How would-be conquerors washed up on Galveston Island
The written history of Galveston’s beach and boating began 480 years ago, and did not begin well.
In June 1527, Gov. Pámfilo de Narváez set out from Spain to conquer the territory from Florida to the Rio Grande. It was the most ill-managed and ill-fated expedition in the annals of conquest.
Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca served as second in command and treasurer. It was he who wrote the story in a report to his sovereign, Charles V of Spain.
A copy of the report, or “Relación,” is on display at The Bryan Museum in Galveston, and available in an annotated translation by Cyclone Covey as “Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America.”
Narváez’s fatal mistake was to leave his ships at Tampa Bay, and proceed overland with 300 foot soldiers and armored horsemen. He had the model of Hernán Cortés, his bitter rival, who had conquered all of Mexico with such a force a few years before.
But unlike Mexico, Spain, or the interior of Texas, Florida and the Gulf Coast were not horse country. Forests, rivers, swamps and boggy ground made horses a liability. Finally, the horses were eaten.
Conquistadors were not skilled in living off the land. Once they had exhausted the supplies they brought with them, their strategy for survival was to trade for, or simply loot, corn and whatever else they could recognize as food from the villages of the indigenous. It seems they did not hunt or fish themselves.
This was not a strategy that endeared them to the people among whom they traveled, and it cost lives on both sides. Starvation, disease and conflict with the Indians whittled their numbers, and by the time they had slogged through to Apalachicola Bay, the futility of their march was evident.
So, they decided to build boats and go on by sea to Mexico, which they believed to be much closer than it actually was. They built a forge and made “nails, saws, axes and other tools we needed out of stirrups, spears, crossbows, and other equipment containing iron,” according to Cabeza de Vaca’s account.
They set about constructing five barges on Aug. 2, 1528, and though no one in the group was a boat builder, by Sept. 20 they felt ready to sail.
Not a sailor, Cabeza de Vaca gives a meager description of the boats. We learn that they were 32 feet long, caulked with palmetto and sealed with pine tar. Each had a tiller and a sail made of old clothes, though oars provided their main propulsion. They were flat-bottomed and slab-sided and drew less than 3 feet.
Loaded with 50 men and supplies, these boats had a distance between the water and the rail of about 6 inches. They were the kind of inadequate, overcrowded refugee boats that today any U.S. Coast Guard patrol would pick up in an act of humanitarian rescue.
“Such is the power of necessity, that we should thus hazard a turbulent sea, none of us knowing anything about navigation,” Cabeza de Vaca wrote.
It was a turbulent sea indeed. The boats were soon separated by a series of storms, and all but Cabeza de Vaca’s disappear from the record. Against all odds, his barge reached Galveston, and was thrown ashore by the surf.
The astonished Indians they encountered refrained from killing them and fed them until they were well enough to continue their voyage.
It was mid-November and cold. The Spaniards removed their clothes and stowed them in the boat to keep them dry. They muscled the boat through the sand into the surf. It was a brief trip. The barge was overwhelmed in the breaking waves, and most of the remaining crew, along with the boat, were lost.
The Narváez expeditionary force of 300 men ended with four survivors, “naked as we were born,” clinging to the sand of Galveston Island. But Cabeza de Vaca’s truly epic odyssey continued for eight years. He traveled on foot through Texas and the Southwest, earning respect as a faith healer, surgeon and peddler among the indigenous groups he encountered, his admiration for them growing. He was finally reunited with his own kind. By then, however, his travels had made him a different kind of conquistador.