Book IV: the strange voyage of Cabeza de Vaca. (A. D. 1528-1533.)
These extracts are taken from ‘The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca, translated by Buckingham Smith,’ Washington, 1851, pp. 30-99. See, also, Henry Kingsley's ‘Tales of Old Travel.’
I.—The strange voyage.[Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca sailed for Florida in June, 1527, as treasurer of a Spanish armada, or armed fleet. In Cuba they encountered a hurricane, which delayed them; but they at last reached the coast of Florida in February, 1528, probably landing at what is now called Charlotte harbor. A portion of the party left their ships, and marched into the interior, reaching a region which they called Apalache, probably in what is now Alabama. Then they were driven back to the seashore, amid great hardships, losing one-third of their number before they reached Aute, now the Bay of St. Mark's. Near this they came to the sea; and here the narrative begins.]
It was a piteous and painful thing to witness the perplexity and distress in which we were. At our arrival, we saw the little means there were of our advancing farther: there was not anywhere to go, and, if there had been, the people could not move forward, because the greater part of them were sick, and there were few that could be of any use. . . . . The governor called them all to him, and of each by himself he asked his advice what to do to get out of a country so miserable, and seek elsewhere that remedy  which could not here be found, a third part of the people being very sick, and the number increasing every hour for we regarded it as certain that we should all become so, and out of it we could only pass through death; which, from its coming in such a place, was to us only the more terrible. These and many other embarrassments considered, and entertaining many plans, we
|Cabeza de Vaca building the boat.|
Ii.—Cabeza de Vaca saved by Indians.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, and, having climbed into one of them, to survey the country in which we were, and endeavor to get some knowledge of it. He did as I bade him, and made out that we were on an island. He saw that the ground was pawed up in the manner that the land is wont to be where cattle range; and hence it appeared to him that this should be the country of Christians, and thus he reported to us. I ordered him to return to examine much more particularly, and see if there were any roads in it that were worn, and without going far, because of the danger there might be. He went, and, coming to a path, he took it for the distance of half a league, and found some huts without any tenants, for the Indians  had gone into the woods. He took from them an earthen pot, a little dog, some few mullets, and thus returned. It appearing to us that he was long absent, we sent two others, that they should look and see what might have befallen him. They met him near by, and saw that three Indians with bows and arrows followed, and were calling to him; and he, in the same way, was beckoning them on. Thus they arrived where we were; the Indians remaining a little way back, seated on the same bank. Half an hour after, they were supported by fifty other Indian bowmen, whom, whether large or not, our fears made giants. They stopped near us with the three first. It were idle to think that there were any among us who could make defence; for it would have been difficult to find six that could raise themselves from the ground. The assessor and I went and called them, and they came to us. We endeavored the best we could to recommend ourselves to their favor, and secure their good-will. We gave them beads and hawk-bells; and each one 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. The next day at sunrise, the time the Indians had appointed, they came as they had promised, and brought us a large quantity of fish, and certain roots that are eaten by them, of the size of walnuts, some a little larger, others a little smaller, the greater part of them got from under the water, and with much labor. In the evening they returned, and brought us more fish, and some of the roots. They sent their women and  children to look at us, who returned rich with the hawk-bells and beads that we gave them; and they came afterward on other days in the same way. As we found that we had been provisioned with fish, roots, water, and other things for which we asked, we determined to embark again, and pursue our course. We dug out our boat from the sand in which it was buried; and it became necessary that we should all strip ourselves, and go through great exertion to launch her, for we were in such state, that things very much lighter sufficed to make us much labor. Thus embarked, at the distance of two cross-bow shots in the sea we shipped a wave that wet us all. 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 held fast to her for preservation; but it happened to be for far otherwise, as the boat carried them over, and they drowned under her. As the surf near the shore was very high, a single roll of the sea threw the remainder into the waves, and half drowned us on the shore of the island, without our losing any more than the boat had taken under. Those of us who survived escaped naked as we were born, losing all that we had; and, although the whole was of little value, at that time it was worth much. As it was then in the month of November, the cold severe, and our bodies so emaciated that the bones might have been counted with little difficulty, we had become perfect figures of death. For myself, I can say, that, from the month of May past, I had not eaten other thing than maize, and sometimes I found myself obliged  to eat it unparched; for, although the horses were slaughtered while the boats were being built, I never could