Texas’ First Historian

In 1527, six years after the Spanish conquest of Mexico, Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca had not planned to become a historian when he set sail as the second in command of the Pánfilo de Narváez 600-man expedition.

Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca

Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca

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 near the River of Palms in Panuco Province (present Tampico, Mexico), —a miscalculation of about 1,500 miles—ignored Cabeza de Vaca’s protests and put ashore an exploring party of 300 men and forty horses.

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 Spaniards’ lone carpenter guided the construction of five rafts using deerskin and hollow 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 the hair of 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 west of Galveston Island on a beach Cabeza de Vaca soon named la Isla de Malhado (the Isle of Misfortune). The exhausted and starving men were terrified to see six-foot giants towering over them. Using sign language the Karankawas, 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 Karankawas 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 the province of Panuco, four strong swimmers were sent ahead with an Indian guide. Over the winter Cabeza de Vaca observed the Karankawas, noting that when a child died the entire village mourned the loss for a full year. He observed this same sensitivity to 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 Karankawas 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 Cabaza de Vaca and fourteen others had 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 having to cross 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 Quevenes told Cabeza de Vaca the names 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.

Route of the Cabeza de Vaca Expedition

Route of the Cabeza de Vaca Expedition

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 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 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.

Advertisements

Politics and Salt Did Not Mix

Travelers driving east from El Paso may find it difficult to imagine the longtime controversies that took place in the shadow of the

Guadalupe Peak

Guadalupe Peak

majestic Guadalupe Peak rising from the desert floor. The tallest mountain in Texas soars 8,751 feet above its western flank where an ancient salt flat sprawled across 2,000 acres. The salt and gypsum formed dunes that flowed from three-

Dunes in the Salt Flat

Dunes in the Salt Flat

to sixty-feet above the desert landscape. This treasure, lying about 100 miles east of present El Paso, was so important for the region’s Native Americans that for centuries they viewed it as a sacred place where they secured salt for tanning hides, for use as a condiment, and as a preservative. Things began to change when the Spanish discovered the site in 1692 and the villages, such as San Elizario that developed along the Rio Grande near present El Paso, viewed the Salt Flats as common land to be used by all the peoples of the region. The Indians, especially the Apaches, did not welcome the intruders who defied Indian attack to gather the precious resource. Even after the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended Mexican-American War and drew Mexico’s boundary with Texas at the Rio Grande, the Tejano farmers and ranchers supplemented their meager incomes by selling the salt as far away as the rich mining regions in Northern Mexico where it was used in smelting the silver.

More problems arose after the Civil War when El Paso came under the control of prominent Republicans who tried to claim the Salt Flat and charge a fee for Mexican Americans to gather the salt that had been free for many generations. Meantime, Charles H. Howard, a Democrat, arrived in El Paso in 1872 with the intention of turning the Republican stronghold into a Democratic electorate. Howard was successful for a time, got himself appointed district attorney and worked against the Republicans and the “Anti-Salt Ring.” Then, Howard changed course, filed on the salt deposits in the name of his father-in-law, which infuriated the El Paso area Hispanics who felt besieged by the Republicans and the Democrats. When Howard had the sheriff arrest local Tejano men to keep them from collecting the salt, a group of enraged local citizens held Howard prisoner until he agreed to relinquish all rights to the salt deposits.

Eventually in frustration over the attempted control of their community and their economic future, the Tejano people of San Elizario, closed all the county government and replaced it with committees (community juntas). The Anglos, who numbered less than 100 out of a population of 5,000, called on the governor who sent a detachment of Texas Rangers. When the Rangers arrived in the company of Howard, a two-day siege occurred ending with the surrender of the Texas Rangers, the first time in its history that a company of Rangers surrendered to a mob. Howard and the ranger sergeant and two others were executed. The disarmed Rangers were sent out of town, the Tejano leaders fled to Mexico, and residents looted the buildings. Twelve people were killed and fifty were wounded. No one was ever charged with a crime.

San Elizario paid a hefty price for its demands: the county seat was removed to El Paso, the 9th Cavalry of Buffalo Soldiers re-established Fort Bliss to patrol the border and watch the local Mexican population, the railroad bypassed San Elizario, the population declined, and the Mexican Americans lost their political influence in the area.

By the 1930s, floods had deposited silt across much of the flats and salt gathering came to a halt. Today the ghost town of Salt Flats, which consists of a scattering of mostly deserted buildings, edges the highway. Scattered vegetation grows where silt covered the old salt beds, but barren white stretches still offer a glimpse of the precious early-day resource.