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The Narváez expedition was a Spanish journey of exploration originally set to colonize Spanish Florida, that ended up crossing the South of present-day United States and North of Mexico from 1528 to 1536. It was led by Pánfilo de Narváez, who was appointed to rule as adelantado. The surviving members of this expedition were the first Europeans to sight the Mississippi River and to cross the Gulf of Mexico and Texas.
The crew initially numbered about 600, including men from Spain, Portugal and Italy. Making stops along the way to Florida at Hispaniola and Cuba, the expedition suffered a hurricane, among other storms. After landing near Tampa Bay, they were subject to attacks by American Indians, and suffered the effects of disease and severe lack of food. By September 1528, following an attempt to sail from Florida to Mexico, only 80 men survived after being swept onto Galveston Island, Texas. Over the next few years, more men died, and only four of the original party survived.
In 1536, the four survivors—Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, and his enslaved Moor Estevanico—finally managed to rejoin Spanish countrymen in present-day Mexico City. After returning to Spain, Cabeza de Vaca was notable for writing about the great expedition in his La Relación (The Relation), published in 1542 (in later editions, it was renamed Naufragios).
On December 25, 1526, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, also known as Carlos I of Spain granted Pánfilo de Narváez a license to claim what is now the Gulf Coast of the United States. The contract gave him one year to gather an army, leave Spain, found at least two towns of one hundred people each, and garrison two additional fortresses anywhere along the coast.
Narváez had to secure the funding for the expedition. He recruited investors by marketing the promise of riches comparable to those found by Hernán Cortés. He also called in many debts owed to him, and used this money to pay for many of the expenses of the expedition.
Appointed treasurer, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca acted as the king's eyes and ears, and was second in command. He was to make sure the Crown received 5% of any wealth acquired during the expedition. Other members included Alonso de Solís as royal inspector of mines, Alonso Enríquez as comptroller, an Aztec prince called Don Pedro in Spanish, and a contingent of Franciscan and diocesan priests led by Padre (father) Juan Suárez (sometimes spelled "Xuárez"). Most of the 600 men were troops, chiefly men from Spain and Portugal, including some of mixed African descent, and some 22 from Italy.
On June 17, 1527, the expedition departed Spain from the port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda at the mouth of the Guadalquivir River. Among the force were about 450 troops, officers, and slaves. About 150 others were sailors, wives (married men could not travel without their wives to the Indies), and servants.
Hispaniola and Cuba
They arrived in Santo Domingo sometime in August 1527. During the stay, troops began deserting. Although always a problem on such expeditions, men may also have deserted because of hearing about the recent return of an expedition led by Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón, in which 450 of 600 men perished. Nearly 100 men deserted the Narváez expedition in the first month in Santo Domingo. The expedition stopped here to purchase horses, as well as two small ships for exploring the coastline. Although Narváez was able to buy only one small ship, he set sail once again.
They arrived in Santiago in late September. As Cuba was the home of Narváez and his family, he had many contacts through whom he could collect more supplies, horses, and men. After meeting with his wealthy friend Vasco Porcallo, Narváez sent part of the fleet to Trinidad to collect horses and other supplies from his friend's estate.
Narváez put Cabeza de Vaca and a captain named Pantoja in charge of two ships sent to Trinidad, while he took the other four ships to the Gulf of Guacanayabo. On about 30 October, the two ships arrived in Trinidad to collect requisitioned supplies. A hurricane arrived shortly after they did. In the storm, both ships sank, 60 men were killed, a fifth of the horses drowned, and all the new supplies acquired in Trinidad were destroyed.
Recognizing the need to regroup, Narváez sent the four remaining ships to Cienfuegos under command of Cabeza de Vaca. Narváez stayed ashore in order to recruit men and purchase more ships. After nearly four months, on February 20, 1528, he arrived in Cienfuegos with one of two new ships and a few more recruits. The other ship he sent on to Havana. At this point, the expedition had about 400 men and 80 horses. The winter layover caused a depletion of supplies, and they planned to restock in Havana on the way to the Florida coast.
One of the new men Narváez hired was a master pilot named Miruelo, who claimed detailed knowledge of the Gulf Coast. Historians have debated for centuries his full identity and the extent of his knowledge. In any case, only two days after leaving Cienfuegos, every ship in the fleet ran aground on the Canarreos shoals just off the coast of Cuba. They were stuck for two to three weeks, while the men depleted already meager supplies. Not until a storm created large seas, in the second week of March, were they able to escape the shoals.
After battling more storms, the expedition rounded the western tip of Cuba and made its way toward Havana. Although they were close enough to see the masts of ships in port, the wind blew the fleet into the Gulf of Mexico without their reaching Havana. Narváez decided to press on with the journey and colonization plans. They spent the next month trying to reach the Mexican coast but could not overcome the Gulf Stream's powerful current.