eat of them, and I did not eat fish ten times. I state this to avoid giving excuses, and that every one may judge in what condition we were. After all these misfortunes, there came a north wind upon us, from which we were nearer to death than life. Thanks be to our Lord, that, looking among the brands that we had used there, we found sparks from which we made great fires. And thus we were asking mercy of him, and pardon for our transgressions, shedding many tears, and each regretting, not his own fate alone, but that of his comrades about him. At sunset, the Indians, thinking that we had not gone, came to seek us, and bring us food; but when they saw us thus, in a plight so different from what it was formerly, and so extraordinary, they were alarmed, and turned back. I went toward them, and called to them; and they returned much frightened. I gave them to understand by signs how that our boat had sunk, and three of our number been drowned. There, before them, they saw two of the departed; and those that remained were near joining them. The Indians, at sight of the disaster that had befallen us, and our state of suffering and melancholy destitution, sat down amongst us; and from the sorrow and pity they felt for us, they all began to lament, and so earnestly, that they might have been heard at a distance; and they continued so doing more than half an hour. It was strange to see these men, so wild and untaught, howling like brutes over our misfortunes. It caused in me, as in others, an increase of feeling, and a livelier sense of our calamity.  Their cries having ceased, I talked with the Christians, and said, that, if it appeared well to them, I would beg these Indians to take us to their houses. Some who had been in New Spain said that we ought not to think of it; for, if we should do so, they would sacrifice us to their idols. But seeing no better course, and that any other led to nearer and more certain death, I disregarded what was said, and besought the Indians to take us to their dwellings. They signified that it would give them great delight, and that we should tarry a little, that we might do what we asked. Presently, thirty of them loaded themselves with wood, and started for their houses, which were far off, and we remained with the others until near night, when, holding us up, they carried us with all haste. Because of the extreme coldness of the weather, lest any one should die or fail by the way, they caused four or five large fires to be placed at intervals; and at each one of them they warmed us, and, when they saw that we had regained some strength and warmth, they took us to the next so swiftly that they hardly permitted us to put our feet to the ground. In this manner, we went as far as their habitations, where we found that they had made a house for us with many fires in it. An hour after our arrival, they began to dance, and hold great rejoicing, which lasted all night, although for us there was no joy, appetite, or sleep, awaiting the time they should make us victims. In the morning, they again gave us fish and roots, and showed us such hospitality, that we were re-assured, and lost somewhat the feat of the sacrifice.8
III.—Cabeza de Vaca's Captivity.[the eighty men taken by the Indians were soon reduced by death to fifteen. These were made slaves, and were severely treated.]
I was obliged to remain with the people of the island more than a year; and because of the hard work they put upon me, and their harsh treatment, I determined to flee from them, and go to those of Charruco, who inhabit the forests and country of the main; for the life I led was insupportable. Beside much other labor, I had to get out roots from below the water, and from among the cane where it grew in the ground. From this employment I had my fingers so worn, that, did a straw but touch them, it would draw blood. Many of the canes were broken, so that they often tore my flesh; and I had to go in the midst of them with only the clothing on me I have mentioned. Accordingly, I put myself to work to get over to the other Indians; and afterward, while I was with them, affairs changed for me somewhat more favorably. I set myself to trafficking, and strove to turn my employment to profit in the ways I could best contrive; and by this means I got from the Indians food and good treatment. They would beg me to go from one part to another for things of which they have need; for, in consequence of continual hostilities, they cannot travel the country, nor make many exchanges. With my merchandise and trade I went into the interior as far as I pleased; and I travelled along the coast forty or fifty leagues. The chief of my wares was pieces of sea-snails and their  cones, conches, that are used for cutting,9 and a fruit like a bean, of the highest value among them, which they use as a medicine, and employ in their dances and festivities. There are sea-beads also, and other articles. Such were what I carried into the interior; and, in barter for them, I brought back skins, ochre, with which they rub and color their faces, and flint for arrow-points, cement and hard canes, of which to make arrows, and tassels that are made of the hair of deer, ornamented, and dyed red. This occupation suited me well; for the travel gave me liberty to go where I wished. I was not obliged to work, and was not a slave. Wherever I went, I received fair treatment; and the Indians gave me to eat for the sake of my commodities. My leading object, while journeying in this business, was to find out the way by which I should have to go forward; and I became well known to the inhabitants. They were pleased when they saw me, and I had brought for them what they wanted; and those that did not know me sought and desired my acquaintance for my reputation. The hardships that I underwent in this