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   Where the Search Began

Scientific Evidence
   Known Places
   Rate of Travel
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   Weather Conditions
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Geographic Evidence
   Location of Bays
   Physical Features
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Cultural Evidence
   Indian Tribes
   Foods and Environment
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Summary of Evidence
The Potential Landing Site in Louisiana
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   Landing Theory

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Cabeza de Vaca's Epic Journey
Substantial evidence indicates the shipwreck site was possibly near Louisiana, not Galveston

By Mark Lacy

Draft v.3 - October 2, 2018 - Following is an analysis of a segment of Cabeza de Vaca's journey along the Gulf Coast and into the regional interior, based on his historic account. As the oldest written history of the modern region of Louisiana and Texas, and the southern United States, his book, La Relación, is a critical document that merits a National Historic Trail, research efforts, interpretive centers, academic conferences, exhibits and educational media productions, as the United States approaches the Quincentennial of the historic and dramatic events of 1527-1536. The information included in the document below will be expanded into articles, specific reports and detailed source descriptions, along with social media campaigns, to advocate for public awareness, progress toward greater cultural literacy and accomplishment of several key goals based on the subject.

"By the time we reached my previous campsite, it was painfully clear to all that we were unprepared to go further. Had we been prepared, we still did not know where to go; and the men could not move, most of them lying prone and those able to stand to duty very few. I will not prolong this unpleasantness; but you can imagine what it would be like in a strange, remote land, destitute of means either to remain or to get out."

-- Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca


As the story goes, Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca landed on Galveston Island, traveled along the coast to Matagorda Bay, went inland to the San Antonio area, and found a route to Mexico City. Cabeza de Vaca's landing on the Texas coast and flight for survival, as he and others in the Narváez expedition tried desperately to travel to México, is usually presented as a minor event in Texas history and given little consideration. While there is tremendous mystery surrounding the failed expedition, there is also quite a lot of outright incorrect information.

In reality, the Narváez expedition that was completed by Cabeza de Vaca and three companions (two Spanish and one African) was one of the most harrowing and dramatic stories in world history. It is highly intriguing, with various aspects ranking among the world's greatest mysteries. And it is one of the most important stories of world history.

It was a perilous journey. From the first encounter with indigenous peoples at the place they named "The Cross", overland to the "Bay of Horses" (where the soldiers ate their horses to survive), on the rough Gulf seas to the "Island of Doom" (where most of the expedition members perished from dehydration, starvation and execution on the Gulf Coast), finally taking an overland journey of several thousand miles, only four (4) of 300 men who set out lived to tell about it.

The shipwreck on the Gulf Coast is perhaps the most fateful event on the journey. Cabeza de Vaca reported:
"It was winter and bitterly cold, and we had suffered hunger and the heavy beating of the waves for many days. Next day, the men began to collapse. By sunset, all in my barge had fallen over on one another, close to death. Few were any longer conscious. Not five could stand. When night fell, only the navigator and I remained able to tend the barge. Two hours after dark he told me I must take over; he believed he was going to die that night."

At dawn, the craft capsized on the coast. Cabeza de Vaca reported that it happened on November 6, 1528.

The army of conquistadores was reduced from nearly 250 men to little more than a dozen within days. And the few survivors remained stranded in the vicinity of their crash landing on the coast for nearly six years, too weak and lost to know what to do. Scarcity of food and dynamics of local tribes played a role in their geographic paralysis.

While the full story is phenomenal, and its implications and larger context are astonishing (see
additional notes), the evidence and information provided below is intended for the purpose of considering that the possible landing site of the boat carrying Cabeza de Vaca may have been on the Louisiana coast, rather than Galveston Island. Additional topics offer reasons why it matters and goals for the project.

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Cabeza de Vaca statue
Cabeza de Vaca is depicted in a statue in Houston, Texas. However, the image of a Spanish conquistador is nothing like the reality he endured as a castaway on the Gulf Coast, having lost every possession in a shipwreck, and being dehydrated, malnourished and near death.

The Moving Mississippi

The coastline of the Gulf of Mexico that existed 500 years ago was not the same as the Gulf Coast of today. Historic maps help us understand similarities and differences. Over thousands of years, the Mississippi River has shifted its course dramatically. It constantly changes the shape of the Louisiana coast.

The mouth of the Mississippi has moved from west to east, leaving its old river courses to be named differently and to continue to drain the lower Atchafalaya Basin and other regional watersheds. The coast was affected in the past by the Little Ice Age, when sea levels were slightly lower. The Narváez expedition and Cabeza de Vaca's epic tale take place in the timeframe of the Little Ice Age. In modern times, the river has been channeled with levees, causing gradual subsidence of the land across south Louisiana, since levees restrict the distribution of sediment and moisture. While the river generally reached the Gulf of Mexico in the same vicinity that it does today, 500 years ago its promontories did not extend as far into the sea as they do today.

There is a great deal to consider when exploring whether the island Cabeza de Vaca and many of the other castaways landed on even exists today. The compound, size and orientation of the island is of interest.

Even without accurate surveys or detailed maps from the year of the shipwreck, 1528, there is a substantial amount of evidence to examine and weigh to determine the likely landing site.

