New Mexico Episode 7 – Cow’s Head Transcrip

Hello and welcome to Distant Echoes Episode 7: New Mexico 7: Cow’s Head.

Last time we summarized the state of New Mexico as it began to emerge from the foggy depths of prehistory. This time we’ll get into some of the earliest adventurers to come to New Mexico. There are maps on the website that will be updated as we talk about these early explorers.

While there were probably others before Álvar Núñes Cabeza De Vaca, mostly Spanish slavers, he was the first to put his name to being a European to travel through New Mexico. We’ll start with his background, the background to the expedition and its leader, and then get into the first half of the expedition.

Cabeza de Vaca’s title has a bit of a curious story behind it.

This is not the history of Spain podcast, so we’ll only be touching on it here where it is relevant to our story of Cabeza De Vaca and grossly oversimplify the whole thing. In 1212, a peasant named Alhaja left a cow’s skull to mark an undefended mountain pass through the Sierra Morenas in southern Spain. Using this pass, the Moors were defeated by the Spanish in the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa. King Sancho of Navarre created the title of Cabeza de Vaca and gave it to Alhaja. From this, Cabeza de Vaca’s mother Doña Teresa would inherit the title.

Born in 1490 in the Andalusian town of Jérez, a town near the port city of Cadíz, Cabeza de Vaca would adopt his mother’s title instead of his father’s arguably more prestigious title of de Vera, related to the Spanish conquest of the Canary Islands. Cadíz was a fairly well traveled port, Magellen would set sail from there and Columbus would be brought back to this port after his arrest.

In his teens, following the tradition among the gentry, he enlisted for a military career. In 1511 he was sent to Italy where he would see action in the Battle of Ravenna. He would then serve as an ensign outside of Naples before his return to Spain. He would survive the Comuneros Civil War, the battle of Tordesillas, the battle of Villalar, and would fight the French in the region of Navarre.

By 1527 he was a veteran of some distinction. At the time, the Spanish were preparing to colonize Florida in the Pánfilo de Narváez expedition. Cabeza de Vaca was able to secure an appointment as second in command for this expedition. The goal of the Narvaez expedition was to set up a colony on the coast of Florida. Let’s talk a bit about the background to the expedition and the man chosen to lead this expedition.

Narvaez was one of Cortez’s original rivals in the conquest of Mexico at one point he had ended up in prison at Cortez’s hands. He had been governor of Cuba for a time as well. He was most likely chosen due to the former as a way to try and check Cortez’s growing influence instead of giving it to one of Cortez’s men. Something we’ll see with similar expeditions in the near future.


Narvaez was given the royal charter to conquer Florida for the Spanish crown. To reap the spoils of establishing the colony, he had to establish at least two towns of 100 settlers each and return one fifth of all profits to the crown, known as the royal fifth. Cabeza de Vaca was chosen as his second in command.

Two things of note about Spanish expeditions during this period. They still thought they were on the fringes of Asia and not a brand new continent, and they did not have an understanding of the currents in the gulf coast, leading them to underestimate the distance between the northernmost Spanish outposts on the coast and Florida.

Anyway, back to Cabeza de Vaca, It is possible before he set sail that he married, but it is also possible that he postponed marriage until his return. I want to say that the translation I use for these episodes does note that all the dates are roughly ten days later than they actually occurred. Outside of direct quotes I have corrected the dates.

There are a lot of names mentioned only a handful of times in Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative; such as the Han or Capoques tribes he stayed with on Galveston island or Alvaro Fernadez, one of the members of the expedition. As most of them are only relevant to our story in so far as Cabeza de Vaca’s brief encounters and to avoid confusion I have decided to omit these names where I found appropriate.

They left Spain on June 17, 1527 for the island of Santo Domingo arriving around September 5. During their time preparing in Santo Domingo, they lost 140 men before continuing on to Santiago de Cuba to resupply. From there, Cabeza De Vaca and some men would be sent on to Port of Trinidad as Narvaez had been promised supplies, during this time Narvaez would stay behind.

During this side trip a tropical storm would strike the West Indies, Cabeza De Vaca giving the following account starting an hour after he left his ships to get mass after much insistence from the locals:

“An hour after I left, the sea began to rise ominously and the north wind blow so violently that the two boats would not have dared come near land even if the head winds had not already made landing impossible. All hands labored severely under a heavy fall of water that entire day and until dark on Sunday. By then the rain and tempest had stepped up until there was as much agitation in the town as at sea. All the houses and churches went down. We had to walk seven or eight together, locking arms, to keep from being blown away. Walking in the woods gave us as much fear as the tumbling houses, for the trees were falling, too, and could have killed us. We wandered all night in this raging tempest without finding any place we could linger as long as half an hour in safety. Particularly from midnight on, we heard a great roaring and the sound of many voices, of little bells, also flutes, tambourines, and other instruments, most of which had lasted till morning, when the storm ceased. Nothing so terrible as this had been seen in these parts before. I drew up an authenticated account of it and sent it back to Your Majesty.”

