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The Narváez expedition was a Spanishmarker attempt to install Pánfilo de Narváez as adelantado (governor) of Spanish Florida during the years 1527 – 1528.

The crew initially numbered about 400. Making stops along the way to Floridamarker at Hispaniolamarker and Cubamarker, the expedition suffered a hurricane among other storms. After landing near Tampa Bay, they were subject to attacks by American Indians, poor food and disease. Over the years, only five of the original party survived.

The survivors were Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, notable for writing about the ill-fated expedition in his La Relacion (The Report), published in 1542, later called Naufragios; the Moorish slave Estevanico, Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, and Andrés Dorantes. Juan Ortiz survived separately, rejoining Europeans after about 12 years.


On December 11, 1526, Carlos Ⅰ of Spain granted Pánfilo de Narváez a license to claim what is now the Gulf Coast of the United States. The contract gave him one year to gather an army, leave Spain, be large enough to found at least two towns of one hundred people each, and garrison two more fortresses anywhere along the coast.

Narváez was largely responsible for funding the expedition himself. He accomplished this mostly by securing outside investors with the lure of riches comparable to those found by Hernán Cortés. He also called in many debts owed to him, and paid for much of it out of his own pocket.Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was appointed the treasurer and acted as the king's eyes and ears. He was responsible for making sure the king got 5% of any wealth acquired during the expedition and acted as second in command. Other members of the expedition included Alonso de Solís as royal inspector of mines, Alonso Enríquez as comptroller, an Aztec prince named Don Pedro, and a contingent of Franciscan priests led by Father Juan Suárez.

On June 17, 1527, the expedition departed Spain from the port of Sanlúcar de Barramedamarker at the mouth of the Guadalquivir River. Among the force were about 450 troops, officers, and slaves. About 150 others were sailors, wives (married men could not travel without wives to the Indies), and servants.

The first stop on the voyage was the Canary Islandsmarker 850 miles into the Atlanticmarker and about a week's journey. Here they stopped to gather more supplies such as water, wine, firewood, meats, and fruit.

Hispaniola and Cuba

They arrived in Santo Domingomarker sometime in August of 1527. During the stay, troops began deserting. Although always a problem on such expeditions, it was exacerbated by the recent return of a similar journey led by Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón in which 450 of the 600 men perished. Nearly one hundred men deserted in the first month in Santo Domingo. The main reasons for the stop was the purchase of two small ships for exploring the coastline and the purchase of as many horses as possible. Although he was only able to get one more ship, they set sail once again.

They arrived in Santiagomarker in late September. As Cuba was the home of Narváez and his family, he had many contacts through which he could collect more supplies, horses, and men. After meeting with his wealthy friend Vasco Porcallo, Narváez sent part of the fleet to Trinidadmarker to collect horses and other supplies from his friend's estate.

Narváez put Cabeza de Vaca and a captain named Pantoja in charge of the two ships sent to Trinidadmarker, while he took the other four ships to the Gulf of Guacanayabomarker. On about 9 November, the two ships arrived in Trinidad to collect the supplies. Unfortunately, a hurricane arrived shortly after them. The storm sank both ships, killed 60 of the men onboard, drowned a fifth of all the expedition's horses, and destroyed all the new supplies from Trinidad.

Recognizing the need to regroup, Narváez sent the four remaining ships to Cienfuegosmarker under the command of Cabeza de Vaca. Narváez stayed ashore in order to gather recruits and purchase more ships. After nearly four months, on February 20, 1528, he arrived in Cienfuegos with one of two new ships and a few more recruits. The other ship he sent to Havanamarker ahead of him. They had, at this point, about 400 men and 80 horses. The winter layover caused a depletion of supplies and they were to restock in Havana on the way to the Florida coast.

One of the new men Narváez hired was a master pilot named Miruelo who claimed detailed knowledge of the Gulf Coast. The debate has lasted centuries over his identity and knowledge. In any case, only two days after leaving Cienfuegos on the way to Havana, every ship in the fleet ran aground on the Canarreos shoals just off the coast of Cuba. There they stayed for two to three weeks, stuck and slowly depleting their already meager supplies. Not until a storm raised large seas were they able to escape the shoals in the second week of March.

After battling more storms, they rounded the Western tip of Cuba and made their way towards Havana. They were near enough to the port that they could see the masts of other ships when the wind kicked up. The fleet was blown into the Gulf of Mexico without reaching Havana. Narváez decided not to try to get back to Havana. Instead, he decided to press on with his colonization plans.

The next month was spent trying to reach the Mexican coast, but they could not overcome the Gulf Stream's powerful current.

