Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca first arrived in the New World in 1528 as the royal treasurer on a Spanish voyage of discovery. When he finally left eight years later as one of the expedition’s sole survivors, he had walked across the American continent, made first contact with dozens of Indian tribes, and lived variously as a castaway, captive laborer, merchant and revered medicine man. “I wandered lost and miserable over many remote lands,” de Vaca wrote in recounting his incredible tale. “My hope of going out from those nations was always small; nevertheless, I made a point of remembering all the particulars, so that should God our Lord eventually please to bring me where I am now, I might testify to my exertion.”
Like all great survival stories, de Vaca’s odyssey began in disaster. In 1527, the nobleman and military veteran joined an exploring expedition led by a one-eyed conquistador named Pánfilo de Narváez. The group was tasked with conquering and colonizing a swath of the Florida Gulf Coast, but its mission got off to a rocky start after two of its ships sank in a hurricane off Cuba. When the rest of the explorers finally made landfall in April 1528 near what is now Tampa Bay, Florida, Narváez made a rash decision to split his forces and take 300 men on a search for gold in distant Indian settlements. He sent his ships away and made plans to meet up with them at a later date, but due to navigational errors, the rendezvous never occurred. Left alone, the overland party spent the next three months roaming the mosquito-infested coastline, battling Indians along the way. By late summer, 50 of them had perished from skirmishes as well as starvation and disease. The rest were forced to accept a grim reality: they were marooned in an alien land.
“It was a great sorrow and pain to see the necessity and hardship in which we found ourselves,” de Vaca wrote. “I refrain here from telling this at greater length, because one can imagine what could happen in a land so strange and so poor and so lacking in every single thing that it seemed impossible either to be in it or to escape from it.”
With their fleet nowhere in sight and their resources dwindling, the Spanish castaways resolved to test their luck on the open sea. After melting down their metal weapons to make nails and hatchets, they built five ramshackle rafts from tree logs. In September 1528, they set sail from the Florida panhandle with the hope of either drifting to Spanish settlements in Mexico or being rescued along the way. “And so greatly can necessity prevail,” de Vaca wrote, “that it made us risk going in this manner and placing ourselves in a sea so treacherous.”
The explorers skirted along the coast for the next several weeks, suffering from extreme thirst and hunger and risking ambush every time they ventured ashore. They managed to cross the mouth of the Mississippi River, but their tiny flotilla was later scattered by storms and beached at different points along the Gulf Coast. From there, the isolated crews met a variety of horrific fates. Dozens of men were killed in Indian raids, and several others resorted to cannibalism before dying of starvation. Narváez, meanwhile, disappeared after his raft was blown out to sea.
Cabeza de Vaca and some 80 other men washed ashore on an island near what is now Galveston, Texas. They received aid from the Capoques and Hans, two bands of nomadic natives, but only 15 of the explorers survived their first winter ashore. The rest dubbed the island “Malhado,” or “Misfortune.”
Left with no other means of survival, de Vaca and his fellow explorers set aside their dreams of conquest and threw themselves at the mercy of the Indians. For the next several years, the castaways clung to life as laborers and captive slaves for the native bands along the Gulf Coast. “I had to get out roots from below the water, and from among the cane where they grew in the ground,” de Vaca wrote. “From this employment I had my fingers so worn that did a straw but touch them they would bleed.” Hoping to improve his lot, the Spaniard eventually set himself up as a traveling merchant peddling sea snails, conchs and skins to different tribes in the region. He was still desperate to reach Mexico, however, so he began plotting with his fellow survivors to flee. By that time, only four of the expedition’s original 300 members were still alive: De Vaca, two Spanish captains named Alonso del Castillo and Andrés Dorantes, and a black Moroccan slave called Estebanico.
In 1534, the four men quietly left the Galveston region and took refuge with a band of Avavares Indians. By then the Spanish strangers were a known curiosity on the Gulf Coast. They had previously served as rudimentary faith healers by laying their hands on sick natives and offering prayers, but their reputation as medicine men grew after Castillo cured several Avavares of “great pains in the head.” De Vaca would later achieve an even greater feat when—either by blind luck or misunderstanding—he supposedly revived a man who was thought to be dead. “This caused great wonder and fear,” he wrote. “All to whom the fame of it reached, came to seek us that we should cure them and bless their children.”
De Vaca and his companions passed eight months living among the Avavares. When they resumed their journey in the summer of 1535, they found their reputation as shamans had spread throughout the land. The Indians they encountered treated them as honored guests, providing gifts and food and often weeping when they moved on. De Vaca claimed that as the men wandered south into Mexico, they attracted a train of hundreds of native followers, some of whom called them the “Children of the Sun.”
After traveling south for several hundred miles, the castaways changed course to the northwest and followed native trade routes deep into the Mexican interior. Each of them picked up several native languages, and they encountered dozens of tribes and animals previously unknown to Europeans. Among other things, de Vaca would later offer the first ever description of the American buffalo.
The “Children of the Sun” eventually drifted through northern Mexico for several months, crossing the Rio Grande and the mountain passes of the Sierra Madre before reaching the Pacific coast. In late-1535, they noticed a native wearing a buckle and horseshoe nail as a necklace—their first sign that the Spanish were nearby. Several months later in the spring of 1536, de Vaca finally crossed paths with a detachment of Spanish slavers near the city of Culiacán. He later wrote that the Spaniards were shocked by his long hair and lack of clothing. “They remained looking at me for a long time, so astonished that they neither talked to me nor managed to ask me anything.”
Though overjoyed to have finally reached Spanish colonial territory, De Vaca also feared for the safety of his Indian companions, whom he had come to regard as friends and allies. “We suffered greatly and had great disputes with them,” he wrote of his interactions with the Spanish cavalry, “because they wanted to enslave the Indians we had brought with us.” The castaways eventually persuaded their Indian followers to flee to their villages, but in a preview of the clash of cultures that would continue for the next few centuries, many were later captured and forced into slavery.
Having reached their countrymen after eight years and a journey of several thousand miles, de Vaca, Dorrantes, Castillo and Estebanico were taken to Mexico City, where they received a hero’s welcome. The other men remained in Mexico, but de Vaca returned to Spain, where he tried to lobby for more humane treatment of the American Indians. He would later serve as the colonial governor of Paraguay, but before leaving, he penned a narrative of his adventures in North America. The book is now regarded as the first European description of the geography, people and animals of what would later become the American West.