Westward Along the Gulf Coast
In the "Relacion" of de Vaca, he relates many incidents of suffering and privation. For forty-six days the misshapen boats would succeed in carrying them nearly a thousand miles along the Gulf Coast. There were frequent shore landings for fresh water, search for food, and consequent fights with Indians. They landed in Pensacola Bay, Mobile Bay, crossed the strong currents south of the Mississippi Delta, and were far out to sea when a series of storms brought them more serious trouble.
The last known sighting of the boat of Narvaez was about November 1, 1528, when he refused to tie up with the boat of Cabeza de Vaca and implied that it was a case of every man for himself.
November 6, 1528
After four days of storms, high winds, and severe cold, four of the boats were driven ashore between Galveston Island and Lavaca Bay. The Narvaez boat was lost at sea. They would learn later that 48 men had survived. By the first day of 1529 many of these had died of sickness and starvation and the total was Estevanico and 15 Spaniards.
The attrition would continue for four long years. When thirteen made an attempt to move overland down the coast, all but three died. Eventually there remained only Estevanico, his master Andres Dorantes, Cabeza de Vaca, and Alonzo del Castillo Maldonado.
Held as slaves by two separate coastal Indian tribes, they were briefly united in the spring of 1533. The four quickly agreed on a plan to escape when the two tribes travelled inland 70 or 80 miles in the fall for the prickly pear harvest.
It was not to be. Another year of slavery was endured. That fall the tribes again assembled in the prickly pear fields near the San Antonio river. On the night of the September full moon, they succeeded in slipping away from the Indian camps.
September 23, 1534
On this date there began one of the strangest journeys to be found anywhere in recorded history. For seven years they had wandered, starved, and suffered, watching an expedition of three hundred men gradually reduced to the final four that remained. They were still lost, but they were free and on their own resources.
Terrell quotes the "Relacion" as follows, "We commended ourselves to God and set forth with speed, trusting, for all the lateness of the season, - - - we might still be enabled to travel over a large territory."
Cabeza de Vaca would never know it would be a walk across (what is now) the whole state of Texas as just the first stage of the trip. A road atlas tells us that part alone would be at least 750 miles, although their wanderings from one Indian tribe to another would make it much more.
This was a quartet that was courageous, intelligent and determined.
Estevanico was a large and powerful man, blessed with a shrewd and quick mind. He had easily learned the sign language used by the Indians and picked up their dialects much sooner than the others. If legally he was a slave, once their journey began, he became an equal, a partner, and their diplomatic emissary.
Not much is known of either Dorantes or Castillo. Dorantes was a military man and infantry captain. He was more friend than slave master to Estevanico.
Castillo was from an aristocratic family, the son of a doctor, and well educated. He was also a captain in the military but was more attracted to gambling, adventuring, and womanizing.
Cabeza de Vaca was smaller in bearing, and never faltered in his Christian faith. His ingenuity had enabled him to make trade items and become a peddler for a little more freedom while a slave to the coastal Indians. The other three men readily appreciated his qualifications and automatically looked up to him as their leader.
In our modern terminology, he was the Chairman of the Board. Estevanico was then General Manager of day to day operations. He led the march. He made initial contact with the Indian tribes. He determined from them the best trails to follow. When singing, dancing, and socializing became involved, he outlasted everyone. He was as friendly as a big dog, too large to challenge, and generally earned their trust.