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The Research Effort

Mark Lacy has researched the story of Cabeza de Vaca for more than 20 years, utilizing various translations of Cabeza de Vaca's original Spanish language account, La Relación (later titled Naufragios, or "Shipwrecks"), as well as the original version written in Spanish and a "Joint Report" made by three of the four survivors upon their return to Mexico City. Quotes and translation versions are attributed, as well as other references that are important to the researcher. Part of the information below is based on Lacy's own field observations and experience.

He has embarked on field research expeditions, leaving the coast from Cypremort Point, Grand Isle and Morgan City, Louisiana, to understand Gulf Coast currents and drift, and to corroborate the book's clues, and his own data and observations, with academic and scientific data furnished by NASA, NOAA and researchers at Louisiana University's Coastal Studies Institute; viewed 5,000-year-old dugout cypress canoes in a historic production center near Gainesville, Florida; hiked and scouted many of the landscapes - from Florida to Chihuahua, México - described and presented as valuable clues to the castaways' whereabouts in the text; visited dozens of historic indigenous sites and reviewed archaeological evidence; and studied vast numbers of historic maps to understand changes to the coast, as well as the initial geographical understanding gained in the (at the time) foreign, unmarked land - known only to local indigenous peoples by trails and natural landforms (sometimes as boundaries) - where the very first conquistadores ventured into their territories.

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Where the Search Began

Lacy recognized that the saga told by Cabeza de Vaca ranked with the great stories of world travelers - Ibn Battuta, Marco Polo, Xuanzang, and a few others. It was difficult to understand how such a landmark event and feat of human survival was insignificant and largely unknown to the people of Texas who may live in the very places where Cabeza de Vaca walked almost 500 years ago.

But his surprising and puzzling, and sometimes startling chronicle, La Relación, was different than others. It was a trip into an unknown continent, full of critical decisions and fateful mistakes, but mostly it concisely revealed the intentions of colonial world powers and hinted at major flaws in their conquests - contradictions in the use of slavery, quest for power, preparedness for violence, and justification of their religion and faith. It foreshadowed future key international events and moral conflicts, from the defeat of the Spanish Armada and México's independence from Spain to the industrialization and abolition of slavery.

Cabeza de Vaca's account also raised questions about our interpretation of Texas history. It is widely believed that Cabeza de Vaca arrived at Galveston Island and lived among Karankawa Indians, a storied, nomadic tribe well known (mostly in legend) on the Texas coast, where they ceased to exist as an identifiable culture in the Nineteenth Century. While the Karankawa were said to be cannibals, or that they may have practiced cannibalism in some of their rituals, when the Spanish conquistadors under the command of Panfilo de Narváez, chronicled by Cabeza de Vaca, were shipwrecked on the coast, some of them turned to cannibalism to survive. The local Indians (in Cabeza de Vaca's vicinity) who discovered them were repulsed by their cannibalism. Cabeza de Vaca remarked, "the Indians were so shocked at this cannibalism that, if they had seen it sometime earlier, they surely would have killed every one of us."

Cabeza de Vaca believed the Indians he lived among for several years might have executed the survivors as punishment or a rejection of their actions for the horrific incidents of cannibalism. It is important to note, Cabeza de Vaca described another episode of Spanish cannibalism that he was personally unaware of at the time, where other expedition members attempted to survive farther west on the Gulf Coast, in another tribe's territory. Their reaction was not described.

The important contradiction, along with the barrage of one awe-inspiring anecdote told after another, started Lacy on the path to follow the historic route of Cabeza de Vaca, segment by segment, with particular focus on key sites, especially the landing place on the Gulf Coast - the place where the earliest first-hand account of Texas began.

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Prior to the arrival of the Narváez expedition, no map or even written description was ever made of the interior lands across the southern extent of the modern United States. Only one, the 1519 "Pineda map", gave a rough, almost featureless outline of the Gulf Coast. Local indigenous peoples were generally only aware of the regions they inhabited and places where their neighbors traveled or traded goods.

The lands where the survivors of the Narváez expedition ventured were completely unknown to them - the vastness of the continent, and even the orientation of the land and oceans were absolute mysteries. The castaways' confusion and misunderstanding was often reflected in the decisions they made. In some respects, the Narváez expedition survivors even made decisions that seem as if they weren't at all familiar with or confident about Alfonso Álvarez de Pineda's simple map.

In his own words, Cabeza de Vaca provided a substantial amount of evidence to help locate him. He described the landscapes and natural environments, provided measurements, and listed the foods he had access to in the locations he visited. His whereabouts were definitely within the parameters of certain locations he described.

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Scientific Evidence

Since no exact archaeological sites are known (or proven) to track the journey of Cabeza de Vaca across the Gulf Coast, on and off the Gulf of Mexico, an important set of evidence is as basic as speed of travel, based on distance and time. There are factors that help consider the speed and progress of the expedition, from the time it left the "Bay of Horses" in five boats, to the Mississippi River Delta, and to the "Island of Doom".

Genealogical DNA testing may also be an inportant tool to help locate members of the Narváez expedition. Presently the project is seeking individuals who are of indigenous heritage (descended from any of the historic tribes of the Gulf Coast) who may also be descendants of European, African or Middle Eastern members of the expedition. At least three may have willfully remained with indigenous peoples of the Gulf Coast. Two were described as Greek and African, and another,
Lope de Oviedo, was discussed more extensively in the narrative. (He is mentioned roughly 20 times in the text below and his story is specific to the locations where Cabeza de Vaca and the other castaways lived and traveled.)

