By Andrew Stuart
“I wandered through many very strange lands, lost and naked. This [chronicle] is the only thing that a man who left there naked could bring back.”
In 1527, with hundreds of his countrymen, Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca sailed for the Gulf of Mexico. Their aim was “La Florida,” and their mission was conquest – to expand, and enrich, the Spanish Empire.
Their failure was abject. Only Cabeza de Vaca and three others survived – and only after an eight-year sojourn across what’s now Texas and Northern Mexico. But the survivors experienced something no European had – Native American nomadic life. Cabeza de Vaca’s “Chronicle” provides a fascinating glimpse into how indigenous peoples in our region lived.
The Narváez expedition was a debacle from the start. After a hurricane in Cuba, fighting in Florida, a straggling remnant drifted the Gulf in makeshift rafts – until they wrecked on Galveston Island.
Four ultimately survived: Cabeza de Vaca, two other Spaniards and a Moroccan slave named Estevanico. They lived for years among tribes in South Texas. They traveled on foot to the Big Bend, gaining fame as healers. They reached Spanish-colonized lands in 1536.
One fact is clear: throughout, the land was thoroughly inhabited – a complex tapestry of societies. Galveston Island alone was occupied by two peoples, speaking different languages. It was a cosmopolitan world – with webs of trade, and warfare.
Dr. Alston Thoms is a Texas A&M archeologist. The “Chronicle,” he says, dispels any notion of a “virgin land.”
“Most of us who grew up anywhere in North America, we grew up with the idea that somehow there was a wilderness and our European ancestors tamed it,” Thoms said. “I tell my students, I believe you could have walked across Texas 12,000 years ago and never have been out of sight of a campfire.”
Native populations were likely their highest ever when Cabeza de Vaca encountered them. Within a century, they’d be decimated – by European diseases, and, in some areas, by Spanish slave raids.
The people he met moved in seasonal rounds, tracking food availability. Roots, slow-roasted with hot rocks, were critical. People knew the landscape intimately – women often harvested plants, when nothing was visible aboveground.
“If you knew where the dense patches of the different kind of plants were, you’d just go back there any time of the year – whether they were blooming or not wouldn’t make any difference,” Thoms said. “And those productive root grounds, my guess is that they would know literally every square meter, where it was most likely to be.”
Prickly pear was important. Cabeza de Vaca describes how nopalitos – the cacti’s new pads – and the unripe or green fruits, or tunas, were roasted in earth ovens. In the fall, ripe tunas – sweet, with calorie-rich seeds – were a staple. The tuna harvest was also social, as bands came together not only to feast, but to trade, and to pair up in marriage. Such “seasonal aggregations” could involve thousands, and were a fixture of nomadic life.
Cabeza de Vaca describes the ritual use of yaupon holly, a highly caffeinated plant. Mesquite beans were eaten, ground and mixed with clay. In the mountains, piñon nuts were food.
He encountered his first settled, agrarian society at La Junta – present-day Presidio-Ojinaga. The La Juntans introduced Cabeza de Vaca to another cooking method: stone boiling.
To boil water, stones were heated, and dropped red-hot into a vessel – in one case, a pumpkin.
“And Cabeza de Vaca was fascinated with it,” Thoms said, “because they literally ate the pot. They’re boiling beans in there with the squash, the pumpkin. It’s like the big taco bowl salad.”
Immersed in their societies, dependent on their forbearance, Cabeza de Vaca writes of Native peoples with respect, even admiration. It alternates with condescension. He describes loving families – but also insists on the “savagery” of others he meets. (He’s particularly revulsed by the presence of same-sex partnerships.) But, entering areas of Spanish conquest, he is outraged at the destruction wrought on Native peoples. He was later made governor in Paraguay – and was ousted for his sympathy to Native peoples.
Cabeza de Vaca was changed by his time here. It was a singular journey. And his account is a singular look at a world his society was upending.