco Polo has been over the years. I also think he’d make an excellent subject of study for the seventh grade next year. His name along would grab their attention. His story would certainly hold it.