Known Places - Based on the description of a "vast river" that formed promontories reaching into the Gulf, as well as many islands formed by river sediment in a bay at the river's delta, the Mississippi River is most certainly the one witnessed by Cabeza de Vaca and later partly navigated by Luis de Moscoso y Alvarado (who took over the command of the De Soto expedition following Hernando de Soto's death in 1542).

The river was described as reaching the Gulf of Mexico, "emptying into it in a torrent," carrying such a forceful and large volume of fresh water that the expedition members were able to drink fresh water from the sea.

He clearly described a powerful river that reached the Gulf of Mexico with massive strength, rather than one that merely flowed into a brackish bay. It is a rare phenomenon in the Gulf of Mexico called the Mississippi River Plume. It injects fresh water, and in modern times, many pollutants, into the Gulf of Mexico.

Cabeza de Vaca indicated that members of the expedition tried to make depth readings and found they were not able to measure the depth of the water at the river's channel where it met the Gulf of Mexico, as they were forced outward into the sea by the river's powerful current. He reported that they weren't sure if it was the physical depth of the river or the strong current that prevented them from measuring the height from the surface of the water to the sea floor.

They had likely passed through Chandeleur Sound, between the Chandeleur Islands and Louisiana Coast, with its bays and islands, and reached the Mississippi River Delta, landing along a promontory, a narrow strip of land, where they were able to scout a short distance, about half of a mile across it, to see the river. Cabeza de Vaca described the experience:
...we found we could take fresh water from the sea, the river emptying into it in a torrent... but found no firewood, so decided to go to the river (probably its mouth), one league distant behind that point. All our efforts to breast the violent current resulted only in our getting carried farther out. The north wind rose from shore to drive us the rest of the way to the high sea in spite of anything we could do. About half a league from shore we had sounded and found no bottom, even at thirty fathoms, convinced that the current somehow interfered with our measurement."
The expedition navigated around a promontory that was about two and a half (2.5) to three (3) miles from the point where they reached it. As they rounded it, the current forced them into the Gulf of Mexico, where they attempted to make a depth reading, but they could not find the bottom of the ocean, even at 180 feet, when they were nearly a mile and a half off the point. In addition to the extreme depth of the water, the powerful current may have also interfered with the surveyors' ability to make a reading.

He reported, "For two days we toiled to gain the shore." They were able to site land again early in the morning of the third day. Since they were expelled by the first current they attempted to cross (he doesn't mention successfully crossing one of its mouths but not another), as they fought to row toward the shore, they would have struggled against other channels of the river delta. The De Soto/Moscoso expedition only a few years later confirmed that there were at least two.

As they traveled near the shore along the Continental Shelf, they typically found the depth of the Gulf of Mexico to be relatively shallow. But the underwater topography changes dramatically - the Gulf's depth increasing rapidly - only a short distance from the Mississippi River Delta (this dropoff is very noticeable between two prominent underwater features - Mississippi Canyon and De Soto Canyon). The current, combined with north wind, may have carried them farther than they realized.

Few locations are as precisely described as the Mississippi River Delta. Though it is easily determined based on Cabeza de Vaca's account, its location has moved over millennia, and in its modern position, it has extended its influence into the Gulf for hundreds of years. For our purposes, the modern town of Empire, Louisiana has been used for the point of measurements made between it and the hypothetical locations of the "Bay of Horses" and the "Island of Doom".

While many precise locations are not known, the larger parameters of his travels are defined by specific landscape and environmental features, including most notably, the Mississippi River, as well as mountains, which he only reported viewing more than six years after the river crossing.

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Rate of Travel - From his experience in the military during the years he served, Cabeza de Vaca would have had a keen understanding of his and his companions' rates of travel on land. This was critical information in that period, and still is today for avid walkers and runners. But without naval experience and in the company of nearly 250 soldiers and expedition supporters with no ship-building or navigational experience, Cabeza de Vaca likely had little ability to determine the rates of travel of the five crudely built boats they fled in to try to escape the Gulf Coast. In his text, he gave no distances traveled on water from Florida to Texas. However, he gave a variety of measurements and even timeframes on land. He accounted for the days on the water, including unproductive days when they made little progress, and also attempted to keep track of the depth of the water where the boats traveled, since the information was considered important for future Spanish ship traffic, as well as their own proximity to the shore (for example, when traveling at night).

There are three strong sets of evidence to help us determine how far the survivors may have traveled on water, including: 1. The time from the starting point on the Florida coast to the mid point, the Mississippi River, and the time from the Mississippi River to the sites of the shipwrecks; 2. The distance of separation between other boats when they capsized on the coast; and, 3. The comparative experience of the crew of the De Soto/Moscoso expedition only a few years later.
1. The time between the points on the route
The castaways were likely in their healthiest condition upon leaving the Florida coast, though he reported, "a third of our force had fallen seriously ill." Their point of departure (called the "Bay of Horses") is not the subject of this analysis. It is generally believed to be in the region of Apalachicola Bay, probably the mouth of the St. Marks River, and is accepted for the purpose of this research and assertation. Should they have left the coast from a point farther west, as some suggest, it merely strengthens the case made in this examination of evidence.

