Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca and three companions, the first Europeans to penetrate the interior of Texas, were members of the ill-fated Panfilo de Narviez expedition from Cuba to Florida in 1527. The 242 Spaniards, stranded there, constructed five frail boats in which they attempted to sail along the coast to Mexico. The boats were destroyed by a storm in November, 1528, and all the explorers perished except De Vaca and three others. After nearly six years of servitude to the Indians and two years of wandering across strange lands the four survivors arrived on May 13, 1536, at Culiacan, the northern outpost of New Spain near the Gulf of California. After preparing a report of his adventures at Mexico City, De Vaca left for Spain to seek royal favor and a commission to lead an exploring expedition into the country he had visited. He landed at Lisbon on August 9, 1537, and went directly to the Court of Spain, where he learned that the commission he sought had been granted already to Hernando de Soto. Excerpts from De Vaca's account of the shipwreck and of his return to the Spanish Court follow. (for the full text of the story go to "The Journey of Alvar Nuņez Cabeza De Vaca")
From Buckingham Smith (trans.), The narrative of Altar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca (New York, 1871), 61-77.
. . . Thus we continued in company, eating a daily allowance of half a handful of raw maize, until the end of four days, when we lost sight of each other in a storm; . Because of winter and its inclemency, the many days we had suffered hunger, and the heavy beating of the waves, the people began next day to despair in such a manner that when the sun sank, all who were in my boat were fallen one on another, so near to death that there were few among them in a state of sensibility. Of the whole number at this time not five men were on their feet; and when the night came, only the master and myself were left, who could work the boat. Two hours after dark he said to me that I must take charge of her as he was in such condition he believed he should die that night. . .
Near the dawn of day, it seemed to me I heard the tumbling of the sea; for as the coast was low, it roared loudly. Surprised at this, I called to the master, who answered me that he believed we were near the land.
Near the shore a wave took us, that knocked the boat out of water the distance of the throw of a crowbar, and from the violence with which she struck, nearly all the people who were in her like dead, were roused to consciousness. Finding themselves near the shore, they began to move on hands and feet, crawling to land into some ravines. There we made fire, parched some of the maize we brought, and found some rain water. From the warmth of the fire the people recovered their faculties, and began somewhat to exert themselves. The day on which we arrived was the sixth of November .
After the people had eaten, I ordered Lope de Oviedo, who had more strength and was stouter than any of the rest, to go to some trees that were near by, and climbing into one of them to look about and try to gain some knowledge of the country. He did as I bade, and made out that we were on an island.
[He] found some huts, without tenants, they having gone into the woods. He took from these an earthen pot, a little dog, some few mullets, and returned.
. . . Three Indians with bows and arrows followed and were calling to him, while he, in the same way, was beckoning them on. Thus he arrived where we were, the natives remaining a little way back, seated on the shore. Half an hour after, they were supported by one hundred other Indian bowmen, who if they were not large, our fears made giants of them. They stopped near us with the first three. It were idle to think that any among us could make defence; for it would have been difficult to find six that could rise from the ground. The Assessor and I went out and called to them, and they came to us. We endeavored the best we could to encourage them and secure their favor. We gave them beads and hawkbells, and each of them gave me an arrow, which is a pledge of friendship. They told us by signs that they would return in the morning and bring us something to eat, as at that time they had nothing.
At sunrise the next day, the time the Indians appointed, they came according to their promise, and brought us a large quantity of fish with certain root some a little larger than walnuts, other a trifle smaller, the part got from under the water and with much labor. In the evening they returned and brought us more fish and roots. They sent their women and children to look at us, who went back rich with the hawk-bells and beads given them, and they came afterwards on other days, returning as before. Finding that we had provision, fish, roots, water and other things we asked for, we determined to embark again and pursue our course. Having dug out our boat from the sand in which it was buried, it became necessary that we should strip, and go through great exertion to launch her, we being in such a state that things very much lighter sufficed to make us great labor.
Thus embarked, at the distance of two cross-bow shots in the sea we shipped a wave that entirely wet us. As we were naked, and the cold was very great, the oars loosened in our hands, and the next blow the sea struck us, capsized the boat. The Assessor and two others . . . were drowned under her. As the surf near the shore was very high, a single roll of the sea threw the rest into the waves. . . . The survivors escaped naked as they were born, with the loss of all they had; and although the whole was of little value, at that time it was worth much, as we were then in November, the cold was severe, and our bodies were so emaciated the bones might be counted with little difficulty, having become the perfect figures of death.