Living to Tell the Tale - The Survivors
As the disastrous Panfilo Narvaez expedition to Spanish Florida, came to its miserable end in 1528, for five members of the force, those hardships would prove to be only the beginning.
Enduring starvation, disease, and Native American attacks in the interior of Spanish Florida, the decision was made to compile all available materials to build boats which would take all the remaining troops to the sea and a rendezvous with their naval forces. Once again fate took a hand as weather separated the boats. The boat carrying expedition leader Narvaez, was swept out to sea in a storm, never to be seen again. Two crafts of about 40 survivors, including second in command, Cabeza de Vaca, wrecked on or near Galveston Island. The explorers called it Malhado ("Misfortune"), or Island of Doom. They made an attempt to repair the vessels, using what remained of their own clothes as oakum to plug holes, but they lost to a large wave. As the number of survivors dwindled rapidly, they were enslaved for a few years by various Native American tribes of the upper Gulf Coast. These included the Hans and the Capoques. Eventually, only four men, Cabeza de Vaca, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, and an enslaved Moroccan Berber named Estevanico, survived and escaped to reach Mexico City.
Not much is know about Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, but he was Spanish nobility. In 1520 he purchased his Moorish slave Estevanico, which he would cultivate close ties. Estevanico was originally sold into slavery to the Portuguese in the town of Azemmour, a Portuguese enclave on Morocco's Atlantic coast, in 1513, at an early age. Contemporary accounts referred to him as an "Arabized Black"; Moor, a term sometimes used for Berber natives; and black African. He was raised as a Muslim, but was converted to Roman Catholicism upon enslavement. In 1539, Estevanico was one of four men who accompanied Marcos de Niza as a guide in search of the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola, preceding Coronado. When the others were struck ill, Estevanico continued alone, opening up what is now New Mexico and Arizona. He was killed at the Zuni village of Hawikuh (in present-day New Mexico). The tribe regarded him with mistrust, perhaps because his medicine gourd was trimmed with feathers from an owl, a bird that symbolized death to the Zuni. Other accounts suggest the Zuni did not believe his account of representing a party of whites, and further that he was killed because of his demand for women and turquoise. Another theory, published in 2002, defends that Estevanico was never killed by the Zuni, and that he organized a plot of his death with his Indian friends to fool Fray Marcos de Niza and achieve his freedom from the Viceroy of New Spain. Just as with de Carranza, not much is known about Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, except that he was skilled in the healing arts which greatly aided in his survival.
Cabeza de Vaca was born around 1490 into a hidalgo family, and as such was a member of the Spanish nobility without economical resources. Cabeza was son of Teresa Cabeza de Vaca y de Zurita. In 16th-century documents, his name appeared as "Alvar Nunez Cabeça de Vaca". Cabeza de Vaca means, "head of cow". This surname was granted to his mother's family in the 13th century, when his ancestor Martín Alhaja aided a Christian army attacking Moors by leaving a cow's head to point out a secret mountain pass for their use. (In the prologue to La Relación, his account of his shipwreck and travels in North America, Cabeza de Vaca refers to his forefather's service to the King, and regrets that his own deeds could not be as great.)
The four were naked the whole time, ever since sacrificing his clothes to repair the boats. At different times they were enslaved, would escape, then be captured again, sometimes by a different tribe, yet they would always try keep track of each other. During his wanderings, passing from tribe to tribe, Cabeza de Vaca developed sympathies for the indigenous population. He became a trader, which allowed him freedom to travel among the tribes. Cabeza de Vaca comprehended his survival and journey in religious terms, in that he claimed to have been guided by God to learn to heal the sick. The group many times planned escape and rendezvous, but to no avail. Eventually one night under a full moon, de Vaca was able to rendezvous with Carranza and Estevanico; Maldonado met up with them a few nights later. From this point on the group mostly stuck together. They gained notoriety as a faith healers and gathered a large following of natives who regarded them as "children of the sun", endowed with the power to both heal and destroy. Many natives accompanied the men across what is now the American Southwest and Northern Mexico. Some reports state that no one was more surprised that the Spaniards when their “healings” worked. Traveling mostly in this small group, Cabeza de Vaca explored what is now the U.S. state of Texas, as well as the northeastern Mexican states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo León and Coahuila, and possibly smaller portions of New Mexico and Arizona. They traveled on foot along the then-Spanish territories of Texas and Nuevo Santander coast. The bedraggled foursome continued through the New Kingdom of León, Coahuila and Nueva Vizcaya; then down the Gulf of California coast to what is now Sinaloa, Mexico, over a period of roughly eight years. They lived in conditions of abject poverty and, occasionally, in slavery. After finally reaching the colonized lands of New Spain where they encountered fellow Spaniards near modern-day Culiacán. They then went on to Mexico City. From there they sailed back to Europe in 1537.
Numerous researchers have struggled to trace the exact route travelled by Cabeza de Vaca. As he did not begin writing his chronicle until back in Spain, he had to rely on memory. Cabeza de Vaca was uncertain of the route he traversed. Historians realize that his account has numerous errors in chronology and geography, but many have tried to put together pieces of the puzzle to discern his paths
After his return to Spain, Cabeza de Vaca wrote about his experiences in a report for King Carlos I of Spain. It was published in 1542, under the title La Relación (The Report). Later called Naufragios (Shipwrecks), it is considered a classic of colonial literature. Cabeza de Vaca wanted to return to Florida and succeed Pánfilo de Narváez as governor, but King Charles had already appointed Hernando De Soto to lead the next expedition. Cabeza de Vaca declined to travel with the expedition as second in lead.
