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 Texas : Features : Columns : All Things Historical :

CABEZA DE VACA

by Archie P. McDonald
Archie McDonald Ph.D.
Likely the first Europeans to see any part of East Texas never set foot here. An expedition led by Alonso Pineda sailed along the Texas coast, east to west, as early as 1528, making maps as he traveled. The first Europeans who actually spent time in Texas, then, were Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, Alonso de Castillo Maldono, Andres Doirantes de Carranza, and the Moor Estanvanico, or Stephen.

Cabeza de Vaca's little band arrived in Texas in 1528 and stayed for approximately seven years before wandering into a Spanish patrol somewhere near the Baja of southern California.

This group had never intended to visit Texas. As members of the Panfilo Narvaez Expedition, they started out to explore Florida from a base in New Spain, or Cuba. All four survivors were with a landing party that was supposed to rendezvous with Narvez at a point on the peninsula's western coast.

The exploring party arrived either too soon or too late, and, regarding themselves stranded, constructed crude vessels from available timber. Using their own clothes as sails, they set a course westward, hoping to hug the circular beach of the Gulf of Mexico all the way to Spanish settlements in what is now Mexico.

Some perished at sea, but most made it to an island they called Mulhado, which Texas historians believed was Galveston. Some historians of Louisiana think the island was located off the coast of that state, but hey, an East Texan is writing this, so let us agree that they landed on Galveston.

Within a year their numbers had dropped to about fifteen, so they decided they had to get to the mainland to survive. When they did so, they were captured by Karankawas, and seven years later, only four remained.

Cabeza de Vaca survived because he was credited with the first successful surgery performed in Texas. According to the story, he removed an arrowhead or spear point from an Indian, who then recovered. The Karankawa thought this a sign of Devine powers, rather than the simple removal of a foreign object, which allowed the wound to heal.

Thereafter Cabeza de Vaca, and perhaps the others, were traded about, rarely seeing each other except when the tribes came together for annual harvests, and sometimes breaking away only to be recaptured. Seven years after their ordeal began, they encountered that Spanish patrol, and at first the soldiers thought the wanderers were Indians because all their Spanish clothes had long since disappeared.

The best part of the story is that Cabeza de Vaca's report of his wanderings included stories from the Indians of cities made of gold. He and the others had never seen these cities, only heard of them. But nothing quickened the heart of a conquistador more than stories of gold, and soon many more Spaniards were on their way to East Texas.

Archie P. McDonald
All Things Historical
September 19-25, 2004 column
A syndicated column in over 40 East Texas newspapers
Distributed by the East Texas Historical Association. Dr. Archie McDonald is the Association's executive director and author of more than 20 books on Texas history.
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