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— Kirkus Reviews
"Intellectually rewarding and highly entertaining...well informed, erudite, and astonishingly comprehensive."
— Houston Chronicle
"A breezy read, shot through with Haley's live-wire personality. And, let's just say, it's not your father's Texas history."
— San Antonio Express-News
In light of the subsequent history, it is only right that European contact with the area that became Texas began with jealousy and intrigue. In 1518 Diego Velásquez, the Spanish governor of Cuba, caved in to pressure from an ambitious retainer named Hernán Cortés and allowed him to form an expedition to explore and conquer that portion of the interior of New Spain that lay directly westward of Cuba. Velásquez believed that any riches plundered from the steaming mainland jungles should be his, and he was naturally suspicious of Cortés' thirst for power.
It was a time in which political stewardship meant control of wealth — only in later eras would this be called corruption — and just a quarter century after the landings of Columbus, Spanish governors in the New World were already snapping at each other like wolves over a kill. Velásquez soon thought better of the commission and revoked it, but Cortés sailed anyway, with ten cannons and six hundred men, landing in Mexico in March 1519. Cowing coastal Indians, he hacked his way into the heart of the Aztec empire, where he was welcomed as a god in fulfillment of prophecy and he became the conquistador he had always dreamed of being. As Velásquez suspected, Cortés threw over his allegiance and established his own government. Not all of Cortés' men were in agreement, and Cortés burned his fleet to keep loyalists from carrying word of his coup back to Cuba.
Late in the year, at Cortés' coastal headquarters of La Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz, there appeared the ships of Alonso Álvarez de Pineda, who had just mapped the whole curve of the Gulf of Mexico for the first time, proving that Florida was not an island; he had sailed west through the great freshwater discharge of an enormous river, certainly the Mississippi, then southwest and finally south, until he dropped anchor at Villa Rica. Álvarez de Pineda, however, was sailing in the service of the governor of Jamaica, and Cortés arrested his envoys as soon as they came ashore. Álvarez quickly weighed anchor and withdrew back to the north, seeking shelter and starting his own colony near the mouth of the Pánuco River, in the vicinity of later Tampico. Sending his ships back to Jamaica for supplies, Álvarez stayed at Pánuco with several dozen of his men. Local natives, who thanks to Cortés had seen all they needed to see of the Spanish, devastated the settlement. Returning ships ferried the survivors to Cortés' Villa Rica; Álvarez was not among them, but his map, the first to show the coast of Texas, still exists, with its imprecise squiggles of speculative rivers.
Back in Cuba, Velásquez finally learned that Cortés' actions justified his earlier apprehension, and he sent an army under his lieutenant governor, Pánfilo de Narváez, to arrest the recreant and bring him home. Narváez reached Mexico in April 1520; Cortés learned of his arrival, and after entering his camp at night, talked most of the invaders into defecting, and captured Narváez. There was a fight, in which Narváez got an eye put out, and that was the end of Velásquez' ambition to control Cortés, who three years later was confirmed as governor and captain general of New Spain. (He did have his own downfall, later.) Narváez returned to Spain to recover, where he became a favorite of that country's young King Charles I, the grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella. Tired of being a pawn serving greater men's games, Narváez began angling for his own expedition to explore and conquer. The king, feeling perhaps that the immensity of the New World must be capable of embracing at least one more breastplated egomaniac, commissioned him to explore "Florida," a name that then covered the entire curve of the Gulf north and east of Cortés.
Narváez returned to Cuba and in April 1528 crossed the Straits of Florida with about three hundred men, including his treasurer, another young noble who had gained the king's favor, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. His name derived from a maternal ancestor, who saved the day in a thirteenth-century battle by marking a strategic pass with a cow's skull. In dignity-conscious Spain, he chose to live by his mother's name, which carried higher rank than his father's. He was soon, however, to begin measuring dignity by very different standards.