Arrival in Florida

On April 12 of 1528, they spotted land north of what is now Tampa Baymarker. They turned south and traveled for two days looking for a great harbor the master pilot Miruelo knew of. Sometime during these two days, one of the five remaining ships was lost. Finally, after spotting a shallow bay, Narváez ordered they enter it. They passed through a small pass into Boca Ciega Bay north of the entrance to Tampa Bay. They spotted buildings set upon earthen mounds, indicating encouraging signs of culture (and wealth), food, and water. The natives were, in fact, members of the Safety Harbor Culture. The Spaniards dropped anchors and prepared a shore party.

One of the first ashore was the comptroller, Alonso Enríquez. He made his way to the nearby village and traded small trinkets such as glass beads, brass bells, and cloth for fresh fish and venison. He reported to Narváez that, although there was little wealth among the people, they seemed peaceful. For reasons unknown, the villagers deserted their homes that night. Several members of the expedition spent the next day exploring the empty village. The only thing of note which they found was a small gold disc or rattle among some fishing nets. This was enough for Narváez to order the rest of the company to debark and establish a camp.

The next day, the royal officials assembled ashore and performed the highly ritualized formal declaration and authentication of Narváez as royal governor of La Florida. He then read the Requerimiento, that explained to any natives listening that their land belonged to Charles V by order of the pope. He also explained that natives had the choice of converting to Christianity. If they chose to convert, they would be loved and welcomed with open arms. If they chose not to, war would be made against them. Pleas and threats by a party of natives the next day were ignored.

Narváez, along with some other officers discovered Old Tampa Baymarker after some exploring. They headed back to the camp and ordered Miruelo to pilot a brigantine in search of his harbor, which he still had not found, and if unsuccessful, to return to Cuba. However, Narváez never heard from Miruelo or the brigantine again. Meanwhile, he took another party inland where they found another village. Here they found some Spanish freight boxes being used as coffins (which they destroyed) and a very little food and gold, and were told by the locals that in Apalachee to the north, there was plenty of both. They returned to the base camp in Boca Ciega Bay and made plans to head north.

Narváez splits land and sea forces

On May 1, 1528, Narváez decided to split the force into land and sea contingents. The plan was to march an army of 300 overland to the north while the ships, with the remaining 100 people, sailed up the coast to meet them. He believed the mouth to Tampa Bay to be a short distance to the north (it was south). Cabeza de Vaca argued against this plan, but was outvoted by the rest of the officers. Narváez wanted Cabeza de Vaca to lead the sea force, but he refused as a matter of honor, as Narváez had implied he was a coward.

They marched in near starvation for two weeks before coming upon a village north of the Withlacoochee River. They enslaved more people and fed on the corn from the village's fields for three days. Two exploratory parties were sent downstream on both sides of the river to search for signs of the ships. After not finding the ships, Narváez ordered they continue north to Apalachee.

Several years later, Cabeza de Vaca learned what became of the ships. After not finding Narváez's party in Old Tampa Bay, Miruello had gone to Havana to pick up the fifth ship waiting there with supplies, and headed back to Tampa Bay. The other three ships had headed north for some time without finding the land party and decided to go back to Tampa Bay also. After meeting up, the fleet went in search of the land party for nearly a year before turning around and heading to Mexico. Juan Ortiz, a member of the naval force, was captured by the Safety Harbor people and lived as a slave at Uzita for nearly twelve years before being rescued by Hernando de Soto's expedition.

They meet the Timucua

From scout reports, the Timucua knew the party of Europeans was nearing their territory. They decided to meet the Europeans as they came near on June 17. Through hand signs and gestures, Narváez communicated to their chief, Dulchanchellin, that they were headed to Apalachee. Dulchanchellin was apparently excited by this as the Apalachee were his enemies.

After the two leaders exchanged gifts, the expedition followed the Timucua into their territory, crossing the Suwannee Rivermarker. During the crossing of the river, an officer named Juan Velázquez charged into it with his horse, drowning them both. His was the first non-shipwreck casualty of the expedition, and it grieved them greatly. His horse was eaten that night by the starving army.

When the Spaniards arrived at the Timucua village on the 18th, the chief sent provisions of maize. That night, an arrow was shot past one of Narváez's men near a watering hole, for unknown reasons. The next morning, the Spaniards found the natives had left the village deserted, so they set out once again for Apalachee. They soon found themselves being followed by the hostile natives. Narváez laid a successful trap for the pursuing natives, and they captured three or four, whom they used as guides. They had no further contact with that group.


On June 25, 1528, they entered Apalachee territory. They soon found a small community of only about forty houses, but thought it was the capital of Apalachee. In fact, it was only a small outlying village of a much larger culture. The Spanish attacked, took several hostages including the village's cacique, and occupied the village. Although the villagers had no riches as Narváez was expecting, they did have much maize.

