SAN ANTONIO, August 18 - In writing history articles for the Rio Grande Guardian, my goal has been to feature little-known pre-1836 people, places, and events.
So, for this article I’ve chosen Pánfilo de Narváez as one such fascinating individual. Remarkably, he has an important connection to the earliest European recording of Texas history.
Narváez was born in Cuellar (Castile), Spain in 1478 and came to America in the early 1500s. His uncle, Diego Velázquez de Cuellar, was the first Governor of Cuba. Narváez is a key player in the history of Jamaica, Cuba, Mexico, the Gulf of Mexico, and Florida.
The brawny, red-bearded Narváez was a diplomat, military commander, explorer, and entrepreneur. Yet, his story is not a favorite among mainstream historians. For that reason, I offer the following snippet of his amazing life, covering two of his sea voyages.
All was going well for the aging Governor Velázquez de Cuellar. He was a man in his fifties, who realized he could no longer lead expeditions himself. So, he hired Hernán Cortez, an enterprising fellow Spaniard living in Cuba to lead a voyage to Yucatán (México).
Sadly for Velázquez, Cortez had plans of his own. Hearing negative rumors, Seńor Velázquez first relieved Cortez from his job. However, he soon forgave and rehired the expedition leader. Still unsure of Cortez’ loyalty, Don Diego decided yet again to fire his recalcitrant subordinate, but it was too late. It is recorded that Velázquez arrived at the port just as Cortez was sailing out to sea. “Compadre, why are you leaving me in such a hurry?” he shouted (or similar comments). Cortez pretended not to hear his master as he sailed off aboard a rowboat taking him to his main vessel. Velázquez was infuriated. He quickly organized another expedition to stop Cortez and picked his relative, Pánfilo de Narváez to lead it.
The story of the defeat by Cortez of the Aztec Empire is well known. However, two key factors may not be as well known. First, Cortez obtained victory with key help from thousands of Native Americans (enemies of the Aztecs). The second point is as important as the first. Narváez was unable to stop Cortez. By the time Narváez reached Yucatán, Cortez had not only defeated the Aztecs, but had amassed a sizeable fortune. Cortez agents then used gold to bribe Narváez’ officers. Hence, when Narváez and Cortez met in battle at Cempoallan, Cortez’ small force easily defeated the larger Narváez army. In the battle, Narváez lost an eye and suffered the indignity of incarceration in chains for over two years.
After his release, Narváez took his grievances against Cortez to the Spanish King who listened, but did not punish Cortez. Gold shipments from Cortez were already arriving regularly in Spain and the King did not want to hinder the treasure convoys. The king would have to find another way to reward the loyal Narváez.
As such, Narváez’ fourth voyage came about when the king gave him a land grant to Florida and title of Adelantado de Florida (first Governor of Florida), with authority to recruit crewmen, families, and missionaries. (Note: The land grant stretched from the Atlantic coast, west on straight lines to the Pacific Ocean, including all Gulf coastal lands, the still unnamed Texas, the entire Southwest, and Baja California. Its southern boundary extended to the Rio Pánuco.)
The flotilla sailed from Seville, Spain in June 1527. (On board was Alvar Nuńez Cabeza de Vaca, the Royal Treasurer.) Shortly after landing in Espańola in August, disaster struck. First, nearly 150 crewmen deserted. Then, a hurricane destroyed two ships in Cuba, killing a number of sailors; valuable cargo was lost. Undeterred, Narváez continued to complete his mission.
To stay the course, Narvaez needed a pilot captain. Limited by few candidates in Cuba, he chose a Captain Miruelo, whose sea captain credentials crumbled immediately. His inexperience led the flotilla into shallow waters; luckily, they were saved by a rising tide. Much worse, Miruelo was unaware of the Gulf Stream, one of the strongest currents in the world.
The Gulf Stream’s effect was profound. To illustrate, the flotilla sailed for days in what they thought was a straight, westerly direction from Cuba. In reality, they were drifting in a northeasterly (opposite) direction, landing in present-day Tampa Bay, Florida instead! Anxiety turned to surreal fear the next morning, when the sun arose over land and not from the sea as they expected. It was indeed, in Cabeza de Vaca’s words, a land so strange. Undaunted, Narváez still pressed on. (In those days, little was known of actual distances in the Gulf.)
Making a decision that is still debated today, Narváez split his forces in two. All able men (about 250) and horses were to accompany him on land. The sailors and women were to remain on board and sail to Rio de Las Palmas (where Narváez’ was to begin exploring his land grant) and wait for the rest of the party. The decision proved to be disastrous. Wives aboard the ships never saw their husbands again.
After facing unfriendly native attacks for months as they marched north, Narváez and his men reached the northern edge of the Gulf. Finally, the coastline followed a western direction. While it was good news, Narváez now realized their destination was actually hundreds of miles away! He also knew that to reach it, the sea was their best option. Skillfully using all available resources under the most primitive conditions, they built a forge to melt their weapons into tools. Then, they cut over a hundred trees to build five large rafts; strong enough for each to carry 50 men. The horses, still weak due to their sea voyage distress, had been steadily slaughtered for food. The last one was killed in preparation for the voyage.
Actually, their craftsmanship initially proved seaworthy. The survivors endured skirmishes with unfriendly natives along the coast, ran out of food and water, but all five rafts managed to miraculously make it to the Texas Coast in a fan-like approach from Galveston to Corpus Christi. Their ingenuity had carried them nearly halfway, but no farther. Those who didn’t drown faced horrendous threats ahead. As the survivors reached the shore, natives were waiting. As they had experienced since leaving Florida, some of the indigenous groups were friendly, others not so. Unfortunately for the Narváez raft survivors and those of another raft nearby (about 80), most were killed, died of starvation, or drowned. (Note: Cabeza de Vaca and three of his shipmates survived and experienced the good and bad of living among several tribes in Texas for eight years. They wrote about it after their rescue.)
Narváez had earlier given the command “each man for himself.” So, each group was now independently planning their way out of their predicament on the Texas Coast. Alas, to guard against predatory natives, Narváez and two others remained on their raft. After a strong wind blew them toward the sea, they were last seen precariously aboard their disintegrating raft and are presumed drowned. (It must be said that the powerful, influential Maria de Valenzuela, his wife, spent a fortune in a multi-ship search for her husband, to no avail.)
For the record, it’s this last voyage that some historians use to cast Narváez in a negative light. That’s unfair. Unfortunate incidents did occur, but were beyond his control. In his defense, far from exercising dictatorial powers, he sought opinions from his staff before making tough, risky decisions. His courage was tested under very trying conditions. In the end, the tough warrior fought the good fight, but lost.
Finally, this is but a mere capsule in the life of this very interesting Spaniard (ˇHombre muy valiente!). Chances are you won’t find a sympathetic account of Pánfilo de Narváez in conventional U.S. history books. Anyone who wishes to learn more of this exciting Spanish exploration era is highly encouraged to check out the increasing number of books that focus on pre-1836 Texas history. They are vital to help preserve our long Spanish Mexican history for future generations. As I remind readers often in articles such as this one, if we don’t do it ourselves, no one else is going to do it for us.
José Antonio (Joe) López was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and is a USAF Veteran. He now lives in Universal City, Texas. He is the author of two books: “The Last Knight (Don Bernardo Gutierrez de Lara Uribe, A Texas Hero),” and “Nights of Wailing, Days of Pain (Life in 1920s South Texas).” Lopez is also the founder of the Tejano Learning Center, LLC, and www.tejanosunidos.org, a Web site dedicated to Spanish Mexican people and events in U.S. history that are mostly overlooked in mainstream history books.