Narváez' leadership skills were negligible. He landed his men on the west coast of Florida, and made it clear to the local natives that he was seeking gold. Establishing a pattern that held for decades, the Indians realized they could get rid of the invaders by pointing to some place over the horizon and promising all the gold they desired. Narváez took the bait and split his command, leaving the ships to find a secure anchorage, and leading the men off to collect the gold; he soon got them hopelessly lost. Even more stupidly, he believed they were only a jaunty sail from Pánuco on the east coast of Mexico. By the time he reached what is now the Florida Panhandle, fifty of his men had died or been killed, and he had the remainder construct five crude barges with the intention to sail west, hugging the coast, until they should reach the settlements. A month into their voyage, they crossed the discharge of the Mississippi, still looking for civilization, a lark turned desperate. Their boats separated in a storm, the food was almost gone, and they were numb from exposure. On the evening of November 5, 1528, the officer of Cabeza de Vaca's boat passed command to him, "as he was in such condition," wrote de Vaca, "that he believed he should die that night."
Shortly before sunrise he thought he could hear surf. He awakened the master, and "near the shore a wave took us, that knocked the boat out of water the distance of the throw of a crowbar." The violent jar roused the nearly insensible survivors. Finding themselves near the shore, they crawled through the surf on hands and feet, reaching the shore and finding shelter in some ravines. "There we made fire, parched some of the maize we brought, and found some rain water."
The strongest of the survivors, Lope de Oviedo, climbed a tree and descried that they were on an island, probably Galveston or one of the small islands just to the west of it. He found an Indian village, apparently deserted, and helped himself to some mullets and a pot. Regaining the Spanish camp, the castaways saw that he was followed at a distance by what they took to be a hundred warriors armed with bows. Defense was impossible, for as Cabeza de Vaca related, "it would have been difficult to find six that could rise from the ground." Rummaging in their stores, he gave the warriors beads and hawkbells, receiving arrows in exchange as a sign of amity. The natives signed that they had no food with them, but would return in the morning.
"At sunrise the next day...they came according to their promise, and brought us a large quantity of fish with certain roots, some a little larger than walnuts, others a trifle smaller, the part got from under the water and with much labor." More food arrived that evening, along with native women and children to have a look at the strangers. The Spaniards gave them more beads and hawkbells, thus ensuring their hospitality for a time longer.
Somewhat recovered and with no sign of survivors from the other four barges, the Spaniards began digging their boat out of the sand where the surf had largely buried it. With enormous effort they got it back into the water and made to resume their journey toward Pánuco and safety, but "at the distance of two crossbow shots in the sea we shipped a wave that entirely wet us. As we were naked, and the cold was very great, the oars loosened in our hands, and the next blow the sea struck us, capsized the boat." Three men drowned, and the rest were cast back on the shore, "naked as they were born, with the loss of all they had." No wonder they named the place Isla de Malhado, the isle of misfortune.
With no other recourse, Cabeza de Vaca appealed to the Indian benefactors to take them to their village for shelter. This alarmed the other survivors, who feared that they were pushing hospitality too far. To their surprise, the Indians "signified that it would give them delight." Moreover, the natives asked the Spaniards to wait a short time while preparations were made. Along the trail to their village they made several large fires at which the freezing Europeans warmed themselves, and on reaching the village, they discovered that the Indians had built them their own large hut, with numerous fires in it.
The Spaniards — or as they referred to themselves, the Christians — took up life with these natives, eventually encountering other survivors of the Narváez expedition until they numbered some eighty. Again they tried to sail away but the boat, Cabeza de Vaca noted laconically, sank simply from its unfitness to float. The Indians among whom they found themselves were Karankawas, a tribe now extinct. They were a people surprisingly tall and powerful to have lived in an environment that was so poor of sustenance that they had to move camp constantly to find seasonal foods in turn — turtles, shellfish, fish, roots. The men were skilled warriors, their principal weapon a longbow of cedar as tall as themselves. They were cannibals, although there was a religious element to their human consumption that rendered their cannibalism somewhat less orgiastic than that of natives farther inland. (In point of fact, Karankawas would eat only enemies; when they learned that other survivors of the Narváez disaster had turned to cannibalism to keep from starving, the Indians expressed their mortification and declared that if they had known the Spanish were capable of such an abomination, they would have been slaughtered on the beach.)
