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The Accidental Samaritan

Cabeza de Vaca in the New World.

By E. Dan Klepper
Illustration by John Wilson

Saint and survivor suggest conditions that are neither simple to attain nor particularly desirable to pursue. Their attributes, humility and epiphany, mark individuals who are compelled into action by extreme circumstances and who are driven by an internal, and often considered divine, force. A life devoted to goodwill or to simply staying alive requires the type of humility necessary for conveying one’s kindness to others or availing oneself of others’ kindnesses. And epiphany, discovering a deeper understanding of the world and one’s relationship to it, is as vital to survival as it is to selflessness. Yet the individual who arrives at saint or survivor status rarely accepts the rank readily or bears it unscathed; both demand the ultimate toll. Sainthood is only achieved upon death and the mark of the survivor is the avoidance of, at all costs, the same.

Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca had the misfortune of acquiring many of the characteristics of both, yet enjoying few of the benefits of either. His legacy, one that embraces the dual titles of saintly healer and shipwreck survivor, is defined by the tribulations of humanity amid despair and perseverance over profound hardship. A detailed examination of his sacrifices and resourcefulness can be found in his personal narrative, titled (in short) La Relacin, first published in Spain in 1542 and translated into English over the centuries by a number of scholars, including Fanny Bandelier in 1905.

Cabeza de Vaca’s destiny began in 1527 after he earned the position of royal treasurer to a Florida expedition led by fellow Spaniard Governor Pánfilo de Narváez. Narváez, heading up a fleet of five ships and 600 men, quickly proved to be a poor leader. He lost 140 men to desertion almost immediately as well as several ships and 60 additional men to storms. Once the expedition had arrived along the western shores of Florida, Narváez made a litany of unadvisable and self-serving decisions that soon led to his death and the abandonment of his men to the wilderness and its native inhabitants. It was this series of bad choices that sparked the further whittling down of the expedition members in conditions that were remarkable for their sheer desperation.

“…the weather became so cold and tempestuous,” de Vaca wrote in La Relación, or The Account, “that the Indians could no longer pull roots, and the canebrake in which they used to fish yielded nothing more. As the lodges afforded so little shelter, people began to die, and five Christians [de Vaca’s word for his fellow Spaniards], quartered on the coast, were driven to such an extremity that they ate each other up until but one remained, whom being left alone, there was nobody to eat him. Their names are: Sierra, Diego, Lopez, Corral, Palacios and Gonzalo Ruiz. At this the Indians were so startled, and there was such an uproar among them, that I verily believe if they had seen this at the beginning they would have killed them, and we all would have been in great danger. After a very short time, out of 80 men who had come there in our two parties only 15 remained alive.”

Only four expedition members managed to survive further hardships, including de Vaca, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza and his slave Estevanico, and Alonso del Castillo Maldonado. These gentlemen spent eight long years among the coastal Indians of Texas, traveling from Galveston Island to the southwestern region of Mexico. Along the way, they crossed and re-crossed a gulf of a wholly different nature — the chasm between willfulness and surrender. The survivors experienced the same lack of fundamental resources that the Native Americans around them routinely suffered and responded in kind to the whims of nature with a dogged resoluteness. Often, amid seasons of hunger, Spaniards and natives alike would have only prickly pear fruits (tunas in Spanish) to eat and, for lack of fresh water, only its juice to drink.

“During all the time we ate tunas we felt thirsty,” de Vaca recalled. “To allay our thirst we drank the juice of the fruit, pouring it first into a pit which we dug in the soil, and when that was full we drank to satisfaction. The Indians do it in that way, out of lack of vessels. The juice is sweet and has the color of must. There are many kinds of tunas, and some very good ones, although to me all tasted well alike, hunger never leaving me time to select, or stop to think which ones were better.”

Cabeza de Vaca and his fellow survivors would be surprised and grateful for the civil treatment they often received from the coastal Native Americans. It was something they had not anticipated due to their fear and ignorance of the “savages.” As countrymen of an active slave-trading nation, the Spaniards were immune to the concepts of equality and humanity among aboriginal populations. Yet, de Vaca’s conscience would begin to bear the weight of them once he became wholly dependent on Native American goodwill.

“Upon seeing the disaster we had suffered,” de Vaca wrote, “our misery and distress, the Indians sat down with us and all began to weep out of compassion for our misfortune, and for more than half an hour they wept so loud and so sincerely that it could be heard far away. Verily, to see beings so devoid of reason, untutored, so like unto brutes, yet so deeply moved by pity for us, it increased my feelings and those of others in my company for our own misfortune.