Arrival in Florida
On April 12 of 1528, they spotted land north of what is now Tampa Bay. They turned south and traveled for two days looking for a great harbor which the master pilot Miruelo knew. During these two days, one of the five remaining ships was lost. Finally, after spotting a shallow bay, Narváez ordered entry. They passed into Boca Ciega Bay north of the entrance to Tampa Bay. They spotted buildings set upon earthen mounds, encouraging signs of culture (and wealth), food, and water. The natives were members of the Safety Harbor Culture (Tocobaga). The Spaniards dropped anchors and prepared to go ashore. Narváez landed with 300 men near the Rio de las Palmas—at what is currently known as the Jungle Prada Site in present day St. Petersburg.
The comptroller Alonso Enríquez was one of the first ashore. Making his way to the nearby village, he traded items such as glass beads, brass bells, and cloth for fresh fish and venison. He reported to Narváez that, although there was little wealth among the people, they seemed peaceful. The villagers deserted their homes that night. Several members of the expedition spent the next day exploring the empty village. What interested them most was a small gold disc or rattle found among some fishing nets. Narváez ordered the rest of the company to debark and establish a camp.
The next day, the royal officials assembled ashore and, with ritual, performed the formal declaration and authentication of Narváez as royal governor of La Florida. He read (in Spanish, of course) the Requerimiento, which stated to any natives listening that their land belonged to Charles V by order of the Pope. He also stated that natives had the choice of converting to Christianity. If they converted, they would be loved and welcomed with open arms. If they chose not to, war would be made against them. The expedition ignored both pleas and threats by a party of natives the next day.
After some exploring, Narváez and some other officers discovered Old Tampa Bay. They headed back to the camp and ordered Miruelo to pilot a brigantine (brig) in search of the great harbor he had talked about. If he was unsuccessful, he should return to Cuba. Narváez never heard from Miruelo or any of the crew of the brig again.
Meanwhile, Narváez took another party inland, where they found another village. The villagers were using Spanish freight boxes as coffins. The Spanish destroyed these and found a little food and gold. The locals told them that there was plenty of both in Apalachee to the north. After returning to their base camp, the Spanish made plans to head north.
Narváez splits land and sea forces
On May 1, 1528, Narváez decided to split the force into land and sea contingents. He planned to have the army of 300 march overland to the north while the ships, with the remaining 100 people, sailed up the coast to meet them. He believed the mouth to Tampa Bay to be a short distance to the north (it was south). Cabeza de Vaca argued against this plan, but was outvoted by the rest of the officers. Narváez wanted Cabeza de Vaca to lead the sea force, but he refused as a matter of honor, as Narváez had implied he was a coward.
The men marched in near starvation for two weeks before coming upon a village north of the Withlacoochee River. They enslaved the natives and for three days helped themselves to corn from their fields. They sent two exploratory parties downstream on both sides of the river looking for signs of the ships. With no sight of the ships, Narváez ordered the party to continue north to Apalachee.
Several years later, Cabeza de Vaca learned what became of the ships. Miruelo had returned to Old Tampa Bay in the brigantine, and found all the ships gone. He sailed to Havana to pick up the fifth ship, which had been supplied, and brought that back to Tampa Bay. After heading north for some time without finding the party on land, the other three ships decided to go back to Tampa Bay also. After meeting, the fleet again searched for the land party for nearly a year before turning around and heading to Mexico. Juan Ortiz, a member of the naval force, was captured by the Tocobaga. He was enslaved by them and lived at Uzita for nearly twelve years before being rescued by Hernando de Soto's expedition.
Meeting the Timucua
From scout reports, the Timucua knew the Spanish party was nearing their territory. They decided to meet the Europeans as they came near on June 18. Through hand signs and gestures, Narváez communicated to their chief, Dulchanchellin, that they were headed to Apalachee. Dulchanchellin appeared pleased by this (it turned out the Apalachee were his enemies).
After the two leaders exchanged gifts, the expedition followed the Timucua into their territory and crossed the Suwannee River. During the crossing, an officer named Juan Velázquez charged into it on his horse, and they both drowned. His was the first non-shipwreck casualty of the expedition, and the men were disturbed by his death. The starving army cooked and ate his horse that night.
When the Spaniards arrived at the Timucua village on the 19th, the chief sent them provisions of maize. That night, an arrow was shot past one of Narváez's men near a watering hole. The next morning, the Spaniards found the natives had deserted the village. They set out once again for Apalachee. They soon found themselves being followed by hostile natives. Narváez laid a trap for the pursuing natives, and they captured three or four, whom they used as guides. The Spanish had no further contact with those Timucua.
On June 25, 1528, the expedition entered Apalachee territory. Finding a community of forty houses, they thought it was the capital, but it was a small outlying village of a much larger culture. The Spanish attacked, took several hostages including the village's cacique, and occupied the village. Although the villagers had none of the gold and riches Narváez was expecting, they did have much maize.