As a result of this storm; 60 men and the provisions he had been sent to acquire were lost. The two ships Cabeza de Vaca had been sent with were both lost. Some of the men lost were found lodged in some treetops about ¾ths of a mile inland. This is also the first recorded account of a West Indies Hurricane.

On October 26, Cabeza de Vaca managed to acquire 4 more ships from the governor of Cuba and sailed to the port of Jagua. There he would remain until February 10, 1528. Upon his arrival, he would meet up with Narvaez, who had picked up a pilot who claimed to know the waters in the area around Florida. Narvaez had also purchased another vessel at this time which he had left Havana.

They quickly set sail for the mainland. Immediately, however, they ran into trouble when they got beached on a shoal off the coast of Cuba and were stuck for 15 days until a storm finally raised the water level enough to allow for them to continue sailing. They sighted land on April 2. On April 4, they came to anchor in a bay, perhaps Sarasota. The comptroller Alonso Enriquez ventured to an island in the bay to trade with the Indians in the area.

The next day the Spanish made landfall and found the village they had traded with, which had been deserted the night before. The next day, quote,

“the Governor raised flags and took possession of the country in Your Majesty’s name.”

The men and surviving horses were also brought ashore after claiming the land and Cabeza de Vaca notes on the surviving horses

“these few were too thin and run down to be of much use.”

The villagers soon returned and despite the lack of a translator, they made it obvious that they wanted the Spanish to leave. But they did not interfere any further.

Narvaez then decided to continue exploring, taking a group of 40 men with him. During this trip they may have discovered Tampa Bay and returned the next day.

The brig with the expedition was sent back to Cuba while the pilot was instructed to find a harbor he supposedly knew about with a different ship. If they could not find the harbor they were to return to Cuba to join the brig to bring back additional supplies.

They continued to explore and discovered another village. This village had Castillian made boxes with European bodies in them. The expedition had the boxes burned as it was “idolatry.” They also learned that a certain “Apalachee” tribe had much gold and other precious materials. They stayed here for several days.

On April 20, Narvaez called the leadership together to express his desire to explore with a party further inland to find this Apalachee tribe while the ships were to meet them nearby, once again at this illusive harbor. Before I get into how de Vaca portrays this event, I want to note that for most of this stuff we only have his account or the account in the joint report written by De Vaca and two of the survivors, so when de Vaca seems to have some foreknowledge of what was going to happen, it may be a bit too convenient. Either way, de Vaca gave his response:

“It seemed to me, I answered, that under no circumstances should we forsake the ships before they rested in a secure harbor which we controlled; that the pilots, after all, disagreed among themselves on every particular and did not so much as know where we then were; that we would be deprived of our horses in case we needed them; that we could anticipate no satisfactory communication with the Indians, having no interpreter, as we entered an unknown country; and that we did not have supplies to sustain a march we knew not where – no more than a pound of biscuit and a pound of bacon per man being possible from the ships’ stores. I concluded that we had better re-embark and look for a harbor and soil better suited to settle, since what we had so far seen was the most desert and poor that had ever been discovered in that region.”

According to de Vaca other leaders gave varied responses. But Narvaez was determined to go on anyway. He offered to let de Vaca stay with the ships. He declined saying that if it went wrong he did not want his loyalty questioned and that he did not think the two groups would meet again.

300 men would set out with Narvaez inland with little food to begin with. They would find no one and little to eat on their march. They finally met a group of people when they crossed the Suwannee River. For some reason they thought these people were hostile; De Vaca does not give details on why. But they set upon them anyway and captured some and forced these men to guide them to their village so the Spanish could resupply and they spent three days recovering. It is possible that Cabeza De Vaca does not give the details because at this point the Spanish were stealing from native villages to survive which would have been frowned upon.

From there, the leadership entreated Narvaez to begin looking for the sea. De Vaca, Captain Alonso de Castillo, and 40 men would set out in search of the sea and to scout the nearby area. They would find little better places to cross the Suwannee than where they had originally crossed. They would bring this news back to Narvaez. Another group would be sent to find the sea and would return a few days later.

From here they set out for the sea. Seeing no other people until June 7th. Again, my translation of Cabeza de Vaca’s Relacion has dates that are off by ten days. So when he says “on this 17th…”, he really means June 7th. De Vaca gives a great description of this encounter: 

“Then on this 17th [June 7], there appeared in front of us a chief in a painted deerskin riding on the back of another Indian, musicians playing reed flutes walking before, and a train of many subjects attending him.”