it were long to tell, as well of peril and privation, as of storms and cold. Many of them found me in the wilderness and alone; but I came forth from them all, by the great mercy of God our Lord. Because of them, I ceased to pursue the business in winter; for it is a season in which the natives themselves retire to their villages and huts, sluggish, and incapable of exertion. I was in this country nearly six years,10 alone among  the Indians, and naked like them. The reason why I remained so long was, that I might take with me from the island the Christian Lope de Oviedo. De Alaniz, his companion, who had been left with him by Alonzo del Castillo, Andres Dorantes, and the rest, died soon after their departure; and, to get the survivor out from there, I went over to the island every year, and entreated him that we should go, in the way we could best contrive, in quest of Christians. He put me off every year, saying that in the next coming we would go. At last I got him off, crossing him over the bay, and over four rivers there are in the coast, as he could not swim. In this way we went on with some Indians, until coming to a bay a league in width, and everywhere deep. From its appearance, we supposed it to be that which they call Espiritu Santo. We met some Indians on the other side of it, who came to visit ours; and they told us that beyond them there were three men like us, and gave their names. And we asked them for the others; and they told us that they were all dead of cold and hunger; that the Indians farther on, of whom they were, had for their diversion killed Diego Dorantes, Valdevieso, and Diego de Huelva, because they left one house for another; and that other Indians, their neighbors, with whom Captain Dorantes now was, had, in consequence of a dream, killed Esquivel and Mendez. We asked them how the living were situated; and they answered us that they were very ill used; for that the boys and some of the Indian men were very idle, and of cruelty gave them severe kicks, cuffs, and blows with sticks, and that such was the life they led among them.  We desired to be informed of the country ahead, and of the subsistence in it; and they said there was nothing in it to eat, and [it] was thin of people, who suffered of cold, having no skins or other thing to cover them. They told us, also, if we wished to see those three Christians, two days from that time the Indians who had them would come to eat walnuts a league from there, on the margin of that river; and, that we might know what they had told us of the ill usage to be true, they slapped my companion, and beat him with a stick, and I was not left without my portion. They frequently threw fragments of mud at us; and every day they put their arrows to our hearts, saying that they were inclined to kill us in the way they had destroyed our friends. Lope Oviedo, my comrade, in fear, said that he wished to go back with the women who had crossed the bay with us, the men having remained some distance behind. I contended strongly with him against his returning, and I urged many objections; but in no way could I keep him. So he went back, and I remained alone with those savages.
Iv.—The Indians of the gulf of Mexico.These are the most watchful in danger of any people I have ever seen. If they fear an enemy, they are awake the night long, with each a bow by his side, and a dozen arrows. He that sleeps tries his bow; and, if it is not strung, he gives the turn necessary to the cord. They often come out from their houses, bending to the ground in such manner, that they cannot be seen, and  look and watch on all sides to catch every object. If they perceive any thing about, they are all in the bushes with their bows and arrows, and there they remain until day, running from place to place where it is useful to be, or where they think their enemies are. When the light has come, they unbend their bows until they go out to hunt. The strings are of the sinews of deer. The method they have of fighting is lying low to the earth; and, whilst they shoot, they move about, speaking, and leaping from one point to another, screening themselves from the shafts of their enemies. So effectual is this manoeuvring, that they can receive very little injury from cross-bow or arquebuse;11 but they rather scoff at them: for these arms are of little value employed in open field, where the Indians go loosely. They are proper for defiles, and in water: everywhere else the horses will be found the most effective, and are what the natives universally fear. Whosoever would fight against them must be cautious to show no weakness or desire for any thing that is theirs; and, whilst war exists, they must be treated with the utmost severity; for, if they discover any timidity or covetousness, they are a race that well discern the opportunities for vengeance, and gather strength from the fear of their adversaries. When they use arrows in battle, and exhaust their store, each returns by his own way without the one party following the other, although the one be many and the other few; for such is their custom. Oftentimes their bodies are traversed from side to side by arrows; and they do not die of the wounds, but  soon become well, unless the entrails or the heart be struck. I believe they see and hear better, and have keener senses, than any people there are in the world. They are great in the endurance of hunger, thirst, and cold, as if they were made for these more than others by habit and nature. Thus much I have wished to say beyond the gratification of that desire which men have to learn the customs and manners of each other, that those who hereafter at some time find themselves amongst these people may be intelligent in their usages and artifice, the value of which they will not find inconsiderable in such event.
