Texas Historical Documents

The Journey of Alvar Nuņez Cabeza De Vaca

Translated by Fanny Bandelier (1905)

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Part Two

Then we set out to sea again, coasting towards the River of Palms. Every day our thirst and hunger increased because our supplies were giving out, as well as the water supply, for the pouches we had made from the legs of our horses soon became rotten and useless. From time to time we would enter some inlet or cove that reached very far inland, but we found them all shallow and dangerous, and so we navigated through them for thirty days, meeting sometimes Indians who fished and were poor and wretched people.

At the end of these thirty days, and when we were in extreme need of water and hugging the coast, we heard one night a canoe approaching. When we saw it we stopped and waited, but it would not come to us, and, although we called out, it would neither turn back nor wait. It being night, we did not follow the canoe, but proceeded. At dawn we saw a small island, where we touched to search for water, but in vain, as there was none. While at anchor a great storm overtook us. We remained there six days without venturing to leave, and it being five days since we had drank anything our thirst was so great as to compel us to drink salt water, and several of us took such an excess of it that we lost suddenly five men.

I tell this briefly, not thinking it necessary to relate in particular all the distress and hardships we bore. Moreover, if one takes into account the place we were in and the slight chances of relief he may imagine what we suffered. Seeing that our thirst was increasing and the water was killing us, while the storm did not abate, we agreed to trust to God, Our Lord, and rather risk the perils of the sea than wait there for certain death from thirst. So we left in the direction we had seen the canoe going on the night we came here. During this day we found ourselves often on the verge of drowning and so forlorn that there was none in our company who did not expect to die at any moment.

It was Our Lord's pleasure, who many a time shows His favor in the hour of greatest distress, that at sunset we turned a point of land and found there shelter and much improvement. Many canoes came and the Indians in them spoke to us, but turned back without waiting. They were tall and well built, and carried neither bows nor arrows. We followed them to their lodges, which were nearly along the inlet, and landed, and in front of the lodges we saw many jars with water, and great quantities of cooked fish. The Chief of that land offered all to the Governor and led him to his abode. The dwellings were of matting and seemed to be permanent. When we entered the home of the chief he gave us plenty of fish, while we gave him of our maize, which they ate in our presence, asking for more. So we gave more to them, and the Governor presented him with some trinkets. While with the cacique at his lodge, half an hour after sunset, the Indians suddenly fell upon us and upon our sick people on the beach.

They also attacked the house of the cacique, where the Governor was, wounding him in the face with a stone. Those who were with him seized the cacique, but as his people were so near he escaped, leaving in our hands a robe of marten-ermine skin, which, I believe, are the finest in the world and give out an odor like amber and musk. A single one can be smelt so far off that it seems as if there were a great many. We saw more of that kind, but none like these.

Those of us who were there, seeing the Governor hurt, placed him aboard the barge and provided that most of the men should follow him to the boats. Some fifty of us remained on land to face the Indians, who attacked thrice that night, and so furiously as to drive us back every time further than a stone's throw.

Not one of us escaped unhurt. I was wounded in the face, and if they had had more arrows ( for only a few were found) without any doubt they would have done us great harm. At the last onset the Captains Dorantes, Penalosa and Tellez, with fifteen men, placed themselves in ambush and attacked them from the rear, causing them to flee and leave us. The next morning I destroyed more than thirty of their canoes, which served to protect us against a northern wind then blowing, on account of which we had to stay there, in the severe cold, not venturing out to sea on account of the heavy storm. After this we again embarked and navigated for three days, having taken along but a small supply of water, the vessels we had for it being few. So we found ourselves in the same plight as before.

Continuing onward, we entered a firth and there saw a canoe with Indians approaching. As we hailed them they came, and the Governor, whose barge they neared first, asked them for water. They offered to get some, provided we gave them something in which to carry it, and a Christian Greek, called Doroteo Teodoro (who has already been mentioned), said he would go with them. The Governor and others vainly tried to dissuade him, but he insisted upon going and went, taking along a negro, while the Indians left two of their number as hostages. At night the Indians returned and brought back our vessels, but without water; neither did the Christians return with them. Those that had remained as hostages, when their people spoke to them, attempted to throw themselves into the water. But our men in the barge held them back, and so the other Indians forsook their canoe, leaving us very despondent and sad for the loss of those two Christians.

In the morning many canoes of Indians came, demanding their two companions, who had remained in the barge as hostages. The Governor answered that he would give them up, provided they returned the two Christians. With those people there came five or six chiefs, who seemed to us to be of better appearance, greater authority and manner of composure than any we had yet seen, although not as tall as those of whom we have before spoken. They wore the hair loose and very long, and were clothed in robes of marten, of the kind we had obtained previously, some of them done up in a very strange fashion, because they showed patterns of fawn-colored furs that looked very well.

They entreated us to go with them, and said that they would give us the Christians, water and many other things, and more canoes kept coming towards us, trying to block the mouth of that inlet, and for this reason, as well as because the land appeared very dangerous to remain in, we took again to sea, where we stayed with them till noon. And as they would not return the Christians, and for that reason neither would we give up the Indians, they began to throw stones at us with slings, and darts, threatening to shoot arrows, although we did not see more than three or four bows.

While thus engaged the wind freshened and they turned about and left us. We navigated that day until nightfall, when my bark, which was the foremost, discovered a promontory made by the coast. At the other end was a very large river, and at a small island on the point I anchored to wait for the other barges.

The Governor did not want to touch, but entered a bay close by, where there were many small islands. There we got together and took fresh water out of the sea, because the river emptied into it like a torrent.

