Cabeza de Vaca Walks Across Texas

Six years after the conquest of Mexico, Charles I of Spain sent an expedition to colonize all the Gulf Coast from Florida to present Tampico, Mexico. We know the details of this adventure because Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca kept extensive notes, which he used for publication in 1542 of his Relación (Account) and an expanded version in 1555.

Cabeza de Vaca
Texas State Historical Association

de Vaca served as the treasurer and first lieutenant of the 600-man expedition under the leadership of Pánfilo de Narváez. Six ships sailed from Spain in June 1527, and after desertions in Santa Domingo and a terrible hurricane in Cuba, the Spaniards spent the winter re-outfitting the expedition. About 500 Spaniards and five ships struck out again in April. Available maps of the Gulf of Mexico were so inaccurate that when they reached Florida’s west coast, Narváez, believing they were within thirty to forty miles of Mexico—a miscalculation of about 1,500 miles—ignored protests from Cabeza de Vaca and others and put ashore with an exploring party of 300 men and forty horses.

Route of the Cabeza de Vaca Expedition

After slogging along the coast for a month, suffering from Indian attack and food shortage, they realized that they must return to the sea for their travel. The lone carpenter guided the construction of five rafts using deerskin and hollowed-out pieces of wood as bellows. They melted stirrups and bridle bits to cast primitive saws and axes for felling trees and shaping crude planks that they caulked with pine resins and palmetto fibers. They fashioned sails out of their shirts and trousers and wove rigging from horse manes and tails. They tanned the skin from the legs of horses to form bags for carrying fresh water. They fed themselves by killing a horse every third day. On September 22, 1528, they loaded fifty men on each raft and set out along the Gulf, remaining within sight of the shore.

Soon after passing the mouth of the Mississippi River, strong winds separated the rafts, eventually driving all ashore between Galveston Island and Matagorda Peninsula. About ninety Spaniards and at least one African slave named Estevanico landed two rafts on a beach Cabeza de Vaca soon named la Isla de Malhado (the Isle of Misfortune). His description leads scholars to believe they were just below present Galveston on Follets Island.

The exhausted and starving men were terrified to see six-foot giants towering over them. Using sign language, the Indians who occupied the islands along the coast, indicated that they would return the following day with food. Cabeza de Vaca wrote that the next morning, after taking their fill of food and water, the Spaniards tried launching their rafts only to have them capsize and drown three men before tossing the others back onto the shore. When the Indians saw the terrific loss of men and all their possessions, Cabeza de Vaca said the Spaniards were stunned when these “crude and untutored people, who were like brutes,” sat down with the survivors and cried, weeping and wailing for half an hour.

Still believing they were close to their destination, four strong swimmers went ahead with an Indian guide. Over the winter Cabeza de Vaca observed the Indians, noting that when a child died the entire village mourned the loss for a full year. He observed this same sensitivity toward everyone in their society except for the elderly, whom they viewed as useless, occupying space and eating food that the children needed. He also wrote that during the first winter, five Spaniards became stranded on the mainland. As they reached starvation they began eating one another until only one man was left. The natives were revolted by the cannibalism and horrified that the Spaniards were so disrespectful of their dead that the survivors feared the Indians were going to kill them all. By spring 1529, exposure, dysentery, and starvation had decimated the wayfarers. Only Cabeza de Vaca and fourteen others survived.

Cabeza de Vaca set out alone to explore inland and became seriously ill. When he did not return as expected, he was given up for dead, and twelve of the survivors decided to move on down the coast toward Mexico. Two men refused to go because they could not swim and feared crossing the waterways along the coast.

Meantime, Cabeza de Vaca recovered from his illness, and for almost four years he traded with the Indians, carrying seashells and sea snails to interior tribes, which they used to cut mesquite beans, in exchange for bison skins and red ochre, a dye prized for body paint by the coastal Indians. The natives gave him food in exchange for what they believed were his healing powers. He blew his breath on the injured or afflicted parts of the body and incorporated prayers and the Catholic practice of crossing himself, which he reported almost always made those receiving the treatment feel better. Each winter he returned to Malhado to check on the two survivors who steadfastly refused to leave.