Soon after Narváez took the village, Apalachee warriors began attacking the Europeans. Their first attack was a force of 200 warriors, who used burning arrows to set fire to the houses the Europeans occupied. The warriors quickly dispersed, losing only one man. The next day a second force of 200 warriors, equipped with large bows, attacked from the opposite side of the village. This force also quickly dispersed and lost only one man.
After these direct attacks, the Apalachee changed to quick assaults after the Spanish started trekking again. They could fire their bows five or six times while the Spanish loaded a crossbow or harquebus, then fade away into the woods. They harassed the Spanish continuously for the next three weeks, in what later became known as guerrilla tactics. During this time, Narváez sent out three scouting missions in search of larger or wealthier towns. All three came back without good news. Frustrated by misfortune and failing health, Narváez ordered the expedition to head south. The Apalachee and Timucua captives told him that the people of Aute had a great deal of food, and their village was near the sea. The party had to cross a large swamp to reach the place.
For the first two days out of the village, the Spaniards were not attacked. When they were up to their chests in water in the swamp, the Apalachee attacked them with a shower of arrows. Nearly helpless, the Spanish could neither use their horses, nor quickly reload their heavy weapons, and they found their armor weighing them down in water. After regaining solid ground, they drove off the attackers. For the next two weeks, they made their difficult way through the swamp, occasionally under attack by the Apalachee.
When the Spanish finally reached Aute, they found the village already deserted and burnt. They harvested enough corn, beans, and squash from the garden to feed their party, many of whom were starving, wounded and sick. After two days, Narváez sent Cabeza de Vaca to look for an opening to the sea. He didn't find the sea, but after half a day's march along the Wakulla River and St. Marks River, he found shallow, salty water filled with oyster beds. Two more days of scouting produced no better results, and the men returned to tell Narváez the news.
Narvaez decided to go to the oyster beds for the food. With many of the horses carrying the sick and wounded, the Spanish realized they were struggling for survival. Some considered cannibalism to survive. During the march, some of the caballeros talked about stealing their horses and abandoning everyone else. Although Narváez was too ill to take action, Cabeza de Vaca got word of the plan and convinced them to stay.
Bay of Horses
After a few days stuck near the shallow waters, one man came up with a plan. He suggested reforging their weaponry and armor to make tools and to build new boats. The party agreed and started action on it August 4, 1528.
They constructed a forge out of a log and used deerskins for the bellows. They cut down trees and made charcoal for the forge. Then they made hammers, saws, axes, and nails out of their iron gear. Caulking was made from the pitch of pine trees, and palmetto leaves were used as oakum. They sewed their shirts together for sails. Occasionally they raided the Aute village, from which they stole 640 bushels of corn to sustain themselves during the construction. Twice, within sight of their camp, ten men gathering shellfish were killed by Apalachee raids.
The men killed their horses for food and material while they were building the boats – one horse every three days. For instance, they used horsehair to braid rope and the skins for water storage bags. As horses were very important to the Spanish, especially the nobility, they named the bay in honor of their sacrifice.
By September 20, they had finished building five boats. They sailed on September 22, 1528. After being ravaged by disease, starvation, and attacks by the various peoples they intended to conquer, 242 men had survived. About 50 men were carried by each boat, which were thirty to forty feet long and had a shallow draft, sail, and oars.
Storms, thirst and starvation had reduced the expedition to about 80 survivors when a hurricane dumped Cabeza de Vaca and his companions on the western shore of a barrier island. Historians believe they landed at present-day Galveston, Texas. For the next four years, Cabeza de Vaca and a steadily dwindling number of his comrades lived in the complex indigenous world of South Texas.
Southwestern North America
By 1532, only four members of the original expedition were still alive: Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, and Estevanico, an enslaved Moor. They headed west and south hoping to reach the Spanish Empire's outpost in Mexico, becoming the first men of Europe and Africa to enter Southwestern North America (present day Southwestern United States and Northwest Mexico). Their precise route has been difficult for historians to determine, but they apparently traveled across present-day Texas, perhaps into New Mexico and Arizona, and through Mexico's northern provinces.
In July 1536, near Culiacán in present-day Sinaloa, the survivors encountered fellow Spaniards on a slave-taking expedition for New Spain. As Cabeza de Vaca wrote later, his countrymen were "dumbfounded at the sight of me, strangely dressed and in the company of Indians. They just stood staring for a long time."
The Narvez Expedition in fiction
The Moor's Account, a 2014 novel by Laila Lalami, is a fictional memoir of Estebanico, the Moroccan slave who survived the Narvez expedition and accompanied Cabeza de Vaca--and who is thus the first black explorer of America. Lalami explains that nothing is known about him except for one line in Cabeza de Vaca's chronicle: "The fourth [survivor] is Estevanico, an Arab Negro from Azamor."
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