“When the lament was over, I spoke to the Christians and asked them if they would like me to beg the Indians to take us to their homes. Some of the men, who had been to New Spain, answered that it would be unwise, as, once at their abode, they might sacrifice us to their idols. Still, seeing there was no remedy and that in any other way death was surer and nearer, I did not mind what they said, but begged the Indians to take us to their dwellings, at which they showed great pleasure, telling us to tarry yet a little, but that they would do what we wished.

“Soon 30 of them loaded themselves with firewood and went to their lodges, which were far away, while we stayed with the others until it was almost dark. Then they took hold of us and carried us along hurriedly to where they lived. Against the cold, and lest on the way some one of us might faint or die, they had provided four or five big fires on the road, at each one of which they warmed us. As soon as they saw we had regained a little warmth and strength they would carry us to the next fire with such haste that our feet barely touched the ground.”

Cabeza de Vaca would return many such kindnesses to the Native American population in the most remarkable way. It would not be something he chose to do at first, but, once observing its effect, he began to honor its duties and perform its actions to their fullest extent. In doing so, de Vaca discovered how simple gestures of compassion can soften an entire world devoid of succor.

“On the island I have spoken of they wanted to make medicine men of us without any examination or asking for our diplomas, because they cure diseases by breathing on the sick, and with that breath and their hands they drive the ailment away. So they summoned us to do the same in order to be at least of some use. We laughed, taking it for a jest, and said that we did not understand how to cure. Thereupon they withheld our food to compel us to do what they wanted. Seeing our obstinacy, an Indian told me that I did not know what I said by claiming that what he knew was useless, because stones and things growing out in the field have their virtues, and he, with a heated stone, placing it on the stomach, could cure and take away pain, so that we, who were wiser men, surely had greater power and virtue. At last we found ourselves in such stress as to have to do it, without risking any punishment.

“Their manner of curing is as follows: When one is ill they call in a medicine man, and after they are well again not only do they give him all they have, but even things they strive to obtain from their relatives. All the medicine man does is to make a few cuts where the pain is located and then suck the skin around the incisions. They cauterize with fire, thinking it very effective, and I found it to be so by my own experience. Then they breathe on the spot where the pain is and believe that with this the disease goes away.

“The way we treated the sick was to make over them the sign of the cross while breathing on them, recite a pater noster and ave maria, and pray to God, Our Lord, as best we could to give them good health and inspire them to do us some favors. Thanks to His will and the mercy He had upon us, all those for whom we prayed, as soon as we crossed them, told the others that they were cured and felt well again. For this they gave us good cheer, and would rather be without food themselves so as to give it to us, and they gave us hides and other small things.”

So survival and sainthood began hand-in-hand for de Vaca and his companions. As they moved across the country, their reputation as healers preceded them; and, as they practiced their art on the sick and injured, they were cared for and fed in return.

“So great was their excitement and eagerness to touch us that, every one wanting to be first, they nearly squeezed us to death, and, without suffering our feet to touch the ground, carried us to their abodes,” recalled de Vaca. “So many crowded down upon us that we took refuge in the lodges they had prepared for our accommodation, and in no manner consented to be feasted by them on that night.

“The whole night they spent in celebration and dancing, and the next morning they brought us every living soul of that village to be touched by us and to have the cross made over them, as with the others. Then they gave to the women of the other village who had come with their own a great many arrows. The next day we went on, and all the people of that village with us, and when we came to other Indians were as well received as anywhere in the past; they also gave us of what they had and the deer they had killed during the day. Among these we saw a new custom. Those who were with us took away from those people who came to get cured their bows and arrows, their shoes and beads, if they wore any, and placed them before us to induce us to cure the sick. As soon as these had been treated they went away contented and saying they felt well.

“So we left there also, going to others, by whom we were also very well received, and they brought us their sick, who, after we had made the sign of the cross over them, would say they were healed, and he who did not get well still believed we might cure him. And at what the others whom we had treated told they rejoiced and danced so much as not to let us sleep.”

Cabeza de Vaca’s pattern of traveling and healing took him all the way through the southern wilderness and into Mexico. There he finally came upon armies of fellow Spaniards who returned him to the shores of home. He died peaceably in Spain at the age of 66 and has since been honored by the Texas Surgical Society for performing and documenting the first known surgery in the New World.

Saints and survivors exist in the gossamer of the supernatural and in nature’s cruelest realities at once. Cabeza de Vaca’s hardships were significant yet he was able to minimize his pain by attending to the pain of others. He secured his own survival in doing so and, in return, was venerated by all who benefited from his efforts to alleviate their suffering. His is one story among many in the mystery of human endurance and divine providence. While de Vaca’s walk through his own valley of the shadow of death tends to cast neither a light nor a veil across this enigma, it has propelled the query deeper into each succeeding century.

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