This chief would note that his people were enemies of the Apalachee that the Spanish sought and would assist them. At this point the Spanish would reward him with gifts. When trying to cross the Apalachicola River one man, Juan Velasquez, would drown. The Spanish would spend the night in the village belonging to this chief, during the night one Spaniard would be attacked and the villagers would flee. The next day they continued onwards and arrived at the village of the Apalachee.

Narvaez would order 50 men and 9 horsemen to attack the village. However they did not encounter any men, only women and boys who immediately attacked. At this point in his narrative De Vaca mentions the plentiful game, it makes someone wonder as to why they weren’t hunting to survive. Maybe they were and weren’t getting enough food.

A few days later,  the men of the village would return and ask for the captives to be released. The Spanish agreed for all but a captured cacique, what the Spanish called native american tribal leaders and comes from the Tiano word for chief. This would backfire and the natives would respond with violence. This would be the start of a 25 day long guerrilla campaign. During this time they learned of another village Aute and set out for that, facing hit and run attacks the entire time and several more men would die.

When they arrived at Aute they would find the village burned to the ground, although some food was left behind. From there Narvaez sent De Vaca to find the coast. By the time he returned, he found that sickness was spreading through the men. My translation speculates that it may have been dysentery and/or maybe malaria. Despite this they continued onwards but due to the number of sick men they were unable to make much progress.

At this junction, they decide to build barges and take to the sea to try and get to more favorable territory, thinking the Spanish were much closer than they really were. At this time, the Spanish did not have a good idea for the scale of the American continent or the currents of the gulf of Mexico. They began converting tools, stirrups, any metal they had on them into nails for the rafts, basically sacrificing what little military advantages they had over the locals to try to survive. For food they took what they could from the village of Aute which was still nearby and killed their horses every third day to feed the sick. They also turned the hides into containers for fresh water.

By September 12, they embarked on five barges and sailed for five days before landing on an island after sighting a group heading for it. This island could have been St. Vincent’s off the coast of Florida where they found food before continuing onwards. Those hide containers began to rot and the expedition began to run out of water. They landed on another island hoping to find water and found none. Due to a set of storms they were stuck here for four days, during which some men resorted to drinking salt water despite the fact it would not hydrate them. On the fifth day they made a decision, they could take their chances in the storm or they could die of dehydration on the island. They chose the former.

From here they ended up off of the coast, perhaps Pensacola. They found friendly people that gave them water in pots, however while resting that night they were attacked again by these same supposedly friendly people although they were able to successfully fend them off. They were stuck here for a time due to a storm before setting off again.

This time they made it up towards Mobile Bay where they encountered another group of people. Two men were selected to go with the natives to get water while some of the natives were kept as hostages. Upon their return, the two Spanish hostages had disappeared and the pots were gone. While the hostages tried to escape the Spanish managed to hold onto them but were forced to go onwards.

I do want to take a second to talk about the two Spaniards that went with the natives at this point. It is possible that they actually abandoned the expedition and were not killed as Cabeza de Vaca speculates, based on information gathered during the latter De Soto expedition to Florida when they met this same group.

The barges continued onwards to the Mississippi where they were able to get water. They tried to sail up that great river but failed and were forced to continue onwards, the river causing the barges to get separated.

Upon sighting two other barges, he recognized one as Narvaez’s and caught up to it. From De Vaca: “He asked me what I thought we should do. I said, on to the barge ahead; by no means abandon her; so the three might go where God willed, together. He said that could not be done; the lead barge was too far out to sea and he wanted to get to shore. If I wished to follow him, he continued, I should order my men to the oars, since only by arm work could the land be gained. His old cohort, Captain Pantoja, had advised him thus. Pantoja claimed that if we did not make land that day, we would not in six more, by which time we would have starved. The Governor’s will clearly divulged, I took up my oar, and all my men theirs, and we rowed till nearly sunset. But the Governor, having the healthiest and strongest men in his barge, could not keep up. I yelled to him to throw me a rope so we could stay with him. He called back that if he were to do what he hoped that night, he must not further sap his men’s strength. I said that since we were too feeble to carry out his orders to follow him, he must tell me how he would that I should act he replied that it was no longer a time when one should command another; that each must do as he thought was best to save himself; that that was what he was doing now. So saying he pulled away in his barge.”

Again, Cabeza de Vaca is our only source of this event. It may not have quite gone down like this. De Vaca seems to paint a fairly negative picture of Narvaez throughout the account, which may not be entirely true. Usually he does this by claiming the governor’s subordinates advised him to make these bad decisions. 

With that, De Vaca went to meet up with the other barge. The cohesion of the group had begun to break down. During a storm, this other barge would be lost to De Vaca and they would have to continue on alone. De Vaca writes about how cold and weak the men had become at this point. On around October 17, maybe up to a week earlier, they arrived at Galveston island. They quickly sent out a scout who found some food and a dog at a nearby village. He was pursued by the people he had stolen from. The matter was able to be settled peacefully and the people brought more food for them the next day.

