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Cabeza de Vaca's epic gives first look at Texas

San Antonio Express-News (10/21/2003)

By Roger Croteau

SAN MARCOS — Internet surfers can now go online to read an epic adventure of a shipwrecked Spanish conquistador who spent years as a captive — then a healer — of American Indians, yet became a dedicated defender of the New World's indigenous peoples when he got back to Spain.

He and three companions who wandered across Texas — including Estebanico the Moor, the first African to set foot in what is now the United States — were almost the only survivors of a 1528 expedition to Florida whose remnants were scattered across the Gulf of Mexico in handmade boats.

And it’s all true.

“ La Relación y Comentarios” by Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca has fascinated historians, anthropologists and literary scholars for centuries. Now, the Southwestern Writers Collection at Texas State University at San Marcos has completed digitizing its 1555 edition of the account of the doomed expedition.

The Web site contains every page of La Relación, which incidentally offers the earliest written description of what is now Texas, along with a linked English translation and a comprehensive Web archive of Cabeza de Vaca research and resources.

“ I think his story is fascinating because it opens a window into a lost world,” said Steve Davis, assistant curator of the Southwestern Writers Collection. “In Texas alone he identified 23 Indian groups that no longer exist. It provides a real connection with our past. And it is a great story.

“ When he landed, he was a typical arrogant conquistador,” Davis said. “Then he ended up as a defender of Indian human rights.”

La Relación is Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative of the Narváez expedition, a force of several hundred that left Cuba to search for riches.

Their commander landed in Florida, separated the main group from his ships, and was lost with most of his men when hostile Indians drove them to risk an escape by sea in crudely-fashioned boats. A few made it to the Texas coast, where their number was whittled down to four within a few months.

Cabeza de Vaca and his companions lived among Indians, first as slaves but eventually recognized as healers, walking hundreds of miles across Texas, New Mexico and northern Mexico. They finally found a Spanish settlement in 1536, and Cabeza de Vaca returned to Spain, where he wrote his account.

The book, the first by a European to describe the Southwest, would inspire later conquistadors to explore the region. It also has importance to anthropologists, as it described in detail the daily lives of dozens of Indian tribes he encountered and lived with. For many of these now extinct tribal bands, it's the only account available.

Literary scholars are also interested in La Relación, which some call a prototype for much American literature that followed.