Karankawa men wore simple skin breechcloths, or just as often nothing at all. Protected from mosquitoes by a smear of alligator grease, their bodies were decorated with spikes of cane pierced through the lower lip and one or both nipples. Families traveled from camp to camp in enormous dugout canoes of cypress logs, suitable for negotiating the bayous and lagoons, but nothing like seaworthy. They communicated with distant family groups by using smoke signals. Their territory along the Texas coast extended as far south as the mouth of the Guadalupe River, and they maintained limited trading relations with other tribes along their borders.
At first they welcomed the Europeans with open-handed generosity and shared their meager existence, but then the Indians began dying — cholera, pox, the host of European maladies to which the natives had no immunity. When half of the entire village was dead, the belief was expressed that it was the strangers who brought the death with them, and the castaways should be killed. Medical science was centuries away from proving them right, but a council, called a mitote, was convened to decide on the Spaniards' fate. There more deliberate advice prevailed before Cabeza de Vaca and his companions could be slaughtered. The warrior who was to some degree their keeper said that if the white men had power to kill in this way, they would have used that power to save themselves. In the preceding months so many of them had died — from an original eighty castaways, only fifteen survived — that it was silly, he argued, to believe they had such power.
Two of that fifteen, Alonso Castillo Maldonado, a noble captain from Salamanca, and Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, a fortune-hunter and also a captain, in spring of 1529 determined to strike out on foot for Mexico with a dozen of the survivors, and they took Dorantes' servant, a slave Moor called Estevanico, with them. The remaining castaway, Lope de Oviedo, prevailed upon Cabeza de Vaca to remain behind with him. They lived for three years with their hosts as virtual slaves, trying to do for themselves as traders but having to devote time first to satisfy the increasingly unfriendly Karankawas. Their station improved somewhat when Cabeza de Vaca fell into dire illness, and having been given up for dead, upon his recovery gained celebrity among the local tribes as a medicine man. He had observed that much of Karankawa life revolved around the mitotes and ceremonies of various kinds, and he copied the forms of healing rituals that he saw, breathing on the patients and interspersing his improvised cures with Christian prayers. It was a scam and he knew it, but enough of the sick and injured recovered to keep him in business — and alive. His reputation as a healer also gave him a tiny prosperity as a trader, gathering mesquite beans and mussel shells along the coast, exchanging them among inland tribes for red ochre body paint and animal skins that his host-captors prized.
The names that Cabeza de Vaca gave to these various Indian groups are meaningless today, for the array of native societies in Texas in the sixteenth century was vastly different from the large and well-organized tribes of the nineteenth-century frontier. Spanish explorers named several hundred tribes, some no larger than a few families, living independently and connected only by basic cultural affinities to similar small tribes. They formed large, vague areas of cultural identity that anthropologists are still trying, with little success, to reconstruct.
In 1532 de Vaca finally convinced Lope de Oviedo to set out for Mexico with him. They made good their escape and proceeded southwest along the coast. Bands in the area where they had been located were familiar with his reputation as a healer, and at virtually every camp he was required to perform. By a stroke of providential fortune, soon after escaping Cabeza de Vaca prayed over the body of a man he believed had already died, only to discover the next day that he had merely been in a deep stupor, had awakened, and was eating and talking. More famous than ever, the two white men continued down the coast, trading and healing and extemporizing new relationships with different Indians, all the way to the mouth of the Guadalupe River.
The tribes in that region began to be of a different cultural stock, the Coahuiltecan, whose structure and divisions are even murkier than those of the Karankawas. But farther now from the scene of their fame, the native practice of greatest relevance to the Spaniards was their warlike bearing and their delight in enslaving the Europeans. The trek became a gauntlet of servitude, with each new village of captor hosts assigning camp drudgery to the Spaniards. Frequently they were forced naked out into the thornbrush to collect fuel for the fires. "At times," Cabeza de Vaca wrote, "when my turn came to get wood, I collected it at heavy cost in blood.... My only solace in these labors was to think of the sufferings of our Redeemer, Jesus Christ, and the blood He shed for me. How much worse must have been his torment from the thorns than mine here!"
