Early Spanish Explorations

The journey of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca and his companions, Andres Dorantes, Alonzo del Castillo Maldonado, and Estevan, the Arab Negro slave of Dorantes, across the continent from near what is now Galveston, Texas, to Culiacan and San Miguel, a few miles from the Pacific coast, as published in the Relacion of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, and translated by Fanny Bandelier, with an introduction by Ad. F. Bandelier is a story full of romance and adventure, exceeded by none of the early Spanish explorers.

These men were the sole survivors of the Narvaez expedition of four hundred men and eighty horses which, in February, 1528, sailed from the coast of Cuba to explore the peninsula of Florida. All the rest lost their lives at the hands of hostile Indian tribes, by disease, or by shipwreck.

De Vaca and his companions were held as captives by the Indians on the eastern coast of Texas for several years, when they effected their escape. After their escape from the hostile Indians, they came upon another tribe called the Avavares, by whom they were received with the greatest of kindness, being honored as great medicine men. Castillo seems to have been a wonderful healer. His first cure was to relieve an Indian of a pain in his head, by making the sign of the cross and commending the Indian to God. At one time five sick persons were brought into the camp, and the Indians insisted that Castillo should cure them of their ills. At sunset he pronounced a blessing over the sick, and all the Christians united in a prayer to God, asking him to restore the sick to health, and on the following morning there was not a sick person among them.

By such acts as these the Spaniards established a reputation as healers, and they, themselves, were impressed with the belief that the blessings of God were resting upon them, and that they would, in due time, again reach the confines of civilization.

The Spaniards remained among these Indians eight months, going naked during the day, and covering themselves with deer skins at night. Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca also developed the scientific art of healing. One day Castillo was summoned by some Indians to go to their lodges and cure the sick, one of whom was at death’s door. Castillo declined to go, and de Vaca and the Negro Estevan went in his stead. Arriving at the lodges the Indians declared that the sick man was dead. De Vaca removed the mat that covered him, breathed upon him and prayed the Lord to restore him to health. According to the Indians’ story: “he who had been dead, and for whom I wrought before them, had got up whole and walked, had eaten and spoken with them, and that all to whom I had ministered were well and much pleased.”

At another time a man was brought to him badly wounded. The head of an arrow was imbedded in his flesh. Cabeza de Vaca cut out the arrow, sewed up the wound with stitches, which he cut the next day, after which the Indian was fully restored to health.

When the Spaniards left one tribe, they were accompanied by Indians, who promulgated to the next tribe the wonderful powers of these demigods, or “Children of the Sun,” as they were called. They were received with open arms by all of the natives, and when they reached the Valle de los Corazones, the “Village of the Hearts,” their commissary was supplied with six hundred deer hearts.

When they reached the Pacific coast where the Indians, probably the Opata and Pima tribes, showed signs of civilization, living in houses covered with straw, wearing cotton clothes and dressed skins, with belts and ornaments of stone, and cultivating their fields, but had been driven there from by the brutal Spanish soldiery and had taken refuge in the mountains, de Vaca and his comrades, being regarded as emissaries from the Almighty, exercised such power over these untutored savages that, at their bidding, the Indians returned to their deserted habitations, and began again to cultivate their fields, the assurance being given them by de Vaca and his companions that henceforth they would suffer no harm at the hands of the Spaniards.

There is some doubt as to the route pursued by Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca and his companions. Twitchell, in his History of New Mexico, contends that they crossed the Rio Grande about fifty or sixty miles above the present town of El Paso, thence traveled west to within about the same distance of what is now the eastern border of the State of Arizona, then going south in a southerly direction through Sonora to Culiacan and San Miguel in the State of Sinaloa, Mexico.

Bandelier is very positive that they never touched New Mexico at all, but, after going a little northwest from their starting point and crossing the Rio Colorado in Texas, that they continued their journey in a southwesterly direction, crossing the Pecos river just north of its junction with the Rio Grande and crossing the Rio Grande itself about one hundred and fifty miles south of the present town of El Paso, then continuing west through the Sierra Madre Mountains in Chihuahua and Sonora to the Arras and Mulatos Rivers, which form the headwaters of the Yaqui River, thence south to the Spanish settlements of Culiacan and San Miguel, arriving there on the first of April, 1536, where they were received with open arms by their fellow countrymen.

This is the first Spanish expedition across the North American continent from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, and while there is some doubt as to the exact course of the expedition and whether it ever touched any portion of the State of New Mexico in its westward journey, there is no question as to the fact that it never, at any time, came within the boundaries of what is now the State of Arizona.

Cabeza de Vaca must have been a man of great determination and force of character. Never, at any time, did he despair, but, with his three companions, forced his way across the continent. The journey was not fruitless; it was rich in exploration; it gave the Spaniards the first insight into what they called the “cow (buffalo) country, ‘ ‘of the rich plains, the rivers and mountains which are fully described in his “Relacion.” While he did not claim that the country was rich in precious metals, yet, from other standpoints, it was a great acquisition to the Crown of Spain. He also brought some confirmatory news of the Seven Cities of the Cibola, which excited the cupidity of the Spaniards to such an extent that other expeditions were formed to discover these cities, which were reported to have a wealth of gold and silver as great as that of the Incas of Peru. With the exception of the Negro, Estevan, none of the companions of Cabeza de Vaca ever prominently appeared thereafter in Spanish history.

Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca went from Culiacan and San Miguel to the city of Mexico, from which place he returned to Spain, making his report to his royal master, Charles the Fifth. Subsequently he was appointed “Governor of the settlements on the La Plata River, vacant since the death of Pedro de Mendoza. Reaching his post in 1541, he soon became the object of sinister intrigues on the part of his subordinates. The animosity against him broke out in 1543 in open revolt. ‘He was seized and sent to Spain as a prisoner. His (mild) captivity there lasted eight years. It is asserted that he lived in Sevilla to an advanced age, and occupied up to the time of his demise, (the date of which I have not yet been able to find), an honorable and fairly lucrative position.”

While the “Relacion” of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca is the first authentic account of a journey across the North American continent, there seems to have been an earlier expedition, concerning which William A. Bell in his book “New Tracks in North America” on page 205, has the following to say:

“Early in the spring of 1526 – ninety four years before the landing of the Pilgrim Fathers in New England, and thirtyfour years after the shores of St. Salvador delighted the eyes of Columbus – Don Joseph de Basconzales crossed the center of Arizona towards the Great Cañon, and penetrated at least as far as Zuni. No record remains of this, the first expedition into the country, but the bare memento of the fact carved on the side of ‘El Moro’ (Inscription Rock); for none of the expedition ever returned to tell of their adventures. They perished either by the hands of the Indians, or met a more miserable end amongst the labyrinths of chasms still further north, across which naught living but the birds can successfully pass.”

Notes About Book:

Source: History Of Arizona Volume 1, By Thomas Edwin Farish, 1915, Printed and Published by Direction of the Second Legislature of the State of Arizona, A. D.

Notes about Online Publication: This manuscript has been ocr’d and heavily edited. Many of the Native American words have been reproduced as clearly as online publication will allow us, but not all are exactly the way they were in the original work. The structure of this manuscript has been changed to allow better online presentation.

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