They worked on repairing their barge, but when attempting to take it out to sea once again it capsized and was lost along with two men. Among the items on the barge was most of the men’s clothes, De Vaca puts their state at this point as such

“we lost only those the barge took down; but the survivors escaped as naked as they were born, with the loss of everything we had. That was not much, but valuable to us in that bitter November cold, our bodies so emaciated we could easily count every bone and look at the picture of death.”

But, luckily they were taken in by the people on the island.

During this time survivors from two of the other barges arrive. To try and save the remaining men, they found four strong swimmers and sent them out from Galveston Island to try and get help from the Spanish which they still thought were much closer than they were in reality. At this point some of the diseases that the men were suffering from spread to the natives they were staying with. The Spanish took to calling the island Isla de Malhado or the Island of Doom or Island of Misfortune depending on how dramatic you want to be. The natives that the Spanish were staying with only lived here seasonally, collecting roots and fish during the winter and living on the mainland the rest of the year. It is at this point that De Vaca begins to mention becoming a faith healer to survive.

Some of the Spanish would bribe another native with a marten cloak they had stolen during one of their earlier adventures to get them off of the island. At this point De Vaca had fallen deathly ill and they pretended to be visiting him before escaping. Only two others were forced or chose to stay behind.

While the exact details are not recorded in the report, De Vaca and the other Spanish became slaves at this point. Being harshly treated by the people they were staying with. Moving into 1530 however, De Vaca was able to become a trader thanks to his neutral affiliation with the tribes in this area. This allowed him to move freely through the area, they believe he got as far as Oklahoma. He would stay in this state until 1532, trying to plan his own escape as well as that of the lone remaining other Spaniard he knew of. This Spaniard, Lopez de Oviedo, who continued to insist they’d leave the next year and then when the time finally arrived he’d demur until the next year again until finally agreeing to go with Cabeza de Vaca in 1532.

Shortly after leaving Galveston island, the Spanish learned that at least three others were alive and soon to be in the area. They decided to wait for the other three before continuing on. Oviedo would return to the island at this time and drop out of our narrative.

The other three survivors would finally arrive: Alonso de Castillo and a Moorish slave Esteban came with one group, and Andrés Dorantes with another. As a note, Esteban is also called by several other names depending on the translation including Estavan, Estabanico, Estavanico, and Stephen. The -ico nicknames are considered to have been insulting nicknames. He manages to meet with all three and they plan their escape in six months, when they would be able to travel with a different group. De Vaca would end up with the same group as Dorantes.

They would travel some 100 miles to Matagorda Bay. Here they meet up with one of the four who had swam from the island, Matagorda Bay being as far as the swimmers had been able to make it. It was here that they found out what happened to Narvaez himself.

Back in 1528, one of the barges had capsized near a river and had been lost. When Narvaez’s barge had arrived, they traveled along the shore while his party remained in the barge but nearby. One night, a strong wind took the barge out to sea and it was never seen again. Some have suggested that Narvaez had abandoned the men on the shore although there is no way of knowing for sure as this was the last recorded sighting of the leader of the expedition and we only have the story that de Vaca claims he was told by a removed source.

Those left behind by Narvaez made it to San Antonio Bay, where infighting began and in their hunger the men resorted to cannibalism. One of these men survived to March where he was killed trying to flee the natives that had discovered him and were horrified by what he and his companions had been forced to resort to.

Back in 1533, some of the Spaniards were turned out and left to fend for themselves. Most of the group would be split up and perish, some trying to escape. The four we’ve been following would also get caught up in all of this, but would manage to survive. For our four heroes, the six months passed as planned. But due to fighting between the two groups that had them, they had to wait another year. The plan was to escape on the New Moon on August 29, although the actual date of the new moon was about a week later than their planned date, showing that Cabeza de Vaca’s calendar may have been slightly off, which is not too surprising considering the hardships the men had endured to this point. Cabeza de Vaca had promised the other three that he would wait at the appointed spot until the full moon before continuing onwards.

After about two weeks Dorantes and Esteban would arrive. Here they would learn that the last barge had capsized nearby and all the men had died. Shortly thereafter they were able to meet up with Castillo. Now all four were traveling with the same group. After conferring with this more friendly group, they learned that there would be little food if they left immediately. Instead, they decided to spend the winter with them. During which time they worked mostly as healers. Cabeza de Vaca got lost at one point and nearly died. They stayed a further 8 months with this group.

It is here where they begin to move further west that I want to leave Cabeza de Vaca. A map of the expedition is available at the website and in the show notes.

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