For the journey on the Gulf of Mexico to try to escape the mainland, the expedition participants were in their healthiest state leaving the Florida coast on September 22, 1528, since they had access to fresh water, had hunted or pillaged for food, and eaten their horses, hence the name "Bay of Horses" (Cabeza de Vaca later noted he was one of the few who could not eat the horses). They were somewhat rested, as they stayed in one place for over six weeks (August 4 - September 22, 1528) while building five boats.

By the end of the perilous journey at sea, they were in a near-death state physically and seemed to have given up mentally as they approached the last days, during the first week of November 1528. To reiterate Cabeza de Vaca's words on their dire situation:
"...the men began to collapse. By sunset, all in my barge had fallen over on one another, close to death. Few were any longer conscious. Not five could stand. When night fell, only the navigator and I remained able to tend the barge. Two hours after dark he told me I must take over; he believed he was going to die that night."
They had the best physical ability to propel their boats in the beginning and were barely capable in the end. Cabeza de Vaca noted that the expedition leader, Narváez, had the healthiest men and that the crews of the other boats could not keep up with the governor's boat. While they launched with crude sails made from their clothing, Cabeza de Vaca didn't provide any accounts of the sails helping, especially near the end of the sea voyage. The wind worked against them. As they sought the shore to find a source of water, Cabeza de Vaca reported the governor stated:
"If I wished to follow him, I should order my men to the oars, for only by arm work could the land be gained."

The Mississippi River is generally a mid point of the journey, and even lies before the true mid point, certainly if the landing site of Cabeza de Vaca's boat was Galveston. The distance from Apalachicola Bay to the Mississippi River is 280 miles when measured in a straight line (Apalachicola, FL to Empire, LA), or about 340 miles when measured in a route that generally follows along the coast. From the Mississippi River to Galveston Island (Empire, LA to Galveston, TX), it is 315 miles in a straight line and also roughly 340 miles when measured along the coast (not counting the miles they drifted into the Gulf and worked to return to shore). (Note: a point about five (5) miles west on the Galveston Island coast from the island's eastern point has been used for measurements to account for the shipwreck of the second boat that reached the island farther back (reported to be 1/2 league) on the day before Cabeza de Vaca's.)

For reference, the following is an account of the days from the "Bay of Horses" to the "Island of Doom". The dates provided are the last ones Cabeza de Vaca knew with any certainty for nearly seven and a half years.

Days Dates Place Notes
Sept 20 "Bay of Horses" Five boats were completed.
1 Sept 22 "Bay of Horses" Five boats left "Bay of Horses".
1-7 Sept 22 - 28 on water They sailed seven days behind barrier islands and arrived at an island on the seventh night.
8 Sept 29 "St. Michael" They passed through a strait, which they named "St. Michael" (on St. Michael's Day), to reach the open sea.
1-30 Sept 22 - Oct 21 on water The first 30 days were relatively uneventful.
31 Oct 22 unnamed island At dawn on the 31st day, a storm came that lasted six days.
36 Oct 27 unnamed bay On the sixth day of the storm, they departed. They stayed with local Indians in a calm bay.
37 Oct 28 on water After an overnight incident, they left on the Gulf and found another group of local Indians, from whom they requested water. By night, the Indians returned indicating a Greek and African with the expedition had fled, and the boats held two Indians captive.
38 Oct 29 on water Indians came in canoes to get the two who were held captive. Winds grew strong and the Indians turned away.
39 Oct 30 Mississippi River At nightfall, the boats reached a promontory and found the Mississippi River on the other side.
40, 41 Oct 31 - Nov 1 on water The powerful current of the Mississippi River swept the boats out to sea and they spent two days working hard to reach the coast again.
42 Nov 2 on water In the predawn hours, while in the boats, they could see smoke from fires on the coast as they neared. By daylight, the boat crews lost sight of each other.
42-45 Nov 2 - 5 on water The boats continued for four days west of the Mississippi River along the Gulf Coast. In this time, one of the boats sank (the "Joint Report" and Cabeza de Vaca's account provide varying details of the timeframe, indicating it sank on the second day or fourth day, respectively).
45 Nov 5 "Island of Doom" During the day (the time is unspecified), Dorantes and Castillo's boat capsized near the "Island of Doom".
46 Nov 6 "Island of Doom" In the early morning, Cabeza de Vaca's boat capsized just off of the "Island of Doom", where the men crawled to the shore.

Cabeza de Vaca accounted for 39 days (Sept. 22 - Oct. 30, 1528) from Apalachicola Bay, the "Bay of Horses", to the Mississippi River - Seven (7) days spent sailing behind barrier islands while attempting to reach the open Gulf of Mexico, and 32 days traveling on the Gulf to the mouth of the Mississippi River. Six (6) days were lost while waiting out a major storm.

He accounted for only seven (7) days (Oct. 31 - Nov. 6, 1528) - more realistically, having landed early in the morning on November 6, only six (6) days - from the Mississippi River to the site of the shipwreck on the "Island of Doom". If the "Island of Doom" was Galveston Island, the boat crews picked up tremendous speed after passing the mouth of the Mississippi River.

The difference is stark. Based on the dates and times given, the expedition was capable to travel about 60 miles per day (average) to reach Galveston Island after passing the Mississippi River Delta, but fewer than 10 miles per day (average) before reaching the Delta.

To reach Galveston Island, they traveled at a rate that was six times (6X) faster in the days following their crossing of the Mississippi River Delta than they traveled in the days before reaching the Delta.

