Picking up where I left off yesterday . . .
We’ve all heard the stories of Cortez conquering the Aztecs and Pizzaro conquering the Incas, but we often only hear the stories of those who are regarded as conquerors. The victors. Even if their acts were entirely atrocious and inhumane.
History is distorted that way.
In fairness and in contrast, Francisco Vázquez de Coronado became famous for his folly of searching for the “legendary” Seven Golden Cities of Cíbola. Legendary in the sense that they didn’t exist and he was led away from various Indiana tribes by a clever, probably Pawnee Indian, called “Turk.”
The hope was Coronado might get lost in the wilderness, which would prevent him from pillaging more Indigenous Tribes. Yet despite Coronado’s misadventures, he still managed to leave a wide swath of destruction in his wake, particularly with the “Tiguex War” that resulted in the destruction of the Tiguex pueblos and the murder of hundreds of Native Americans.
Yes, the Spanish Conquistadors made big names for themselves as they spread their particular brand of carnage across the globe during the so-called “Age of Discovery.”
But as I asked yesterday, of all of these “conquerors,” have you ever heard the story of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca?*
I hadn’t until coming across it in the book, “Ghost Riders.” Accounts of this story vary, and I won’t tell this story in its entirety, nor perhaps as well as the author did in Ghost Riders, but suffice it say that this peregrination turned disastrous for most of its participants.
And liberating for at least one.
Cabeza de Vaca was the second-in-command of an expedition led by Panfilo de Narvaez that departed from Spain in 1527 with five ships and 600 men. Their charted destination was Florida. But, about 150 of these men abandoned the expedition when it stopped over in Hispaniola for supplies.
Back on the high seas, storms drove them to Cuba, and while in route more men and some ships were lost. Ultimately, those still on the quest, presumably 400 men at this point, arrived in the area near St. Petersburg, Florida in 1528.
Finding this landing place unsuitable for settlement (apparently only good for Spring Break – LOL), the expedition was split.** Part of the men (300) traveled north by land, the other group by sea. The intended target – a suitable harbor. But no such harbor was found. The two groups never reunited and the group traveling in the ships vanished all together.
The surviving 250 land-bound men constructed ships and headed out into the Gulf. But another storm would have its way with them and only 80 survived, being washed ashore near Galveston Island. And of these 80, only four men, three Spaniards and a slave from Morocco, would live much longer. First as slaves and then as traveling healers.
Cabeza was taken in by the Han and Capoque Indian Clans. Before rending aide, or as a condition of providing him help, he was asked to heal some of the Indians. And to his own surprise, the healings, consisting of blowing on the patients, praying, and making the sign of the cross, worked. But after falling ill and losing his healing credibility, de Vaca, was enslaved.
But he later escaped.
He became a wandering trader with various Indian tribes, and for two years he lived alone, fully returning to Nature, becoming barefoot and naked as he roamed to conduct his trade. In 1532, he learned of three other survivors, and in his attempt to find them (and he did) and free them (since they were enslaved), he was enslaved once again. The men’s meeting didn’t last long as separate groups of Indians dispersed with their respective slaves.
Later, in 1534, the various Clans met up again and the four men were reunited. And this time they all escaped.
At this point, Cabeza had spent some five years without wearing clothing or shoes, seven years not sleeping in some type of permanent building, and he had come to admire and respect the culture of the Indians.
The men wanted to return to some form of “civilization” and they decided to head West. But rumors had circulated among the Tribes of their healing ability. And, while on their foot journey, they were welcomed by the First Nation’s people, more miracles occurred, and the Indian Clans provided for them. Eventually many of the Indigenous joined these Europeans in their march towards the sea.
The entourage of followers began ransacking the huts of every Tribe in their path to provide for this ever-growing procession. And then those ransacked, would join the procession in an attempt to get their possessions back, perpetuating the need to ransack the next Tribe. Eventually, Clans simply offered up all of their possessions and joined the group to be able to experience the miracle healings.
In 1536, eight years after landing on American soil, Cabeza de Vaca, caught up with the fellow Spanish Christians he so desired to find. The “civilized” men were a group led by Captain Diego de Alcaraz. But de Vaca discovered quickly that these fellow Spaniards were successful conquerors, had brutalized the Indian tribes they had encountered, and Alcaraz now wanted to enslave de Vaca’s entourage of some 600 Indians.
He would not allow that to happen.
So, after some eight years and an estimated six thousand barefoot miles, Cabeza de Vaca, slave, trader, healer, wanderer, had converted. He had not conquered and he had not swayed the Indigenous to Christianity. He could no longer stand the trappings of civilization, including clothing and shoes. Nor could he tolerate the barbarism being perpetrated by his fellow Spaniards.
His entourage presumably dispersed and he returned to Spain, but he couldn’t take being walled-in. So in 1540, after securing sponsorship, he traveled to South America, was appointed “adelantado” of the Rio de la Planta – part of what is now Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay.
Once there, he took off his shoes and led his men on a thousand-mile walk through the jungle discovering several trade routes, but not much more. He killed no Indian and he lost none of his men. The following year, another 1000-mile trek. But he finally capitulated and gave up his brand of rambling after his men threatened mutiny.
The settlements in South America he presided over weren’t attracting enough residents and de Vaca was arrested and charged for poor administration. It’s also said he was the subject of Spain’s wrath for trying to prevent the exploitation of the Paraguayan Indians. He returned to Spain for trial in 1545, was exonerated, traveled back to South America, and died there around 1560.
Regardless of how poorly my rendition of his story, what captivates me is that it was de Vaca who was converted. Or maybe reverted is a better word. He recaptured the human spirit. Our ties to Mother Earth herself.
He acquired that “mental illness.” That “traveling fugue.” The “dromomania,” that drives us to seek out new places and experiences.
Can you imagine, even for a moment, taking a 1000 mile trek! That’s simply amazing!
So was it a “conversion” for de Vaca, or a “reversion?”
I believe this “disease” is hard-wired into our souls. I wrote about this a while back in the post, “Move Your Body, Move Your Mind,” where in terms of our evolutionary development, “our brains are designed to solve problems, related to surviving, in an unstable outdoor environment, and to do so in nearly constant motion.”
Being in motion is to live. It’s required to create. To thrive. To breathe.
While I’ve now spoken of this required motion in terms of vagabondism, tomorrow I’ll be back to discuss whether this “disease” has manifested in other ways as a means of “taking refuge from modernity.”
See you then . . .
Photos: The feature pics is one I took in the Coronado National Monument. Beautiful country down near the Mexican border. The pics below I found on the Web in the Public Domain, and I could find no more specific attribution to provide. Cabez de Vaca did write of his explorations, as you can see from the translated book cover.
*My blogging friend Eliza Waters correctly translated his name, which may sound amusing. Cabeza de Vaca literally means “Head of a Cow.” You should check out Eliza’s blog for some amazing photography and wonderful posts.
**Please forgive my bad attempt at humor 🙂