History of New Mexico 8: Go West Lost Man

Hello, and welcome to Distant Echoes. New Mexico Episode 8: Go West Lost Man.

Last time we left Cabeza de Vaca, Alonso de Castillo, Andres Doroantes, and Esteban preparing to continue moving west. Just after leaving the group they had just been staying with to travel with a new one.

They had deliberated for a short period of time about which way to go, they could travel south along the coast, and presumably, arrive in Spanish controlled territory much more quickly. But they had found the Indians along the coast to be much less friendly than those they had found inland. Thus the decision was made to continue moving west and heading inland before finding a convenient place to cut south and continue on into Spanish territory. Presumably to de Vaca and his companions, all of the other members of the expedition had perished at this point.

They then spent another 8 months with a different group. De Vaca describes how hungry they were during this time: “Among them we underwent fiercer hunger than among the Adavares.” The Adavares being the last group they had stayed with. “we ate not more than two handfuls of prickly pears a day, and they were still so green and milky they burned our mouths. In our lack of water, eating brought great thirst. At nearly the end of our endurance we bought two dogs for some nets, with other things, and a skin I used for cover.”

Another note, the Spanish at this time called prickly pear fruit tunas, which I just thought was interesting. The dogs were swiftly eaten to help restore their strength before they left for the next group. On this journey they got so hungry they had to eat cactus pads. From this next group they continued on to Big Spring Texas before continuing to move inland from group to group until they could see mountains. During one of these changes they encountered women with cornmeal, probably from the Pueblos far to the north. At this point they had started to build a small group of followers that accompanied them to the next village to get gifts then would head home and a new group would do the same to the next village.

They crossed the Pecos River possibly somewhere near Carlsbad and Dorantes was given a copper rattle. They continued through the mountains and into the foothills. De Vaca comments on how little food and water there was. With one group they stayed for half a month due to an ongoing war with the next group. This was approximately sometime in late October 1535.

Castillo and Esteban were taken to see what they were told was a permanent village near El Paso. But modern research does not believe this to have been a truly sedentary settlement; they were taken there by two women, one a captive from the village. “… The captive one led them to a river which ran between mountains where her father’s town lay. The dwellings of this town were the first to be seen which looked like real houses.”

Here they heard of the pueblos. They wanted to see them but were told the route was dangerous so they did not go that far north. Instead they cut west near Rincon New Mexico and continued across Arizona down to Sonora, staying with several groups along the way.

Here they were given probably the strangest items that Cabeza de Vaca talks about. Several “emerald” arrowheads, although most likely they were actually malachite. “We marched more than a hundred leagues through continuously inhabited country of such domiciles, where corn and beans remained plentiful. The people gave us innumerable deer hide and cotton blankets, the latter better than those of New Spain, beads made of coral from the South Sea, fine turquoise from the north – in fact, everything they had including a special gift to me of five emerald arrowheads such as they use in their singing and dancing. These looked quite valuable. I asked where they came from. They said from lofty mountains to the north, where there were towns of great population and great houses, and that the arrowheads had been purchased with feather bushes and parrot plumes.”

New Spain in this case is what the Spanish called Spanish Mexico during this period. They then continued onwards, however rains slowed their progress. Here they celebrated Christmas even though it was probably January 1536. At the next stop they noticed a man with a sword belt buckle and a horseshoe nail around his neck. Heard about Europeans and picked up the pace.

They stopped at a what would become a major stopping point of other Spanish expeditions known as Corazones.

As they continued, they traveled through areas devastated by Spanish slave hunters and noted the signs of precious metals. At one point they spot Europeans and their escort nearly dissolves. They find a recent European camp and Cabeza de Vaca tries to set up one last rally to go. Only Esteban and some of their escorts volunteered to accompany him. They finally meet the Spanish and are taken to captain Diego de Alcaraz, who notes he was having trouble capturing natives to make slaves. Cabeza de Vaca tells him where Castillo and Dorantes were. Men are sent to get them and Esteban goes back with them and De Vaca learns that it is March 1536. The exact day in March is not recorded.

After the rest are brought, an argument breaks out between the group and the slavers who want to, well, enslave the natives accompanying the survivors. This is when the emerald arrowheads are lost.

The group of natives escorting the survivors refused, at first, to leave the four in the hands of the Spanish thinking about how harshly the Spanish had treated them. However they were eventually convinced to do so and they established a colony at Bamoa. Meanwhile, De Vaca was arrested and taken to the Alcalde Mayor Melchior Diaz. Most likely they had been arrested to keep rumors from spreading as the Spanish tried to control the expansion of the colonies. Diaz had heard of the expedition, and by this point everyone assumed that the land portion was dead, and rushed out to greet the survivors.