A keen observer of native cultures, Cabeza de Vaca noted that many of the tribes reveled in a stupor from smoking what was surely peyote, which, like addicts, they would trade anything they owned to secure. The Karankawas from whom they had escaped lacked peyote and so obtained a hallucinogen from a tea. The natives burned yaupon leaves in a pot, added water before the fire burned down, then boiled it twice until it formed a froth. But a strange superstition went with it: from the moment the cry went out to the camp that the brew was ready, every woman within earshot had to freeze in her tracks, stock still, until the beverage was consumed. For a woman to move during the tea drinking rendered the liquid a medium for evil; the batch had to be thrown out, those men who had already partaken forced themselves to vomit, and the woman was beaten fiercely. Among the same people, perhaps predictably, the men would not eat food prepared by a woman during her monthly "indisposition," as Cabeza de Vaca called it.
He found many tribal customs shocking. The practice of routine female infanticide (girl babies being fed to camp dogs) meant that wives had to be stolen from outside the group. Even more demoralizing was his discovery that, among some of these natives, it was perfectly acceptable and a common practice for a warrior to live conjugally with another man who had been rendered a eunuch. These latter would go about "partly dressed, like women, and perform women's duties." While calling the practice diabolical, the fair-minded healer also allowed that the eunuchs were skilled bowmen. "They are more muscular and taller than other men and can lift tremendous weight."
Eventually Cabeza de Vaca and Lope de Oviedo were taken up by other truculent natives, who responded to the usual inquiries of whether they knew of more Christians with yes, they did, and they had killed them. "They commenced slapping and batting Oviedo and did not spare me either.... They would stick arrows to our hearts and say they had a mind to kill us the way they had finished our friends." Oviedo, who could not swim, and who had just nerved fording a shallow bay, lost his courage, turned back across the water with the women of the previous tribe, and was never heard from again.
Cabeza de Vaca now believed himself alone, but presently encountered, to his surprise, Dorantes, Estevanico, and Castillo, all that survived of those who left Galveston Island in 1529. He joined them in servitude to these Mariame Indians — another name of limited utility. More watchful than the Spaniards' previous owners, the Mariames kept the four white men in slavery for two years before the men succeeded in another escape and struck off westward, overland, into the cactus-studded brush country of South Texas. They crossed the Rio Grande and turned north into the desert, crossing it again near the present location of Presidio.
On what was probably the upper Pecos River, the Spaniards saw evidence of the scope and sophistication of the native trading network. The tribes in this locale — belonging to another of those large, vague collections of villages, and called the Jumanos — possessed cotton shawls from tribes far to the west, turquoise from the north, shells from the unknown Pacific Northwest, and large copper rattles fashioned from metal mined in the interior of New Spain. Cabeza de Vaca's trumped-up reputation as a healer almost got him in trouble here, as the natives brought him a man who had been shot in the back with an arrow, which had pierced deep, with the point lodged above the man's heart. "With a flint knife," he recalled of the first known surgery in Texas, "I opened the fellow's chest until I could see that the point was sideways and would be difficult to extract. But I cut on and, at last, inserting my knife-point deep, was able to work the arrowhead out with great effort. It was huge." Stanching the copious flow of blood with a swatch of hide, Cabeza de Vaca sutured the wound with a deer-bone needle.
Miraculously, the patient recovered without infection. The Indians demanded the arrowhead, which they examined in amazement and sent on a tour through neighboring villages. "This cure," wrote Cabeza de Vaca, "so inflated our fame all over the region that we could control whatever the inhabitants cherished." The Spaniards took full advantage of the Indians' awe, intending to turn their journey into an almost royal progress westward to civilization. Soon, however, as often happened when European met Native American, the Indians around them began to sicken and die. Afraid that they would be killed or abandoned, the Spaniards saw instead the Indians coming to them and begging for their lives; one baby was taken away and cut with mouse teeth for daring to cry in Cabeza de Vaca's presence.