Had they merely been able to travel at the speed beyond the Mississippi River to the west that they traveled from Florida to the Mississippi River, given the significantly smaller number of days, severely diminished health and likely reduced condition of their boats, they would have only made it as far as a point on the Louisiana coast, somewhere along the southern edges (islands) of
Terrebonne Parish.

The Mississippi River caused some trouble for the boats as they were forced farther out to sea upon attempting to cross its powerful current, costing them nearly two days. Cabeza de Vaca reported spending the better part of the day and the next day attempting to return to a position nearer to the coast. They desperately needed to stay near the coast to find water sources. Had they been committed to a westward course when they were far into the Gulf, rather than struggling to move north, the possibility of reaching the coast farther west is slightly stronger. As they tried to navigate to the north, they were likely forced to drift west, which may have helped them gain westward distance at a slightly better speed, improving their rate of travel.

2. The distance of separation between the boats
When Cabeza de Vaca's boat capsized near the coast on an island, the one they named "Island of Doom", in the early morning of November 6, he soon discovered that another of the five boats was also wrecked near his on the same island. Their wreck was described as happening the day before on November 5. Though he didn't provide the time, we can use 8-12 hours for an estimate (six (6) hours at least). In winter, the nights are longer and his own wreck came at about or just before dawn on November 6. The distance given between the shipwreck sites was a little more than a mile to a mile and a half (1/2 league).

If the island was oriented east-west as they traveled along the coast, or even north-south, but parallel to the boats' paths of travel (since they may not have been traveling parallel to the coast on the day they crashed, but rather straight toward it), Cabeza de Vaca's boat was traveling at a very slow speed, gaining just a mile, or a few miles at most, in possibly 8-12 hours. Even if they only traveled six (6) hours longer than the other boat, Cabeza de Vaca's craft gained very little distance in that time.

The positions of the other three boats (of the five) are not helpful in determining the rate of travel, but additional useful evidence is provided in the book. One boat was lost at sea, which Cabeza de Vaca witnessed. The crews of two other boats were discovered to have been stranded on the coast ahead of Cabeza de Vaca's. However, their additional time on the water was not known or reported. One managed to travel only about 25-35 more miles ahead of the two that capsized on the "Island of Doom". Another (commanded by Governor Narváez) was still used to transport expedition members over the inlets of bays or rivers even farther ahead, but was eventually lost in unknown circumstances.

When the individual boat crews in the expedition lost sight of the others on November 2, as they tried to reach land early in the morning, Cabeza de Vaca no longer had knowledge of the whereabouts of two of the other boats. One was the boat that traveled three (3) more days (November 2-5) after they drifted apart, carrying Castillo, Dorantes and Esteban, before it wrecked on the same island as Cabeza de Vaca. If their course may have started from a position closer to the island than Cabeza de Vaca's, explaining how they may have reached the island first while traveling a more similar speed. In another possible scenario, if Cabeza de Vaca's boat was ahead, but only reached the island 8-12 hours later, gaining only about a mile and a half, it could indicate Cabeza de Vaca's boat was moving slower, also raising doubt that the boat was able to benefit from use of a sail or gain substantial help from ocean currents.

3. The experience of the De Soto/Moscoso sailors
Hernando de Soto's successor, Luis de Moscoso y Alvarado, made a very similar exit from La Florida (the modern southeastern United States) as Narváez and Cabeza de Vaca. From the Mississippi River, Moscoso's boats traveled west along the coast. The bay they reached after 16 days is believed to be Galveston Bay. Some of his men traveled north by canoe and were not successful during their limited time (two days) in finding the northern reaches of the bay.

Moscoso's veteran troops of the De Soto expedition were most certainly in better health and much stronger than those in the Narváez expedition. They had similar motive, but the Narváez crews may have been more desperate. Moscoso's men had successfully endured four years in the interior of the modern southeastern United States. The Narváez/Cabeza de Vaca party was in a state of emergency, near death Cabeza de Vaca reported, desperate to leave and expelled after only five months. The descriptions offered about Moscoso's ship-building efforts (reading and comparing the descriptions) sound more competent than Cabeza de Vaca's account of their own exercise. He wrote:
"This appeared impossible, since none of us knew how to build ships, and we had no tools, iron, forge, oakum, pitch, or rigging, or any of the indispensible items, or anybody to instruct us. Worse still, we had no food to sustain workers."
In fact, when the "barges" were loaded, Cabeza de Vaca reported, the sides were barely above water and he later worked to raise the sides with some split canoes in order to try to reduce waves from breaking over the makeshift ships.

As a significant indicator of their health, ability and confidence: the Narváez expedition ate their horses, while Moscoso's made arrangements to build rafts to haul their horses on the journey down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico.

The De Soto expedition also formed a much larger force, 700, rather than 300 in the Narváez expedition that went into Florida. While the De Soto expedition exited after four years with fewer than half its original force, the Narváez expedition was reduced to less than 1/10th of its original ranks within a year.

It is important to consider the health of the crews, and the quality of the boats they built, their ability to power them (with sails and manual labor), and certainly the number of productive travel days they achieved.

From August 4 - September 20, 1528, the Narváez expedition built five boats from local trees and materials, 30-32 feet long, with sails, patched together from their own clothing, and oars. With a force under 250 men, each would ferry 48 people (average). When loaded, the sides of the boats were barely a half foot above water.