In 1540, de Vaca was appointed adelantado of the Río de la Plata in South America. His mission was to re-establish the settlement of Buenos Aires in present-day Argentina. En route, he disembarked from his fleet at Santa Catarina Island in modern Brazil. With an indigenous force, 250 musketeers and 26 horses, he followed native trails discovered by Aleixo Garcia overland to the district's Spanish capital, Asunción, far inland on the great Paraguay River. Cabeza de Vaca is thought to have been the first European to see the Iguaçu Falls. The honor probably belongs to his scouts.
Cabeza de Vaca had an unusually benevolent attitude for his time toward the American Indians. The elite settlers, known as encomenderos, generally did not share this attitude and simply wanted to use the natives for labor. His loss of the elite support, together with the failure of Buenos Aires as a settlement, prompted the former governor Domingo Martínez de Irala to arrest Cabeza de Vaca for poor administration in 1544 and return him to Spain for trial in 1545.
Although eventually exonerated, Cabeza de Vaca never returned to the colony. He wrote an extensive report on South America, which was highly critical of de Irala. The report was bound with his earlier La Relación and published under the title Comentarios (Commentary). He died poor in Valladolid around the year 1558. He is remembered as a proto-anthropologist for his detailed accounts of the many tribes of Native Americans, first published in 1542 as La Relación (The Report), and later known as Naufragios (Shipwrecks).
Unbeknownst to the four at the time, the Narvaez Expedition did have one more survivor. A naval officer named Juan Ortiz. At one point one of the Narvaez vessels searching for their inland party put into the bay known as Espiritu Santo. Anchoring before the town, they spotted a few Indians on shore. The Indians seemed to be motioning the Spaniards to land while pointing to a letter attached to a reed stuck in the ground. The Spaniards believed the letter to be instructions from Narvaez, detailing information on his movements and destination. The Spaniards beckoned the Natives to bring them the letter. The Natives refused, but beckoned the Spaniards to come ashore. Four sailors stepped up to retrieve the letter. Watching the ensuing ambush, the crew of the vessel fearing the Indians numbers, left their four comrades to their fate.
It was the Uzita tribe who captured the men. Uzita was the name of a 16th century chiefdom. It was the name of its chief town and of its chief. The chief town was near the mouth of the Little Manatee River on the south side of Tampa Bay, Florida. The territory of Uzita was said to extend from the Little Manatee River to Sarasota Bay. Uzita were part of the Safety Harbor culture. The people of Uzita were the first inhabitants of Florida encountered by both the Narváez expedition in 1528 and the de Soto expedition in 1539. The town of Uzita consisted of the chief's house on a mound, seven or eight other houses, and a "temple" (apparently a charnel house). The houses were made of wood and palm thatch, and probably housed a large number of people each. The Uzitans used bows and arrows. The Spanish described the bows as being very long. Some arrows were sharpened reeds that could pierce a shield, or splinter and penetrate chain mail, while others had fish bone or stone points. The Uzitans practiced human sacrifice. Their captors were savagely seeking revenge for the burning of their village by Narvaez. The men were brought before the Chief Hirrihigua, beaten and then placed under guard until a religious festival.
On the night of the Uzitan festival, the four Spaniards were stripped naked and led out into the public square to be sacrificed. Watching the other three fall before him, Juan Ortiz was to be the last to meet his fate. Something in the young Spaniard of 18 years compelled the Chief’s daughter to beg her father to spare the boy. After much consideration, the chief decided to grant Ortiz a temporary reprieve. However, Ortiz was forced into slavery and subjected to barbaric treatment. Having enough of the prisoner, the Chief one day ordered Ortiz to be burned alive. Unable to stand the horrible shrieks of Ortiz, the Chief’s daughter once again intervened in Ortiz’s life. He was removed from the fire, and nursed back to health by the Native women. With his health restored, the Uzitans forced him to guard the bodies in the charnel house from wild animals at night. He did this for several years.
When the chief once again planned again to sacrifice Ortíz, the chief's daughter arranged his escape to the neighboring chiefdom of Mocoso, where he was protected and treated well. Mocoso was the name of a 16th century chiefdom located on the east side of Tampa Bay, the mouth of the Alafia River. Moscoso was also the name of its chief town and of its chief. When word of the expedition of Spaniard Hernando de Soto reached Mocoso in 1539, Ortiz was finally returned to the Spaniards, after surviving twelve years of capture and torture. He served de Soto well as a guide and an interpreter; Ortiz’s knowledge of the terrain, language and customs of the area proved an invaluable resource to Hernando De Soto. Juan served the expedition faithfully until his death in 1541 somewhere in Arkansas. Uzita is not mentioned in Spanish records after the departure of the de Soto expedition. In the early 17th century the area where Uzita had been located was known as Pojoy.
It must be noted that striking similarities exist between this story of 1528, and that of the later Jamestown Settlement of 1607 in Virginia. The story of Englishman John Smith and Pocahontas, the daughter of Indian Chief Powhatan parallels the story of Juan Ortiz and the Uzita chief’s daughter. In both instances the Indian princess begs her father for the foreigner’s life twice. The third instance in both stories is that she arranges an escape.
Florida was both a dangerous wilderness and a utopia. There is no greater enemy than a man defending his own home. The conquistadors of Spain themselves made a formidable enemy, with advanced weaponry and the lure of new lands and riches to motivate them. Yet these five men amid war, without even a shirt on their back, traversing a foreign land, alone with no provisions, prevailed. Surviving the elements, starvation, torture, and slavery, these men are a testament to not the Native American spirit, nor the Spanish spirit, but to the human spirit.