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De Vaca's New Territory


Fort Worth Star Telegram (12/07/2003)
By Art Chapman

Despite common myth, Texas and its colorful written history did not begin with Stephen F. Austin and his original 300 settlers. It wasn't initiated by the loss at the Alamo or the victory at San Jacinto.

It began, it could be argued, on the beaches near Galveston Island when a group of shipwrecked Spaniards waded ashore in 1528. The story of that unhappy expedition is vividly told inLa Relación, a written account provided by Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, one of the few survivors.

The story has been called one of “humankind's great adventure stories.”

And now it can be read online by anyone with a computer. The Southwestern Writers Collection at Texas State University's Albert B. Alkek Library has digitized the 1555 edition of de Vaca's story.

It is an engaging read, one filled with compassion, but also with anger and disgust. La Relación would make an extraordinary action movie, but it would be R-rated because of unending violence -- on the parts of the Spanish and the American Indians.

De Vaca's is the first written account of Texas and the Southwest, said Steve Davis, assistant curator of the writers collection. It offers insight on American Indians, many of whom would otherwise be lost to history.

“It is an adventure story, but it is also of great historical importance,” Davis said.

Davis said he was struck by the Spaniards' sheer will to survive, their perseverance. He also found interest in what he calls de Vaca's personal transformation.

“He landed there a greedy conquistador,” Davis said.”But through his experience he was transformed into a passionate defender of human rights. He actually argued against slavery. He argued that Native Americans deserved better treatment than they were getting from the Spanish.”

It was certainly a noble position for a man who endured his own slavery at the hands of the Indians. A man who suffered great indignities and pain.

“The hardships I endured would make a long story, filled with perils and hunger as well as storms and cold that I endured alone in the wilderness and which I survived through the great mercy of God our Lord,” de Vaca wrote.

He wrote of the many tribes he encountered. Most were hostile toward the Europeans. Slavery was a way of life for the Indians -- one tribe against another -- and they thought little of enslaving the newcomers.

De Vaca told of one tribe that killed all its newborn daughters. It feared that if the daughters lived, they would marry members of rival tribes and that eventually the rivals would outnumber them.

If the tribe needed women, it simply bought them or captured them.

De Vaca and his fellow survivors came to call Galveston Island the “Isle of Misfortune.”

Davis said he found it interesting that the infamous Karankawas -- the tribe that has become known as savage cannibals -- practiced only ritualistic cannibalism, according to de Vaca's record. The Spanish, on the other hand, resorted to cannibalism to stay alive.

The Karankawas were disgusted, Davis said.”He later wrote that some of the Native Americans would have made better Christians than the Spanish.”

De Vaca wrote La Relación when he returned to Spain. The first edition was published in 1542; a slightly revised edition came in 1555. There are about 20 libraries in the world with copies.

The copy at Texas State University-San Marcos is the library's rarest document.

“Putting Cabeza de Vaca's book online has given us a higher profile,” Davis said.”It has made a broader audience aware of the work we do here. We have people read the book online, then they come here to see it in person.”