In 1532, when one of the men on Malhado died, the survivor Lope de Oviedo, agreed to journey down the coast after Cabeza de Vaca promised to carry him on his back if they had to swim across streams. At Matagorda Bay, a tribe Cabeza de Vaca called Quevenes threatened to kill them, which caused Oviedo to turn back with a group of native women and disappear. Despite their threats, the Indians told Cabeza de Vaca of “three Christians like him” and agreed to take him across the bay. Upon reaching the other side, he traveled to the “River of Nuts,” present Guadalupe and found three of his former companions being held as slaves, the other nine having died as they made their way along the coast.

For the next eighteen months, the four endured slavery under the Coahuiltecans, always planning to escape at their first opportunity. During their captivity, they heard stories of the fate of their expedition. Some had died of exposure and hunger; others succumbed to violence among themselves or from natives, and some of the survivors resorted to eating the flesh of their companions. In late summer 1534, they slipped away separately and headed toward the Rio Grande. Despite the odds, they soon met again and joined friendly Indians southwest of Corpus Christi Bay, where they remained for the next eight months.

They crossed the Rio Grande into Mexico near present Falcon Dam Reservoir, but upon hearing of hostile Indians along the Gulf coast, turned back across northern Mexico to the Gulf of California and the Pacific Ocean. Four men out of the original 300 reached Mexico City in July 1536, almost eight years after setting foot on the Florida Gulf coast.

Estevanico by Granger
Texas State Historical Association

Two of the men married wealthy widows of Conquistadores and remained in Mexico. Estevanico was sold or loaned to serve as a scout for an advance expedition of Coronado’s entrada. Stories as to his fate. One account says he was killed by Zuni Indians in present western New Mexico. Other accounts claim that he and friends feigned his death and he escaped to freedom.

Cabeza de Vaca had not completed his service to the crown. He was assigned the governorship of present-day Paraguay in Central South America. His experience in Texas, despite mistreatment and slavery, had made him a champion of the native people. When he tried to initiate policies that would help the local tribes—removing Indian slaves from cruel masters and placing them with kinder owners, instituting restrictions against holding Indian women as concubines, and adding modest taxes, settlers determined to exploit the native population removed him from office and sent him back to Spain in chains.

During his six-year trial, conviction, and his subsequent pardon, Cabeza de Vaca wrote Relación (Account), his detailed description of his Texas experiences as a merchant, doctor, ethnologist, historian, and observer of plants and animals. He recorded Native American’s incest taboos, dietary habits—spiders, ant eggs, worms, lizards, and poisonous vipers—when nothing else was available, and methods used for insect repellent. He even recorded his profound distaste for sodomy among the hunting and gathering culture. His description of the buffalo was the first written account of those wild creatures.

Cabeza de Vaca died about 1559, but his extraordinary adventures and his detailed documentation have earned him the title of Texas’ first historian. He performed one other amazing task as he and the other castaways walked barefoot across Texas and Mexico. His description of removing an arrowhead lodged in the chest just above an Indian’s heart earned Cabeza de Vaca fame as the “Patron Saint” of the Texas Surgical Society.

Cabeza de Vaca surgery
Texas State Historical Association

Scalped and Lived to Tell About It

When an old story comes from many sources, it is difficult to glean the exact details.  In this case, we know a man was scalped and lived to tell about it.

Farmers like Josiah Wilbarger and his wife who settled the west accepted the ever-present danger of Indians hostile to encroachment of the new arrivals.  Surveyors mapping the land grants for the early colonists faced an even greater threat because the Indians feared and hated surveyors, calling their compass “the thing that steals the land.”

In addition to farming his land, granted in 1832 a few miles east of the present city of Austin, Josiah Wilbarger worked as a surveyor.  Stories vary as to what Wilbarger and his four friends were doing out in the country in August 1833.  Most accounts say they were on a surveying trip and stopped near Pond Spring to have lunch.

The attack came suddenly as a large band of Indians swooped down with rifles and bows, killing one man, shooting another in the hip, and hitting Wilbarger in the calf of his leg.

As the men scrambled to mount their horses, they saw Wilbarger take another blow.  Some accounts say a bullet, others say an arrow struck Wilbarger in the neck as the Indians descended on him.  Whatever they saw, it convinced Wilbarger’s friends that he was dead.