V.—Cabeza de Vaca's escape.[after getting away from his first captors, he came among Indians who thought that he and his comrades must have come from heaven, because of their superior knowledge. He thus describes them.]
We left these, and travelled through so many sorts of people, of such diverse languages, that the memory fails to recall them. They ever plundered each other; and those that lost, like those that gained, were fully content. We drew so many followers after us, that we had not use for their services. While on our way through these vales, each of the Indians carried a club three palms in length, and kept himself on the alert. On raising a hare, which are abundant, they surround it directly; and numerous clubs are thrown at it, and with a precision astonishing to see. In this way they cause it to run from one to another; so that, according  to my thinking, it is the most pleasing sport that can be conceived of, as oftentimes the animal runs into the hand. So many of them did they give us, that at night, when we stopped, each one of us had eight or ten back-loads. Those who had bows were not with us, but dispersed about the ridge in quest of deer; and, when they came at night, they brought five or six for each of us, besides birds, the quail, and other game. Indeed, all that they found or killed they put before us, without themselves daring to take any thing until we had blessed it, though they should be dying of hunger; for they had so established the custom since marching with us. The women carried many mats, of which the men made us houses, each of us having a separate one with all his attendants. After these were put up, we ordered the deer and hares to be roasted, with the rest that had been taken. This was soon done by means of certain ovens made for the purpose. We took a little of each; and the remainder we gave to the principal personages that came with us, directing them to divide them among the rest. Every one brought his portion to us, that we should give it our benediction; for not until then dared they to eat of it. Frequently we were accompanied by three or four thousand persons; and as we had to breathe upon and sanctify the food and drink for each, and give them permission to do the many things they would come to ask, it may be seen how great to us Were the trouble and annoyance. The women first brought us the pears, spiders, worms, and whatever else they could gather; for, even if they were famishing, they would eat nothing unless we gave it to them.  In company with these we crossed a great river coming from the north; and, passing over some plains thirty leagues in extent, we found many persons who came from a great distance to receive us; and they met us on the road over which we had to travel, and received us in the manner of those we had left. . . . We told them to conduct us toward the north; and they answered us as they had done before, saying, that, in that direction, there were no people, except afar off; that there was nothing to eat, nor could water be found. Nowithstanding all this, we persisted, and said that in that course we desired to go; and they still tried to excuse themselves in the best manner possible. At this we became offended: and one night I went out to sleep in the woods, apart from them; but they directly went to where I was, and remained there all night without sleeping, and in great fear, talking to me, and telling me how terrified they were, beseeching us to be no longer angry, and that though they knew they should die on the way, they would nevertheless lead us in the direction we desired to go. Whilst we still feigned to be displeased, that their fright might not leave them, there happened a remarkable circumstance, which was, that on this same day many of them became ill, and the next day eight men died. Abroad in the country wheresoever this became known, there was such dread, that it seemed as if the inhabitants at sight of us would die of fear. They besought us that we would not remain angered, nor require that many of them should die. They believed that we caused their death by only willing it; when in truth it gave us so much pain that it could not be  greater; for, beyond the loss of them that died, we feared they might all die, or abandon us out of fear, and all other people thenceforward should do the same, seeing what had come to these. We prayed to God our Lord, that he would relieve them; and thenceforth all those that were sick began to get better. . . . From that place onward there was another usage, that those who knew of our approach did not come out to receive us on the roads, as the others had done, but we found them in their houses, and others they had made for our reception. They were all seated with their faces turned to the wall, their heads down, and the hair brought before their eyes, and their property placed in a heap in the middle of their houses. From this place forward they began to give us many blankets of skin, and they had nothing that they did not give to us. They have the finest persons of any that we saw, and of the greatest activity and strength, and [were those] who best understood us, and intelligently answered our inquiries. We called them los de las vacas, the cow nation, because most of the cattle that are killed are destroyed in their neighborhood; and along up that river over fifty leagues they kill great numbers.