From December (exact date uncertain), 1542 - July 1, 1543, the De Soto expedition (under the new command of Moscoso) built seven boats from local trees and materials, with sails, made from woven Indian shawls, and seven pairs of oars for each boat. With a force of 322 people, each would ferry 46 (average), and pull sleds with 22 horses (total). Horses were no longer with the expedition when the boats exited the continent by way of the Mississippi River Delta.

Cabeza de Vaca reported up to five (5), and possibly only four (4), of the seven (7) days on the Gulf (October 31 - November 6) were productive as the expedition moved west, while the healthier De Soto/Moscoso crews had ten (10) productive days of the 16 days they traveled west on the Gulf (July 18 - August 2).

If it was, in fact, Galveston Bay that Moscoso reached in 1543, and if Cabeza de Vaca shipwrecked on Galveston Island in 1528, Cabeza de Vaca's boat traveled twice as fast as those of Moscoso's crews.

Another in the fleet during the Narváez expedition's escape, Dorantes and Castillo's boat, which wrecked near the same site as Cabeza de Vaca the day before, November 5, would also have traveled twice as fast as Moscoso's boats, and even a little faster than that, with about 8-12 fewer hours on water than Cabeza de Vaca's boat.

There were a few differences. The De Soto/Moscoso boats exited a more westward channel of the Mississippi River, taking the one they felt was most advantageous to their planned direction to México, where Cabeza de Vaca and the other crews with the Narváez expedition crossed the (two or several) channels of the river from east to west, struggling, as the Mississippi currently and historically releases into the Gulf in multiple channels due to its high fresh water capacity and fluctuating water levels.

In the flight toward México, Cabeza de Vaca did not reference the use of their sails after the Mississippi River, but mentioned the use of oars. He referred to north winds working against their progress. Being on the Gulf for so many days, the sun and wind may have also rendered their sails shredded and nearly useless, though he did not make a statement to confirm that.

For reference, the following chart provides the elapsed time between the Narváez/Cabeza de Vaca expedition and the De Soto/Moscoso expedition at various sites visited.

Location Cabeza de Vaca De Soto/Moscoso Ellapsed Time
Florida April 1528 May 1539 11 years later
Miss. River Delta Oct 1528 July 1543 15 years later
Texas Interior 1529 (after Delta) 1543 (before Delta) 14 years later
Galveston Nov 1532 Aug 1543 11 years later
New Spain July 1536 Nov 1543 7 years later

The Narváez expedition, completed by Cabeza de Vaca, lasted over eight (8) years (1528 - 1536) in the interior of the modern United States and México, while the De Soto expedition, completed by Moscoso, lasted over four (4) years (1539 - 1543), mostly in the southeastern United States (La Florida), though it successfully returned to New Spain (México) by way of the Louisiana and Texas coast on the Gulf of Mexico.

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Gulf Coast Currents - The Gulf of Mexico's weather patterns and currents do not generally provide consistent or constant assistance to propel a boat on a steady course or in a desired direction. As with the prevailing winds, the currents change periodically, sometimes being different from day to day, with some areas having greater consistency than others. Drifter buoy research by universities and government agencies, as well as direct tests in the field by Lacy, indicate that the currents are generally irregular and rarely cooperative for boat travel, especially along the upper central Gulf Coast (the Louisiana coast).

Two exhibits of visual evidence give the appearance that the currents are constant and easily understood: 1. Sediment from the Mississippi River, the Atchafalaya River and other watersheds on the central Gulf Coast generally drifts west (shown in numerous satellite images); and, 2. Galveston Island and some other similar barrier islands are sculpted over thousands of years by currents and wave action, as well as prevailing winds, so their geographic shape and profile is influenced by longshore currents and the drift of sediment, in the case of Galveston, gradually pushing sand from east to west, making it generally wider from its northeast end and thinner toward the southeast (modern effects on Galveston Island are controlled by jetties and other manmade efforts). The two sets of evidence reflect sediment transport, neither is proof of a constant Gulf Coast circulation of ocean current that benefitted the Narváez expedition boats to an excessive degree.

Galveston's prevailing winds are from the south and they dominate more than seven (7) months of the year. Prevailing winds during winter (especially December and January), however, are from the north. Modern Galveston, statistically, may experience winds from the north, south, or east in November. Cabeza de Vaca reported strong north winds and bitter cold, which is entirely possible, especially if winter set in early.

According to researchers at Louisiana State University, "Subsurface currents are ocean currents in which the moving water lies between the surface and a maximum depth of about 500m. Currents that are no deeper than about 200m are usually caused by winds pushing on the water." A study reprinted by the American Geophysical Union in the Journal of Geophysical Research found, "Comparison of the drift-bottle data with local wind indicates that the primary mechanism of surface water transport in the vicinity of the release point is wind-induced currents..."

Strong north winds have driven water out of large bodies of water like Lake Pontchartrain and Galveston Bay, leaving them extremely shallow.

Following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster, which started on April 20, 2010, numerous agencies and companies increased their study of Gulf of Mexico currents, waves and the Mississippi River Delta, producing extensive, detailed water mapping of the region and better understanding of the dynamics of surface and subsurface currents, and the Mississippi River plume and its freshwater transport into the Gulf, as well as the formation of eddies that cause circular currents or erratic (oval loops and U-shaped) drifts.

