De Vaca and Estaban
CABAZA DE VACA is a person whose life and legacy should be known by every school boy and girl in the United States. Instead, at least until recent years, this does not seem to have been the case. Helen and I were married and had two children before we learned that de Vaca became the leader of four men who were the first, ever, to make the journey across most of what would become the United States. When we did learn about him, we made up for lost time. It just so happened that a close friend and neighbor of ours when we lived by the Eagle Rock in Los Angeles was Dr. Frederick Hodge; he was probably the world’s greatest de Vaca authority. In gathering material for a documentary motion picture, Helen and I studied de Vaca’s life story and made an exploratory journey from Florida to the Gulf of Mexico, following the route of his strange journey across the continent.
It was just 26 years after Columbus’s final voyage to America that five ships of the Captain Narvaez expedition from Spain, carrying several hundred soldiers, colonists, and Franciscan friars and priests, landed on the beach near what is now St. Petersburg, just north of Tampa Bay, in Florida. Ordering the ships to await his return, the incompetent Narvaez led his expedition into the Florida wilds. At once the wilderness hazards began to take their toll. Dangerous swamps had to be waded. Undergrowth in places was too dense to penetrate. The Franciscans among the party had no protective armour, and suffered even worse than the others. On the Gulf of Mexico below what is now Tallahassee, disease swept the party’s ranks. Many died. In desperation, the remaining men built five crude rafts and set out on the Gulf, hoping to reach Mexico, where Cortez had gone. When the ill-fated commander, Narvaez, was lost, de Vaca became the leader.
To get water for drinking, they had to put ashore but once they discovered that, along one stretch, the waters of the Gulf were fresh. Without ever realizing it, they had come upon the outflow of the Mississippi River, long before it was discovered by de Soto.
In November, 1528, two of the boats were washed ashore somewhere below what is now the seawall at Galveston, Texas.
Soon, only 16 of the men remained alive, including Cabeza de Vaca, Captain Dorantes, and Dorantes’ slave, Estaban, the black.
Indians on Galveston Island were at first friendly but when the tribe became ill, many of them dying, they blamed their malady on the newcomers. The Spaniards were forced into slavery by the Indians, and separated among various tribes.
Several years passed. Cabeza de Vaca went from one tribe to another. He became the first person in history to write about and describe the life and customs of the Texas Indians. He was the first European to see the American buffalo, the “cibola” as the Indians called them.
More years passed. There was no calendar. He counted the days by the sunsets. He reckoned the months by the moons, and kept track of the years by the changing seasons.
Once a year the Texas Indian tribes came together at the harvesting place of the prickly pear. Here, after years of separation, de Vaca came upon three others of his long-lost shipmates; Castillo, a soldier, Captain Dorantes, and Estaban, the black. They were to become immortal in history.
During his years with the Indians, de Vaca had learned humility and compassion. He gained the Indians’ respect. Although not a Franciscan, he was treating the Indians in the spirit of St. Francis. Early American history would have been greatly different if all the Spanish explorers had been more like him.
When illness beset the Indians, even bringing death to many, their medicine men implored, then demanded, that the three white men, and the black, become healers.
Cabeza de Vaca even tried surgery, and was successful. Here is his own account of that surgery: “They brought to me a man who, they said, a long time ago had been wounded by an arrow in the right shoulder, and that the point of the shaft was lodged above his heart, which he said gave him much pain and, in consequence, he was always sick. Probing the wound, I felt the arrowhead and found it had passed through the car tilage. With a knife I carried, I opened the breast to the place and saw the point was athwart and was very troublesome to take out. I continued to cut, and, putting in the point of the knife, at last with great difficulty I drew the head forth. It was very large. Then with a deerbone, according to my knowledge of surgery, I made two stitches…. The next day I cut the two stitches and the Indian was well.”
[The Texas Surgical Society commissioned a painting showing de Vaca performing the operation. In correspondence with them they confirmed these facts and sent me a copy of the painting.]
To the amazement of all four of the men, who were now looked upon as gods by the Indians, they found that they had psychosomatic, psychological, and perhaps even deeper powers of healing.
Once together again, they determined to push westward.
Their reputation for healing preceded them. Often several thousand Indians would accompany them, guiding them, feeding them, and passing them on from one tribe to the next.
In this manner they traversed the central plains of Texas. Indians helped them cross the dangerous Pecos River. West of the Pecos, other tribes became their protectors and guides.
Somewhere near the present sleepy border town of Presidio, in southwestern Texas, they first came to the Rio Grande, and began following it upstream.
Ornamental gourds, sacred medicine objects that had belonged to the Pueblo tribes of New Mexico, sometimes floated down the Rio Grande and were found by the Texas Indians. Because of their liking for him, Indians gave one of these sacred gourds to Estaban, the black.
Long since, the relationship of master and slave between Captain Dorantes and Estaban had been forgotten. Estaban was not only an equal among equals, but he excelled the others in his ability to make friends with the Indians and learn their dialects. The Indians described him as “of great stature—a wonder to behold.”
The four men crossed the Rio Grande just below what is now the city of El Paso. In 1536, eight years after leaving Tampa Bay, they came upon outposts and scouts of Cortez near the Gulf of California. They had spanned a continent—the first human beings to cross America largely north of Mexico.
Cabeza de Vaca made a written report of the expedition to the king of Spain. Later translated by several different authorities, and edited by our friend Dr. Frederick Hodge who was then with the Smithsonian’s Bureau of American Ethnology, it has become one of the important documents in early American history.
De Vaca returned to Spain; Estaban stayed in the New World. More years passed. From the Indians, rumors of the famed “Seven Cities of Cibola” were reaching the Spaniards. Since Estaban knew something of the country, and had special skill with Indian dialects, in 1539 he was assigned to act as scout on a new expedition into the land of the Seven Cities, what is now Arizona and New Mexico.
The black man, Estaban, scouting ahead, reached the Zuni Indian village of Hawikuh, which is now in ruins below Gallup, New Mexico. But in his hand he held the gourd, sacred to the New Mexican Indians. It may have been for this reason that he was slain.
Estaban is immortalized in history as the first non-Indian to enter and explore Arizona and New Mexico and as traversing more of the North American continent than any other before him.
His achievements are memorialized at the Institute of Texas Culture in San Antonio, by a playground in Tucson, Arizona, by a park in Phoenix, and by a mural in the Arizona capitol building.
De Vaca and Estaban should have places equal to Columbus in American history. Columbus accidentally discovered the New World but de Vaca and Estaban were the ones to explore it and learn its secrets. At the 500th anniversary observations honoring Christopher Columbus in 1992, the story of de Vaca and Estaban should be immortalized.