Cabeza De Vaca: A Man Who Made His Own Luck

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People who read the words of Álvar Núñez De Vera Cabeza de Vaca in his La Relación, his report to King Charles V of Spain, immediately realize they have been granted a rare glimpse into the mind of an extraordinary individual, someone able to look fate in the eye, accept what he sees without time-wasting complaints, and think his way through from where he is to where he has to be.

His story is one of raw courage, and also the most remarkable example of Christian faith I have ever seen.

Perhaps Cabeza de Vaca inherited his courage through his genes. His surname was de Vera. He was the grandson of Pedro de Vera, who distinguished himself in the conquest of the Canary Islands, but he chose to add the surname granted to his mother’s family two centuries earlier when an ancestor, Martín Alhaja, showed a Christian army a secret mountain pass. He placed a cow’s head to mark the pass, and after a victorious battle over the Moors, a grateful ruler dubbed Alhaja, “Cabeza de Vaca,” or Cow’s Head, a name proudly passed down through the years.

No matter how he came by his ability and courage, Cabeza de Vaca, second in command on the ill-fated de Narváez expedition, was at last able to command on his own after Sept. 22, 1528.

The beleaguered Spaniards had constructed five barge-like boats by beating their weapons into saws, hammers and nails. De Narváez, head of the expedition, took the strongest and healthiest of the 242 men left alive in Florida, put them aboard the best of the boats, and told the rest of his men they were on their own.

The situation of the Spaniards was desperate. Half starved, with virtually no food or water, fighting diseases that had put a third of them on their backs, and 1,800 miles from the nearest Spanish settlement, without a map or even the vaguest idea in which direction, or how far away, that settlement lay, they sailed for seven days with sails stitched of their own shirts before they even managed to clear the waist-deep waters of Apalachicola Bay.

I won’t burden you with the sad but epic tale of the misery and suffering they endured during their 800 mile sail along the southern coast of our continent. They were forced to make constant landings in search of food and water. They were attacked by well-armed hostiles with long-range bows. They were separated from each other by the mighty Mississippi current. And de Narváez, in the lead boat, sailed off on his own, leaving them behind.

It would seem that nothing could be worse than what Cabeza de Vaca and his men had already endured when they were driven ashore on the barren sands of Galveston Island in November 1528. Some had died. The rest were starving, dying of thirst and exhausted. They had been battered by wind, wave, and sun for 45 days. They had no idea where any of the other boats were, and barely had strength to drag themselves up the beach and into a chill November wind.

How could things get worse? Sometimes Fate finds a way.

The local indian tribe which found them there half dead helped them to build fires to dry and warm themselves. And even though they had little for themselves, they generously provided the exhausted Spaniards with food and water. But realizing after a few days that these hungry strangers could easily consume more food than they had, they were forced to cut back on their generosity.

Cabeza de Vaca and his men, realizing they were too much of a burden, decided they must remark on their boat. Because the surf was high, and the heavy boat waterlogged, they stripped naked, put everything they owned into the boat, including their food, and pushed it into the pounding waves. As the heavy boat made its way through the breakers, they climbed aboard and rowed hard toward safety. But a great wave struck them, the boat filled, and ...

It sank, carrying everything they possessed to the bottom.

As naked as the day they were born, and without so much as a knife among them, they found the embers of their fires, relit them and huddled around them for warmth. When the tribe who had helped them returned and saw what had happened, they sat down with them and wept as bitterly as if the loss had been their own.

I’ll skip over nearly six years of incredible hardship and privation during which most of Cabeza de Vaca’s men, and those of another boat which landed nearby, died. He makes it plain that only his unflagging faith kept him alive. Most of the Spaniards became slaves to local tribes, having no other way to live, but Cabeza de Vaca—as always amazing—found a way, if not to thrive, at least to stay alive and be more or less free. He became a naked but quite successful merchant when he discovered that the tribes, always at war, could not trade with each other. So, being a “neutral,” he traveled inland and returned with red ocher, arrows, flint, and the like, which he traded with the coastal tribes for conchs, sea beans, and other things, especially foods such as roots, fish, and mesquite beans.

At last, however, in September 1534, having learned the ways of faith healing from another Spaniard named Castillo, and having performed some amazing cures among the locals, thereby developing a reputation as a great faith healer, he convinced three men, Castillo, Dorantes, and a Moor named Estevánico, literally the only ones left alive out of the hundred in both boats, to join him on a trek toward the west, where he hoped to find civilization.

Making it as short as I can, I’ll tell you of his 2,180 mile trek to civilization, all the while naked and making his way from tribe to tribe as a faith healer, blessing and curing as he went.

Galveston to San Antonio, 250 miles, to Big Spring, 300 miles, to El Paso, 350 miles, to Yaquii, New Mexico, 120 miles, to Gila River, Arizona, 460 miles, to the Chiricahua Mountains, 245 miles, and finally to Culiacan, Mexico, 456 miles—in March, 1536.

Counting his original travels in Florida, and his sea voyage, he marched and sailed an incredible 3,220 miles in eight years.

Thereby making himself my greatest all-time hero.

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