The Deepwater Horizon platform was located off the coast of Louisiana near the Mississippi River Delta, so the direction, distance and timing the oil would reach parts of the Gulf Coast became a major concern. Two months after the spill, oil reached the Mississippi, Alabama and Florida coasts, east of the Mississippi River. About five months after the spill, in September, oil reached coastal Louisiana parishes (counties) immediately west of the Mississippi River Delta, and finally reached the east Texas coast in October. The Gulf's prevailing currents largely spared Texas beaches of the most immediate and worst effects of the massive amount of oil released into the Gulf.

Research conducted by numerous government agencies and academic institutions, including the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Louisiana State University's Coastal Studies Institute, reveals that circulation, drift and currents on the upper Gulf Coast are irregular and may change frequently, as drifting ocean buoys may even travel in circles or make loops as they are caught in eddies, isolated circular currents, in the Gulf. Wind direction and current circulation often work against each other to impede movement of an object on the surface of the ocean.

Drifter tracks
Scientific data is collected to study surface and subsurface currents. The above image is provided as an example of the lack of uniformity of ocean currents in the Gulf of Mexico by demonstrating several simultaneous drifter tracks, covering two weeks in May and June in 1995. Thousands of images by various agencies were studied, along with in-the-field research, to determine the likelihood and potential amount of assistance the Gulf's currents provided to the five boats of the Narváez expedition.

Geographic features of the coast are visible, including the Mississippi River Delta (89° W), Marsh Island (92° W), and Galveston Bay and Galveston Island (95° W). Ocean temperature is also rendered in the image. The graphic is referenced below. Click on the image for a larger view.

Lacy's own results from deploying and tracking drifters demonstrated that the short term day-to-day track of drifters off the coast of St. Mary Perish, Louisiana had a greater propensity to drift toward and away from the coast, mostly north and south, rather than on a definite westerly course. Lacy also tested the drift of his own boat and found that there was a slow and slight net drift to the west, though not a direct drift, but rather more of a zigzag pattern. On the third day of one three-day research journey south of Morgan City, Louisiana, Lacy encountered a northern front in late October that severely increased wave action on the Gulf and made the return to the relative safety of the Atchafalaya Bay and travel back into the Atchafalaya River much more arduous and dangerous. For the previous two days, wind conditions had been still and the ocean's surface very smooth. The boat could be rowed in any direction. But in the north wind, he experienced the kind of conditions likely faced by Narváez expedition participants. To move the boat intentionally, an powerful outboard motor was required.

Note: The boat was a 12.5' inflatable. It hydroplanes and moves extremely fast and easily using outboard motor power. It is not easily propelled using oars (like a canoe or kayak that are designed for manual power) and represents a craft that, while lighter, would have resistance (when resting in the water) similar to the boats that were likely built by the Narváez expedition members.

While some historians have expressed support for the possibility that a hurricane may have propelled the Narváez expedition boats farther west, Cabeza de Vaca repeatedly described cold weather and northern fronts. He certainly never relived anything (not even the six-day storm the boats waited out east of the Mississippi River) like to the hurricane he survived in Cuba. He described that event:
"...the sea began to rise ominously and the north wind blow so violently that the two boats (ships) would not have dared come near land even if the wind had not already made landing impossible. All hands labored severely under a heavy fall of water that entire day and until dark on Sunday. By then the rain and tempest had stepped up until there was as much agitation in the town as at sea. All the houses and churches went down. We had to walk seven or eight together, locking arms, to keep from being blown away. Walking in the woods gave us as much fear as the tumbling houses, for the trees were falling, too, and could have killed us. We wandered all night in this raging tempest without finding any place we could linger as much as half an hour in safety. Particularly from midnight on, we heard a great roaring and the sound of many voices, of little bells, also flutes, tambourines, and other instruments, most of which lasted till morning, when the storm ceased. Nothing so terrible as this had been seen in these parts before. I drew up an authenticated account and sent it back to Your Majesty.

For some days we struggled with much hardship and hunger, for the provisions had been destroyed, also some herds. The country was left in a condition piteous to behold: parched, bereft of grass and leaf, the trees prostrate."
The storm killed 60 men (and 20 horses), 1/10th of the original expedition force (600 came from Spain and 460 to Cuba). It would have killed many more of them had they all been in the same location on their ships. Two ships anchored in the harbor disappeared, probably sank, and a boat was found in the tree tops. Two men were beaten beyond recognition against rocks more than 25 miles away.

The hurricane struck near the end of October, 1527, and the expedition members who directly experienced it struggled to recover in the first days of November, approximately in the same timeframe that the expedition would cross the Mississippi River Delta and move west on the Gulf of Mexico one year later, in 1528, before being shipwrecked and stranded.

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Weather Conditions - As described above, weather was a factor in the expedition's capability to travel. Cold fronts from the north, which were reported, likely impeded the progress of the boats traveling west on the Gulf of Mexico.

A hurricane in the Gulf has been suggested as a factor in the expedition's travel on the waters along the upper coast. But had the boats been west of a hurricane, or even had it passed south of them, it would have impeded their progress with its counterclockwise rotating winds, coming from the north. Like a strong cold front, the northwest quarter of a hurricane brings winds from the north, though the winds are generally warm and humid, as part of a "tropical cyclone". They require warm ocean water to fuel them.

