Cabeza de Vaca discovers Texas

1528

On this day, the Spanish conquistador Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca is shipwrecked on a low sandy island off the coast of Texas. Starving, dehydrated, and desperate, he is the first European to set foot on the soil of the future Lone Star state.

Cabeza de Vaca’s unintentional journey to Texas was a disaster from the start. A series of dire accidents and Indian attacks plagued his expedition’s 300 men as they explored north Florida. The survivors then cobbled together five flimsy boats and headed to sea, where they endured vicious storms, severe shortages of food and water, and attacks from Indians wherever they put to shore. With his exploration party reduced to only 80 or 90 men, Cabeza de Vaca’s motley flotilla finally wrecked on what was probably Galveston Island just off the coast of Texas.

Unfortunately, landing on shore did not end Cabeza de Vaca’s trials. During the next four years, the party barely managed to eke out a tenuous existence by trading with the Indians located in modern-day east Texas. The crew steadily died off from illness, accidents, and attacks until only Cabeza de Vaca and three others remained. In 1532, the four survivors set out on an arduous journey across the present-day states of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Captured by the Karankawa Indians, they lived in virtual slavery for nearly two years. Only after Cabeza de Vaca had won the respect of the Karankawa by becoming a skilled medicine man and diplomat did the small band win their freedom.

In 1536, the men encountered a party of Spanish slave hunters in what is now the Mexican state of Sinaloa. They followed them back to Mexico City, where the tale of their amazing odyssey became famous throughout the colony and in Europe. Despite the many hardships experienced by Cabeza de Vaca and his men during their northern travels, their stories inspired others to intensify exploration of the region that would one day become Texas.

– History.com Staff