Soon after Narváez took the village, the Apalachee began attacking the Europeans. The first attack was a force of 200 warriors who employed burning arrows to set fire to the houses the Europeans occupied. The warriors quickly dispersed and only lost one man. The next day a second force of 200 warriors equipped with large bows attacked from the opposite side of the village. This force also quickly dispersed and only lost one man.

After this attack, the Apalachee changed to guerilla warfare tactics. It suited the Apalachee as they could fire their bows five or six times while the Spanish loaded a crossbow or harquebus. They harassed the Spanish continuously for the next three weeks with their large powerful bows. During this time, Narváez sent out three scouting missions in search of larger or wealthier towns. All three came back without good news. Frustrated by the lack of good fortune and his own failing health, Narváez ordered the expedition to head south. Their Apalachee and Timucua captives told him the people of Aute had a great deal of food and the village was near the sea. To get there, they had to cross a large swamp.


For the first two days out of the village, the Spaniards were not attacked. When they were up to their chests in water, the first attack came. They were showered with arrows and could do very little about it. Nearly everything the Spanish had was useless or made the situation worse. Horses could not attack, crossbows and harquebusiers could not be reloaded, and their heavy armor was dangerous in the deep water. They were able to reach solid ground in time to drive off the attackers, though. For the next two weeks, they made their way through the swamp, occasionally being attacked by the Apalachee.

When the Spanish finally reached Aute, they found it already deserted and burnt, but they harvested enough corn, beans, and squash from the garden there to feed their party, many of whom were starving, wounded and sick. After two days, Narváez sent Cabeza de Vaca to look for an opening to the sea. He didn't find the open sea, but after half a day's march along the Wakulla River and St. Marks River, he found shallow, salty water filled with oyster beds. Two more days of scouting produced no better results, and the men returned to tell Narváez the news.

He decided the company would travel to the oyster beds because they were food. As the horses carried the sick and wounded, the Spanish realized they were struggling for survival. Some were thinking of cannibalism. During the march to the shallow bay, some of the caballeros contemplated stealing their horses and abandoning everyone else. Although Narváez was too ill to take action, Cabeza de Vaca got word of the plan and convinced them to stay.

Bay of Horses

After a few days stuck near the shallow waters, a member of the group came up with a plan. He detailed how they could melt down the weaponry and armor to make tools to construct new boats. The party agreed and started action on it August 4, 1528.

They constructed a forge out of a log and used deerskins for the bellows. They cut down trees and made charcoal for the forge. Then they made hammers, saws, axes, and nails out of their melted-down iron gear. Caulking was made from the pitch of pine trees, and palmetto leaves were used as oakum. Shirts were sewn together into sails. They made occasional raids on the Aute village and stole 640 bushels of corn to sustain themselves during the construction. As de Vaca related it, twice, within sight of their camp, they lost ten men gathering shellfish to Apalache raids.

The horses were killed off during the course of construction, one every three days. They were used as a source of food and construction materials. For instance, the horsehair was used for making rope and the skins were used to make bags to store water for the voyage. As horses were very important to the Spanish, especially the nobility, they named the bay in honor of their sacrifice.

They finished building five boats on September 20 and left September 22. After being ravaged by disease, starvation, and attacks by the various peoples they intended to conquer, 242 men were still alive. About fifty men were carried by each boat, which were thirty to forty feet long and had a shallow draft, sail, and oars.

A second hurricane

Storms, thirst and starvation had reduced the expedition to about eighty survivors when a hurricane dumped Cabeza de Vaca and his companions on the western shore of a barrier island, which historians believe was Galveston, Texasmarker. For the next four years, Cabeza de Vaca and a steadily dwindling number of his comrades lived in the complex native world of what is now South Texas.

Four survivors finally reach fellow Spaniards

By 1532, only three other members of the original expedition were still alive -- Alonso del Castillo Maldonando, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, and Estevanico, an African slave. Together with Cabeza de Vaca, they headed west and south in hopes of reaching the Spanish Empire's outpost in Mexico. They were the first men of Europe and Africa to enter the American West.The precise route of the survivors has been difficult to ascertain, but they apparently traveled across present-day Texas, perhaps into New Mexico and Arizona and through Mexico's Northern provinces.

In July 1536, near Culiacánmarker in present-day Sinaloa, the survivors finally met fellow Spaniards on a slave-taking expedition. As Cabeza de Vaca records, his countrymen were "dumbfounded at the sight of me, strangely dressed and in the company of Indians. They just stood staring for a long time."



  • , 3 vols.
  • Cabeza de Vaca, Álvar Núñez.
  • Maura, Juan Francisco. Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca: el gran burlador de América. Parnaseo/Lemir. Valencia:Universidad de Valencia, 2008.

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