Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’s Chronicle of the Narváez Expedition—the first written account of what is now Texas—has enough bloodletting, cannibalism and equine deaths to fill a Cormac McCarthy novel. A Spanish conquistador looking to make his fortune, de Vaca departs for the New World in 1527 as part of the Narváez expedition, a five-ship flotilla carrying 600 men, including two Catholic priests. Disaster strikes quickly. The conquistadors encounter a hurricane in Cuba. The storm flings small boats atop trees and dashes men against rocks, leaving them disfigured beyond recognition. Sixty men and 20 horses perish before Chapter 1 is through, causing de Vaca to state, “Such a terrifying thing has never been experienced.” Things continue downhill from there.
Unprepared for Florida’s swampland—armor tends to get a tad warm—de Vaca’s crew is further diminished by disease, starvation and Indian attacks. The conquistador recounts tales of cannibalism and arrows piercing people’s necks in a matter-of-fact way—death is so commonplace that survival becomes noteworthy. De Vaca is one of 15 Spaniards remaining when they arrive starved and naked on Galveston Island. He stays as a laborer among the natives for six years, gloomily noting the three types of ever-present mosquitoes.
Deciding to try his luck elsewhere, de Vaca marches inland through present-day San Antonio, Austin, Midland and El Paso alongside three remaining survivors—two young nobles and a Moroccan slave named Estevanico. Texas is described as having oyster-filled bays, buffalo-covered plains, and searing deserts where men shed their skins “like snakes.” Alternately beaten and welcomed by warring tribes, de Vaca and his men eventually come to be regarded as healers and wander unharmed across the Southwest until they encounter some countrymen along present-day Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, and sail for Spain.
Chronicle remains an enigma. De Vaca wrote the account for Spain’s King Charles V in hope of gaining a royal commission. Scholars argue over the veracity of some of the conquistador’s claims. There are inconsistencies and passages believed to have been written for political motives—but modern anthropologists find his story an invaluable description of pre-Anglo North American cultures like the Apalachees and Coahuiltecans. A 1555 edition of the Chronicle resides in San Marcos’ Wittliff Collections, alongside McCarthy’s literary archives, for those inclined to read how Texas has always been no country for old men.
Read selections from the book here.
Stayton Bonner is a research assistant at Outside magazine in Santa Fe.