I found this treasure of a book in the Midsummer Bookstore during my recent Galveston visit. It would have gone undetected in one of the mega-bookstores and probably wouldn’t have been in stock. “A Land So Strange” is the story of Cabeza de Vaca’s epic journey through the southwest and his miraculous survival. He was the first, so called, civilized man to explore Texas and the southwest. The book is a work of nonfiction but reads like an exciting adventure novel. I, literally, couldn’t put it down as I followed the harrowing experiences of Cabeza de Vaca and his many near death experiences with the Indians and the hostile land.
It all started with the expedition of Panfilo de Narvaez who left Spain in 1528 hoping to explore and colonize the Northern part of Mexico. His rival was Cortes who had established himself in the more southern part of Mexico and who had plundered the area and controlled the indigenous people with the sword. Narvaez missed his mark largely because of a hurricane and poor navigation. His group of 300 landed on the West coast of Florida. After landing it was a major struggle for survival. The group wandered along the entire Gulf Coast and discovered the mouth of the great Mississippi. Finally they made rafts and again set out to sea and four rafts landed along the Texas coast. Everyone finally died except for Cabeza de Vaca and three others. One of the men was an African who had a remarkable knack for languages.
Cabeza de Vaca landed on Galveston Island in 1528 and wandered through south Texas and northern Mexico and the southwest for 8 years. They finally made contact with other Spanish Conquistadores in 1536. During their sojourn they were enslaved by the Indians. The Indians provided them with food and shelter and made it possible for the four to survive even though they were subjected to incredible hardships and starvation. They were even forced to eat dirt and deer dung.
I have always been taught that the Indians who captured Caba de Vaca were cannibals. According to this well documented account that was not the case. Some of the Spanish survivors, who reminded on the beach and didn’t follow Cabeza with the Indians, were later found to have become cannibals in an attempt to survive. When later discovered by Cabeza and the Indians the Indians were appalled to see that the Spanish had resorted to cannibalism. So, it was the other way around from what has been traditionally taught in the history books.
Cabeza and his three other colleagues moved from one tribe of Indians to another. On one occasion Cabeza removed an arrow from the chest wall of an Indian and this is thought to have been the first surgical operation in North America. Cabeza and his men were perceived as healers among the Indians and were permitted safe passage along the way. They prayed over sick Indians and made the sign of the cross which the natives thought to be mystical with healing powers. De Vaca learned the ways of the Indians and made friends with them.
Cabeza de Vaca’s peaceful ways proved successful and were key to his survival. He became convinced that this was the best way for the Spanish to colonize the area rather than with the sword as used by conquistadors like Cortes and Guzman.
Cabeza de Vaca and his three colleagues were the only four who made it out of the original 300. The epilogue tells what happened to them when returning to civilization. Unfortunately, Cabeza’s peaceful approach to colonizing was not adopted and has never been accepted throughout history. We continue to act like Cortes and the other conquistadors.
In my armchair on the porch I was transported back to 1528 and explored the wild land that was to become Texas and met the indigenous people who, in many ways, were more civilized than those Christians who conquered them. The author, Andres Resendez is a great historian and an even better storyteller. I highly recommend this exciting and informative book