The hardships I endured in this journeying business
were long to tell -- peril and privation, storms and frost, which often overtook
me.... By the unfailing Grace of God our Lord I came forth from all.
On a cold morning in the autumn of 1528, thirty years after Christopher Columbus first landed in the New World, a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico blew a frail boat onto the coast of Galveston Island in what is now Texas. A handful of Spanish soldiers staggered ashore. They were the first Europeans to set foot in the West.
One of the shipwrecked survivors was a nobleman named Alvar Nuņez Cabeza de Vaca, a hardened veteran of half a dozen wars against the enemies of Spain.
Spain had already conquered most of South America, Central America and all of Mexico. Now Cabeza de Vaca's expedition was probing north in search of even greater treasure. "We came here to serve God and his majesty," one conquistador wrote, "to give light to those who were in darkness, and to get rich as all men desire to do."
Cabeza de Vaca and his men were fed and housed by the coastal Cocos Indians, who believed the strangers to have magical powers. But when dysentery, carried by the Spanish, killed almost half the tribe, the Indians turned on the soldiers. Cabeza deVaca and his companions had hoped to come as conquerors. Instead, they entered the West as captives.
life [became] unbearable. In addition to much other work, I had to grub
roots in the water or from underground in the canebrakes. My fingers got
so raw that if a straw touched them they would bleed. The broken canes
often slashed my flesh.
After two years of misery, Cabeza de Vaca fled his captors. He began trading -- carrying shells and mesquite fruit to the tribes of the interior and bringing back to the coastal tribes furs, flint for arrowheads and red ochre for face painting. Because he belonged to no tribe himself, he was welcomed wherever he went.
By the summer of 1534, Cabeza de Vaca and the three remaining survivors of the expedition -- including a black slave named Estevan -- decided to try to make their way to Mexico City. They wandered on foot for two years, through Texas, across the Rio Grande, moving from one tribe to the next.
Throughout his journey, Cabeza de Vaca had expected to find only cruel "savages," but he met tribes that impressed him with their gentleness and their generosity to strangers. And when they asked for his help, he responded in kind, speaking of Christ wherever he could.
Some Indians came [begging us] to cure them of
terrible headaches. Surely extraordinary men like us, [they said,] embodied.
. . . powers over nature.... When [we] made the sign of the cross over them
and commended them to God, they instantly said that all pain had vanished and
[gave] us prickly pears and chunks of venison.
Soon Cabeza de Vaca and his companions found themselves escorted from village to village by an army of some 600 admiring Indians. If they were to be converted to Christianity, Cabeza de Vaca had come to believe, "they must be won by kindness, the only certain way."
becomes a curer. He becomes a healer. He becomes an emissary of God. And
Cabeza de Vaca becomes, in effect, a leader of Indian peoples. He moves
through the Southwest, trudging through the desert from community to community,
and then the dream stops."
In the spring of 1536, Cabeza de Vaca and hundreds of Indians finally entered Mexico and came upon a column of Spanish soldiers who had come north, destroying crops, looting villages, seizing slaves.
With heavy hearts we looked out over the [once]
lavishly watered, fertile and beautiful land, now abandoned and burned and the
people thin and weak, scattering and hiding in fright....
Cabeza de Vaca's Indian followers were confused: how could he and these Spaniards belong to the same people? Cabeza de Vaca healed the sick, they killed the healthy; he wanted nothing, they took everything.
Sure that the Spanish would enslave his Indian escorts, Cabeza de Vaca urged them to flee. Then he set out again for Mexico City. As soon as he was gone, the Spanish seized many of his Indian friends.
de Vaca's journey to this extraordinary world ends up in a very ordinary
world, a world of Spanish slavers and Indian victims. But in between,
in that moment, there was a vision of how something else might have happened.
That never would really fully happen, but would appear in glimpses again
and again, as Indians and whites interacted in the continent.
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