The route through Texas of Cabeza de Vaca
By LONN TAYLOR
Most Texans who took seventh-grade Texas history learned the rough outlines of the story of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, the shipwrecked Spaniard who walked barefoot 2,800 miles across Texas and Mexico and became the first European to describe Texas. His journey has been recounted in every Texas history textbook since Mrs. Pennybacker’s New History of Texas was published in 1888 but, until recently, no one has reliably established his route.
For readers for whom even the outlines have faded, Cabeza de Vaca was the second-in-command and one of four survivors of an expedition of 300 men and women launched from Cuba to Florida in 1527 to seek gold. After many adventures in Florida and at sea, he was washed up on the shore of Texas in November of 1528. He spent the next year as a slave to the coastal Indians, digging roots for their food and being beaten and constantly threatened with death. He then achieved some degree of freedom by becoming a trader, carrying seashells into the interior of Texas and bringing animal skins and red ochre back.
Eventually he encountered three other survivors of the Florida expedition, two Spaniards and a Moorish slave. Together they plotted an escape from their Indian captors, planning to walk to the Spanish settlements in northern Mexico. They had to wait two years for an opportunity, but in September 1534, while the Indians were gorging themselves on prickly pear tunas along the lower Nueces River, they made their break and headed south. They spent that winter with friendly Indians somewhere between the Nueces and the Rio Grande.
The next spring, the four men crossed the Rio Grande into what is now Mexico. According to Dr. Don Chipman of the University of North Texas, they probably crossed the river in the vicinity of the present Falcon Lake and then then turned west and made their way along the northern edge of the Sierra Madre Oriental toward the Pacific Ocean. They came back to the river at La Junta, the present site of Presidio, Texas and Ojinaga, Chihuahua, and enjoyed the hospitality of the Indians living there for several days. Then, according to Chipman, they travelled up the north bank of the Rio Grande for seventeen days, passing through present-day Ruidosa and Candelaria and crossing back to the south bank about seventy-five miles downstream from El Paso, and then south through the Sierra Madre Occidental and down the Pacific coast of Mexico. In May 1536, they met a party of Spanish slave hunters near San Miguel de Culiacan. They were escorted on to Mexico City and received there by the Viceroy of New Spain on July 23, 1536.
Historians and others have argued since the 1850s about the route that the four men followed from the Texas coast to Culiacan. Dan Kilgore, a former president of the Texas State Historical Association, once said that over the years half of Texas’s 254 counties have claimed that Cabeza de Vaca had trod their soil, and that he once met a man who said he had evidence that the Spaniards had walked down the left side of the future main street of Big Spring. James Michener proposed a route that passed through San Marcos and more or less followed Interstate 10 west to Pecos, where it turned north into New Mexico before crossing the Rio Grande at El Paso. Cleve Hallenbeck projected a route north of Michener’s that took the four men through Austin and Big Spring. All of the disputants have based their arguments on two sources: a joint report that three of the four men made to the viceroy in 1536, which was published in Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo’s General History of the Indies, and on Cabeza de Vaca’s own account of his journey, the Relacion, published in 1542. Chipman, however, added newly discovered botanical evidence to his proposed route and subtracted the chauvinism that led others to place most of the route within the boundaries of Texas. He first published his conclusions twenty-five years ago in the October 1987 issue of the Southwestern Historical Quarterly. For a summary of his finding I recommend his new book, Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, The Great Pedestrian of North and South America, published this year by the Texas State Historical Association.
I mentioned that three of the four travelers made a report to the viceroy when they arrived in Mexico City. The man who was not invited to report was the African slave, Estevanico, about whom Cabeza de Vaca does not tell us much except that he was born at Azamor in Morocco. The three Spaniards were well-born gentlemen, but because Estevanico was a slave his testimony was not considered worth recording, even though he was later chosen to guide a scouting expedition into New Mexico, where he met his death in 1539.
Now Estevanico has been given a voice. Laila Lalami, a writer who was recently a Lannan Foundation fellow in Marfa, is working on a novel called The Moor’s Account, which she says will serve as Estevanico’s fictional testimony. Lalami became fascinated with Estevanico and his companions after discovering a reference to Cabeza de Vaca’s Relacion in a footnote to a book on the Spanish Inquisition that she was reading. “The Relacion is a story of transformation,” she told me. “ The Spaniards came as conquerors but became slaves to the Indians, and the slave saw his master become a slave.”
Lalami, who was born in Morocco, felt an immediate empathy with her fellow-Moroccan Estevanico. “The first part of my book has been the easiest to write. Since we know so little about Estevanico, I was able to create all kinds of details and character traits for him and place him in any scenes I chose in Morocco and Spain,” she told me The next part, she added, was harder because she had to follow a pre-ordained set of well-documented events, and that was more constraining. But, she said, “writing this book has been filled with joy from beginning to end.”
Lalami definitely brings passion as well as talent to her task. “There are stories that call to you and want you to tell them,” she told me. “I have to tell this story.” I can’t wait for its publication.
Lonn Taylor is a writer and historian who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Story filed under: West Texas Talk