For two days we had eaten the corn raw, and now, in order to toast it, we went ashore on that island, but not finding any firewood, agreed to go to the river, which was one league from there behind the point. However, the current was so strong that it in no way allowed us to land, but rather carried us away from the shore against all our efforts. The north wind that blew off shore freshened so much that it drove us back to the high sea, without our being able to do anything against it, and at about one-half league from shore we sounded and found no bottom even at thirty fathoms. Without being able to understand it, it was the current that disturbed our soundings. We navigated two days yet, trying hard to reach the shore. On the third day, a little before sunrise, we saw many columns of smoke rising on the coast. Working towards these, we found ourselves in three fathoms of water, but it being night did not dare to land because, as we had seen so much smoke, we believed that greater danger might be in wait for us there. We were unable to see, owing to the darkness, what we should do. So we determined to wait until morning.

When it dawned the barges had been driven apart from each other. I found myself in thirty fathoms and, drifting along at the hour of vespers, I descried two barges, and as I approached saw that the first one was that of the Governor, who asked me what I thought we should do. I told him that we ought to rejoin the other barge, which was ahead of us, and in no manner forsake her, and the three together should continue our way whither God might take us. He replied it was impossible, since the barge was drifting far away into the sea, whereas he wanted to land, but that if I wished to follow I should put the people of my barge at the oars and work hard, as only by the strength of our arms the land could be reached. In this he had been advised by a captain he had along, whose name was Pantoja, who told him that if he did not land that day he would not in six days more, during which time we would of necessity starve.

Seeing his determination, I took to my own oar and the other oarsmen in my craft did the same, and thus we rowed until nearly sunset. But as the Governor had with him the healthiest and strongest men, in no way could we follow or keep up with him. Seeing this, I asked him to give me a rope from his barge to be able to follow, but he answered that it was no small effort on their part alone to reach the shore on that night. I told him that since it was barely possible for us to follow and do what he had ordained, he should tell me what he commanded me to do. He answered that this was no time for orders; that each one should do the best he could to save himself; that he intended to do it that way, and with this he went on with his craft.

As I could not follow him, I went after the other barge, which was out at sea and waited for me, and reaching it I found it was the one of the Captains Penalosa and Tellez. We travelled together for four days, our daily ration being half a handful of raw maize. At the end of these four days a storm overtook us, in which the other barge was lost. God's great mercy preserved us from being drowned in that weather.

It being winter and the cold very great, and as we had been suffering so many days from hunger and from the injuries we received from the waves, that the next day people began to break down, so that when the sun set all those aboard of my barge had fallen in a heap and were so near dying that few remained conscious, and not five men kept on their feet.

When night came the skipper and I were the only ones able to manage the barge. Two hours after nightfall the skipper told me to steer the craft alone, since he felt that he would die that same night. Thereupon I stood at the helm, and after midnight went to see if the skipper was dead, but he said that, on the contrary, he felt better and would steer till daybreak. On that occasion I would have hailed death with delight rather than to see so many people around me in such a condition. After the skipper had taken the barge under his control I went to rest, very much without resting, for I thought of anything else but sleep.

Near daybreak I fancied to hear the sound of breakers, for as the coast was low, their noise was greater. Surprised at it, I called to the skipper, who said he thought we were near the shore. Sounding, we found seven fathoms, and he was of the opinion that we should keep off shore till dawn. So I took the oar and rowed along the coast, from which we were one league away, and turned the stern to seaward.

Close to shore a wave took us and hurled the barge a horse's length out of water. With the violent shock nearly all the people who lay in the boat like dead came to themselves, and, seeing we were close to land, began to crawl out on all fours. As they took to some rocks, we built a fire and toasted some of our maize. We found rain water, and with the warmth of the fire people revived and began to cheer up. The day we arrived there was the sixth of the month of November.

After the people had eaten I sent Lope de Oviedo, who was the strongest and heartiest of all, to go to some trees nearby and climb to the top of one, examine the surroundings and the country in which we were. He did so and found we were on an island, and that the ground was hollowed out, as if cattle had gone over it, from which it seemed to him that the land belonged to Christians, and so he told us. I sent him again to look and examine more closely if there were any worn trails, and not to go too far so as not to run into danger. He went, found a footpath, followed it for about one-half league, and saw several Indian huts which stood empty because the Indians had gone out into the field.

He took away a cooking pot, a little dag and a few ruffs and turned back, but as he seemed to delay I sent two other Christians to look for him and find out what had happened.

They met him nearby and saw that three Indians, with bows and arrows, were following and calling to him, while he did the same to them by signs. So he came to where we were, the Indians remaining behind, seated on the beach. Half an hour after a hundred Indian archers joined them, and our fright was such that, whether tall or little, it made them appear giants to us. They stood still close to the first ones, near where we were.

We could not defend ourselves, as there were scarcely three of us who could stand on their feet. The inspector and I stepped forward and called them. They came, and we tried to quiet them the best we could and save ourselves, giving them beads and bells. Each one of them gave me an arrow in token of friendship, and by signs they gave us to understand that on the following morning they would come back with food, as then they had none.

The next day, at sunrise, which was the hour the Indians had given us to understand, they came as promised and brought us plenty of fish and some roots which they eat that taste like nuts, some bigger, some smaller, most of which are taken out of the water with much trouble.

In the evening they returned and brought us more fish and some of the same roots, and they brought their women and children to look at us. They thought themselves very rich with the little bells and beads we gave them, and thereafter visited us daily with the same things as before. As we saw ourselves provided with fish, roots, water and the other things we had asked for, we concluded to embark again and continue our voyage.

The Journey of Alvar Nuņez Cabeza De Vaca
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