The survivors raced several miles to the protection of the Reuben Hornsby home; planning to return the next morning for the bodies after the Indians finished their scalping ritual.  That night Mrs. Hornsby dreamed of Wilbarger sitting under a tree seriously injured.  She woke her husband who dismissed her as overreacting to all the excitement.  Mrs. Hornsby dreamed a second time, even recognizing the site where Hornsby lay naked.

It’s not clear when the men returned for Wilbarger.  Some say Mrs. Hornsby insisted they leave immediately; other versions claim the men waited until morning.  Either way, Mrs. Hornsby provided a blanket saying, “Take this to make a stretcher.  He’s not dead but he can’t ride.”

They found him as Mrs. Hornsby claimed, scalped and near death.  Placing his naked body on the blanket, they carried him back to the Hornsby’s where Mrs. Hornsby applied poultices of wheat bread and bear grease.

As Wilbarger grew stronger he told of how the arrow in his neck paralyzed him, making him unable to feel as the Indians hovered around obviously believing he was dead.  One man used his knife to carve around Wilbarger’s scalp and then snatched his hair so hard it sounded like a mighty clap of thunder as the flesh ripped from his head.

Continuing to feign death, Wilbarger waited until the Indians finished the other scalping rituals and left.  Some stories say Wilbarger pulled the arrow from his neck and passed out.  When he awoke, he was blazing with fever and crawled to the nearby spring to cool his pain-racked body.  He started to crawl toward the Hornsby house, but made it as far as the tree where he passed out again.

Upon waking he saw his sister who lived in Missouri come toward him saying for him not to worry, help was on the way.  Then, she walked away toward the Hornsby house.

Several months later, word came that his sister died the day before the Indian attack.  She was buried on the day her image appeared to Wilbarger.

The hole about the size of a large silver dollar in Wilbarger’s scalp never healed.  He wore silk bandages to protect his head for the next eleven years.  He died at his home on April 11, 1844, after striking his head on a low beam in his cotton gin.

Josiah Wilbarger

John Wesley Wilbarger, Josiah’s brother, is among the many tellers of this tale.  A Methodist minster and sometime surveyor with Josiah Wilbarger, John Wesley spent twenty years collecting accounts of Indian atrocities from sources he claimed were always reliable.  In 1889 he published Indian Depredation in Texas, a 672-page piece of Texana filled with 250 separate stories of attacks and counterattacks.

The book came out at a time when academics were beginning to tell a more balanced account of Indian culture and motives.  John Wesley Wilbarger, however, painted Indians as unredeemable savages.

An interesting aside related to John Wesley Wilbarger’s book is the thirty-four woodcut illustrations recently attributed to William Sydney Porter, better known as O. Henry.

Woodcut attributed to William Sydney Porter, better known as O. Henry


Sarah Ridge survived a lifetime of tragedy before she arrived in Texas.  Born in 1814 in the Cherokee Nation near present Rome, Georgia, she enjoyed a privileged life as the daughter of Major Ridge, a Cherokee leader, friend of Sam Houston, and plantation owner with black and Native American slaves.  Sarah attended mission schools and a girls’ seminary in Winston-Salem North Carolina—an excellent education for a woman of her time.

Sarah’s father and her brother John were among the Cherokee leaders who signed a treaty in 1835 with the United States that promised to compensate the Cherokees for their rich farmland in Georgia in exchange for land in present Oklahoma and Arkansas.  Major Ridge and other Cherokee leaders believed the continued encroachment of white settlers and the failure of the state of Georgia and the federal government to protect the Cherokee’s land made it wise for the Cherokees to accept the U.S. offer of financial arrangements for their peaceful removal to Indian Territory.

Soon after signing the treaty Ridge and his family were among the first group of Cherokees to head west.  Another group of about 16,000 refused to leave and continued a legal battle to retain their land.  Finally, in 1838 President Martin Van Buren ordered the U.S. Army to round up the Cherokees, place them in temporary stockades, and march them to Indian Territory.  The 800-mile journey became known as “The Trail of Tears,” as approximately 4,000 Cherokees died from abuse, starvation, and lack of proper clothing in the frigid winter.

Anger and a sense of betrayal, led a group of Cherokees to assassinate Major Ridge, his son John, and Sarah’s cousin Elias Boudinot.