During March they were asked to get the natives from the area to reestablish their villages. Which they did before they continued to Mexico City, arriving on July 4 before they would go their separate ways. Here is where I will mark the end of Cabeza De Vaca’s odyssey. We’ll spend the rest of this episode rounding out what happens to those who had survived.

We’ll start with the group that remained at sea. They had failed to find the harbor, but had found the bay where the Spanish had burned the boxes before returning. Supposedly The women that had been left behind on the ships, told those behind that they would never see their husbands again and should take new ones, a prophetic event for sure.

The barge and other ship from Cuba spent one year looking for the expedition before giving up. One of the men on the ships would be captured until being rescued by the De Soto expedition after he had integrated into the tribe that had captured him.

Diaz and Alcaraz, while only appearing at the end of our story, would go on to join Coronado on his great exploration of the plains and New Mexico where both would end up perishing.

There are several major questions that de Vaca leaves unanswered in his account that I want to address here. Some would be answered by later expeditions and others are still subjects of debate.

The first question was simply this: if Cabeza de Vaca and others had survived, why not others? Had one of the other survivors perhaps even established a Christian kingdom somewhere in the Tierra Nueva, as the land to the north of the Spanish colonies was beginning to be called, reminiscent of Prester John? Later expeditions would certainly ask this questions of later stories they heard.

Another question was what had been missed? Cabeza de Vaca heard about great cities to the north of where he traveled but had not seen them himself. Could these be the great cities of China or maybe India? Centers of much wealth with a large population? Perhaps they were further outlying civilizations for an enterprising conquistador to turn into encomiendas, a system we will talk a lot about in the future, so they could live the easy life? It would not be until near the end of the 16th century that the Spanish would have a better understanding that they were not in Asia anymore and instead had discovered an entirely new world.

The other question I want to talk about is something that plagues most of the other accounts of Spanish expeditions to the north. How they treated the Amerindian tribes that they met. Cabeza de Vaca relates that the tribes on the coast were unfriendly if not outright hostile to the Spanish they encountered, some of the tribes early on are hostile for unknown reasons. One suggestion I would like to posit is that the Spanish weren’t exactly being fair. They may have stolen from these people like the one group that was hostile with no reason given back in episode 7. Maybe some of these groups on the coast had been harassed by marauding Spaniards before the Narvaez expedition arrived. Maybe by the time they began to move further west perhaps the survivors better understood the cultural expectations of the people they were traveling with. We only have what the expedition recorded where there would have been motive to leave out some of their more unsavory actions.

Now onto what happened to our four heroes.

Starting with our narrator, Cabeza De Vaca. Alvar Nuñez Cabeza De Vaca would return to Spain attempting to get the royal charter to conquer Florida. However this had already gone to the De Soto expedition. Instead in 1540 he would sail to the Rio de La Plata in South America to serve as governor. He marched across the mainland through unexplored territory to Asunción. From there he would lead an expedition to try and find the fabled golden city of Manoa and failed.

Due to his policy of dismantling a system of abuses that could be taken against the natives, he fell victim to intrigue and was sent back to Spain in chains in 1543. He was not tried until 1551 where he was sentenced to 8 years exile in Africa. His wife would spend much of her fortune fighting for him. Due to this his sentence was eventually annulled and he was placed on the Audencia. He died in honor in 1557. His further adventures would also be published.

Alonso de Castillo stayed in Mexico and married a wealthy widow. From here he disappears from the historical record.

Andrés Dorantes was supposed to accompany Cabeza De Vaca to Spain. But after stopping off on the way, he would return to Mexico, possibly to begin organizing and recruiting for another expedition to the north. He would receive offers to go on the De Soto expedition and maybe have tried to start one with De Vaca. He would also marry a wealthy widow.

As for Dorantes’ slave Esteban, we will cover what happens to him during the next episode.

Now that we’ve at least briefly talked about Cabeza De Vaca and his overlap with New Mexico, I think it was almost five pages in my copy of his adventure, let’s talk about why it was important.

Cabeza de Vaca and his compatriots were some of the first to see New Mexico and the American Southwest, they would serve as the inspirations for countless unofficial expeditions and several official expeditions such as: Fray Marcos de Niza, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, and possibly several later ones such as the Chamuscado-Domingues expedition. Some of the tales they returned with were most definitely fantastical and would prove to be false or overblown. We’ll begin talking about some of these expeditions as well in our next episode.

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