On June 17, 1527, approximately 600 men and women sailed from the Iberian Peninsula intent on claiming North America for the Castilian crown.
By 1536, all that remained of the expedition were three Castilian noblemen and a “black Arab” from Morocco. These four men – Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Alonso Castillo, Andrés Dorantes, and Esteban – had survived a failed foray into the Florida Peninsula, a life-or-death raft voyage across the Gulf of Mexico, a horrifying shipwreck on Galveston Island, and almost a decade of hunger and privation alongside the native Texas tribes that took them in. Somehow they had endured it, even grown from it, in large part by setting aside their conquistador instincts and opening themselves to the strangeness of the whole experience.
And yet these four castaways’ survival for eight years in the North American wilderness is probably the least interesting thing about their story.
Join us starting Monday on the Rivard Report for our latest season of A New History of Old Texas as we dive into this moment of first contact between Texas native and European worlds. The first three episodes will drop July 6, with subsequent episodes released every Monday and Thursday.
Over the course of our 25-part series, we’ll meet the Native American communities living in Texas before European contact, and through clues left behind in their rock art panels and in their languages themselves, we’ll try to imagine how they viewed this watershed moment. We’ll follow the transformation of those four Old World castaways from conquistadors into beggars and then into medicine men, with a catalog of cures as impressive as those of anyone this side of Galilee. We’ll watch the four castaways’ fame grow alongside the demand for their services. And we’ll marvel at how their traveling medicine show turned into a spiritual movement that carried them and their entourage – which soon numbered in the thousands – across the Rio Grande, across the deserts of Northern Mexico, across the Continental Divide, and all the way to the Pacific coast of Mexico – more than 2,000 miles from where they had disembarked in Florida almost a decade prior.
But what makes this story particularly remarkable (especially right now), is the way we see the four castaways (and especially Cabeza de Vaca) question their role in the historical drama unfolding before them. Why was it that everywhere they went, people seemed be sick and in need of medicine men? Were they perhaps bad medicine men, they came to wonder, a collective patient zero for some awful pandemic about to devastate Native American life on the continent? Well, at least they could take comfort in their spiritual roles as apostles to the “Indians,” leading them to the light of Christianity and Castilian rule, right?
And yet as they drew nearer to New Spain – eight years since they had been shipwrecked on Galveston Island – the evidence began to pile up suggesting that they were, in fact, more like Judas steers, leading their new native brothers into a life of slavery and subjugation.
What if they had the power to prevent this terrible fate, they came to wonder? What if they could make themselves the apostles from the “Indians” to their own countrymen to advocate for Native Americans’ humanity and equal treatment? The four castaways had been personally reformed by their experience living with the native communities of North America, so they knew it was possible.
Join us this season as we explore what happens when these two worlds collided on Texas shores and consider what we can learn – as a society and as individuals – from this incredible and complicated story. Click on the links below to subscribe and make sure you are notified when new episodes come out.