Sarah married George Washington Paschal, an attorney who represented the Cherokees before the U.S. Supreme court as they fought to retain their land.  Finally, he helped move the Cherokees west and eventually served on the Arkansas Supreme Court.

Sarah bore six children before the family moved to Galveston in 1848.  During the 1850 yellow fever outbreak Sarah used her knowledge of Cherokee herbs and medicinal remedies to relieve the suffering of many victims, and turned their home into a hospital.

The Paschals divorced later that year, and Sarah retained their home and a dozen slaves.  Sarah married Charles Session Pix in 1856 in the home, ironically, of Mirabeau B. Lamar, the former President of the Republic of Texas known for his anti-Indian policies.  Sarah sold her Galveston home and the Pixes bought and operated with six slaves a successful 520-acre cattle ranch north of Galveston Bay.  During the Civil War, while Charles Pix served in the Confederacy, Sarah ran the ranch.  After the war the operation suffered financial decline.

Following a celebrated trial the Pixes were divorced in 1880.  Until her death in 1891, Sarah remained on the ranch with her widowed daughter and two grandsons.  Her heirs still own the land.

Click this site to view Sarah’s gravestone and the Texas Historical Marker for Sarah Ridge Paschal Pix.


It is probably legitimate to say she died of a broken heart, a heart that started breaking when she was about nine years old.  Cynthia Ann Parker’s family and several members of the Parker clan moved from Illinois to North Central Texas in the spring of 1835 and built a log fortress they called Fort Parker.

On May 19, 1836, several of the men in the Parker family were out working in the field a mile from the fort when a large force of Comanche, Kiowa and Kichai attacked the fort.  Cynthia Ann’s horror began as she watched the slaughter of her father, uncle, and grandfather.  As was the custom among Southern Plains Indians, the women were raped.  Some were killed or died later from their wounds.

Her uncle James Parker arrived from the field in time to help seventeen family members escape into the nearby forest, but he was too late to help Cynthia Ann.  She was carried away as were her brother John, and James’ own daughter and grandson, and his sister-in-law—five family members—stolen by the Indians who soon divided their captives among different bands.

Over the next several years, the Parker family began recovering first one and then another of its lost members through various ransom arrangements.

For twenty-four years stories surfaced of Cynthia Ann being spotted with various Comanche bands, even refusing on one occasion her brother John’s request to return to her white family.  An Indian Agent claimed that offers to buy her release were rebuffed by Comanches who vowed that only force would induce her captors to release her.

Cynthia Ann married Peta Nocona, war chief of the Nocone band of the Comanche who was so devoted to his white wife that despite Comanche custom of polygamy, he never took another wife.  She bore two sons Quanah and Pecos and a daughter Topsanna (often called Prairie Flower).

On December 18, 1860, Sul Ross led his Texas Rangers on a surprise attack of a Comanche hunting camp, killing many including women and children. Peta Nocona was shot, and accounts differ as to whether or not he was killed.  The Rangers were surprised that one of the three Indian captives who carried an infant daughter had blue eyes and spoke broken English.  When she said her family name, Ross believed he had found the missing Cynthia Ann.

Some of the Rangers tried to convince Ross to allow her return to the Comanches, but Ross believed so many families across the country had lost children in Indian raids that it would stir up terrible unrest among all the families not to allow her reunion with her white family.

When Cynthia Ann’s Uncle Isaac Parker arrived and said her name, Cynthia Ann patted her chest and said “Me Cincee Ann.”

At some point after her “rescue” Cynthia Ann, her hair cut short–a Comanche sign of mourning–was photographed with her two-year-old daughter Topsanna at her breast. She apparently believed her husband was dead and that she would never again see her sons Quanah and Pecos.

The following April, the Texas Legislature granted Cynthia Ann $100 a year for the next five years, a league of land (about 4,400 acres), and appointed her uncles guardians. Despite being moved from the home of one family member to the next, she never adjusted to life in white society and tried unsuccessfully several times to return to her Comanche family.

In 1864, Topsanna died of influenza.  Cynthia Ann never recovered from losing her daughter.  Some accounts say she stopped eating and died very soon; others say she continued to grieve until her death in 1870.  She died without knowing that her son Quanah became the last of the great Comanche chiefs.