Slowly they made their way west, accompanied by several hundred attentive retainers. They occasionally spoke of God, but proselytizing was hardly a priority in their struggle to survive. Only as they neared civilization did Cabeza de Vaca finally remember the reason other than gold for the Spaniards' voyage to the New World. "We taught all the people by signs, which they understood, that in Heaven was a Man we called God, who had created the heavens and the earth; that all good came from Him, and that we worshipped and obeyed him and called him our Lord; and that if they would do the same, all would be well with them.... From then on, at sunrise, they would raise their arms to the sky with a glad cry, then run their hands down the length of their bodies.... They are a substantial people with a capacity for unlimited development."
In May 1536, having been away from civilization for seven and a half years, Cabeza de Vaca, his three companions, and their Indian throng approached Culiacán, near the Pacific coast of Mexico. They were presented to the local authority, Captain Diego de Alcaraz, who happened to be on a slaving expedition but was frustrated that his men had found no quarry. Prevailing on Cabeza de Vaca to coax his six hundred adoring Indians out of the woods, Alcaraz moved to capture and enslave them, but Cabeza de Vaca protested with such fury that Alcaraz backed down — or seemed to. In fact he began executing a more subtle plan that hinged upon separating leader from retainers. Cabeza de Vaca ended his New World odyssey as he began it, under the smiling arrest of those who welcomed him — this time his own people — but not before he managed with great difficulty to convince his Indians to return to the east, rebuild their towns, and live in peace. "And I solemnly swear," he wrote the king, "if they have not done so, it is the fault of the Christians."
Copyright © 2006 by James L. Haley
Book One: Gold and Souls
1 Smiling Captors
2 The Cities of Gold
3 So Beset with Hardships
4 Imperial Competition
5 Souls Without Gold
6 Love and Booty
7 The Empty Quarter
8 Mission Life
10 Green Flag, Red Blood
11 Strange Bedfellows
Book Two: From Empresarios to Independence
12 A Connecticut Yankee in King Ferdinand's Court
13 The Young Empresario
14 Pelts Passed Current
15 Gone to Texas
16 A Finger in the Dike
17 Almost a Black Colony
18 Flashpoint Doused
19 Sam Houston, Late of Tennessee
20 The Quiet Before the Storm
21 Come and Take It
22 Who Will Go with Old Ben Milam?
23 Pretended Government
24 I Am Determined to Die Like a Soldier
25 The New Nation
26 Brilliant, Pointless, Pyrrhic
27 How Did Davy Die?
28 The Ill-Fated Fannin
29 You Must Fight Them
30 The Battle of San Jacinto
Book Three: From Nation to State
31 Independence and the Southern Conspiracy
32 A New Country, a New City
33 Poet and President
34 The Sanguinary Savage
36 The Annexation Quickstep
37 Nothing Wanting, Nothing Too Much
38 The State of Texas
39 Life in the Lone Star State
40 Still More Fighting
41 Slavery and Secession
42 A Little Terror
43 The War in Texas
44 Forty Acres and a Mule
45 Scalawags and Carpetbaggers
Book Four: Cattle Empire
46 Clearing the Plains
47 Buffalo Days
48 The Red River War
49 Cattle Empire
50 The Populist Movement
51 Life by Mail Order
52 Final Raids
53 Fort Davis: Western Anchor
54 Law vs. Outlaw
55 Political Evolution
56 God Goes Primitive
57 Gaining Culture
Book Five: Oil Empire
58 Early Gushers
59 A New Century
60 Valley of the Shadow
61 Intelligent Patriotism and Flying Machines
62 Flappers and Fergusonism
63 So Long, It's Been Good to Know You
64 More Fergusons, and Worse
65 Texas at War, Again
66 Climbing Jacob's Ladder
67 A Flowering of Texas Letters
68 Assassination, War, and Antiwar
69 Changes, Faster and Faste
Selected Sources and Further Reading