While on the Gulf of Mexico, traveling from the Mississippi River Delta to the island site near where their boats wrecked, Cabeza de Vaca reported, "It was winter and bitterly cold." While attempting to revive their sunken ship in the rough sea, he stated, "Being naked and the cold intense, we let our oars go. The next big wave capsized the barge." And he further emphasized:
"...the survivors escaped as naked as they were born, with the loss of everything they had. That was not much, but valuable to us in that bitter November cold, our bodies so emaciated we could easily count every bone and looked the very picture of death.

On top of everything else, a cruel north wind commenced to complete our killing."
Being unclothed, wet and in poor health, it is easy to imagine the survivors were cold and would have been so in mildly chilly temperatures, even near 70 degrees. But there are no references to mild or warm temperatures (only some later accounts of massive amounts of mosquitoes) to compare their experience on the Gulf Coast to know if Cabeza de Vaca exaggerated the castaways' bad experience in the cold. He does, however, refer to the cold becoming even worse, more problematic and more unbearable.

"...the weather turned so cold and stormy that the Indians could not pull up roots; their cane contraptions for catching fish yielded nothing; and the huts being very open, our men began to die."

While Cabeza de Vaca described harsh weather, he never described anything as menacing and deadly (killing healthy men) as a hurricane they experienced in the early months of the expedition, when they arrived in Cuba. From his description of the "Island of Doom", no storm surge had affected the island, which may have happened even if a mild tropical storm or hurricane made landfall at a distance to influence their course, but not overtake them. He referenced no damage and the indigenous peoples of the island seemed to be going about life as usual, gathering food, when the castaways first arrived.

It was cold, and in their extremely poor state of health, exposure to the cold temperatures was killing them.

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The Island's Measurements - Cabeza de Vaca gives a measurement for the "Island of Doom", where he stayed and wandered over for many days of his four years in the vicinity. Again, being foot travelers, it is almost certain that he and his companions were capable to make fairly good land measurements, based on their travel abilities on land. Cabeza de Vaca offered measurements for several abstract ideas, such as the range of the buffalo and the extent to which certain customs existed, that he must have considered partly based on his experience and partly based on communication with the Indians.

He also made some impressively (or surprisingly) accurate measurements (given that he was surely averaging his days of traveling), along with subsets of information about the range of languages and distances between places, to demonstrate that he was engaged in his work. For instance, he calculated the width of the continent to be about 600 miles (which is accurate from the point that they left the Gulf Coast, and traveled across Texas and Mexico to the Pacific Coast, near the Gulf of California). He also figured that he traveled 5,000 to 6,000 miles.

Cabeza de Vaca provided the following description of the "Island of Doom":
"The distance to the main is two leagues (5-6 miles), at the widest part of the channel. The island itself, which supports the two tribes commodiously, is half a league wide by five (12.5-15 miles) long."
Though it was sizeable and supported two migratory peoples, Cabeza de Vaca measured an island that is half the size of Galveston. By converting his measurements, we estimate that the "Island of Doom" was 13-15 miles long and 1.3-1.5 miles wide. It was roughly 5.5-6 miles from the shore of the mainland. Strangely, he noted that is at the widest point, rather than the closest.

The survey he provided is about the length of Marsh Island, though Marsh Island is generally wider. Marsh Island is a candidate for the landing site, though possibly not the best or only candidate. While Cabeza de Vaca's measurements are similar in proportion to a barrier island, other possibilities exist. His description differs somewhat from one of a barrier island.

It is important to note: based on studies of Galveston Island's geology, longshore sediment transport, and bay and river sediments, it has been losing ground (literally, losing sand) and its shoreline has been receding since the barrier island stopped growing about 1,800 years ago. Its size when Cabeza de Vaca was shipwrecked was not substantially different from its size today.

Also note: Marsh Island (
St. Mary Parish) is named "Grand Isle" or labeled "Grand Is." on some historic maps, causing confusion with the modern Grand Isle in Jefferson Parish.

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Geographic Evidence

Cabeza de Vaca revealed very fascinating differences between the land where he and many of the castaways first arrived and the land they traveled to when they left the "Island of Doom" in order to escape to México.

Varying ecosystems are an extremely important framework to consider in determining his location. Upon leaving the "Island of Doom" and traveling to a substantial bay, which he believed was likely the one Alfonso Álvarez de Pineda's map (1519) located on the central Gulf Coast called Espíritu Santo, Cabeza de Vaca described two distinctly different ecosystems. He and the other survivors lived in the local environments for many years. Cabeza de Vaca accounted for four years in the region of the "Island of Doom" and in the forests to the north, and more than two years in the region beyond a substantial bay, before he and the three others who ultimately survived determined to leave the coastal plain and make an inland journey to escape to Mexico City. Cabeza de Vaca provided important clues to the effort it took for the Spanish and African castaways to transfer from the "Island of Doom" to the bay about 75-90 (or more) miles west, including their crossing of "four large streams on the coast."

Cabeza de Vaca's description of the "Island of Doom" and the activities of its inhabitants is informative and highly revealing, though sparsely detailed, and presents a pretty good geographic picture, especially when combined with Lacy's modern personal experience in various Gulf Coast environments.

Cabeza de Vaca first reported, when their boat capsized on the morning of November 6, "(the dead-looking men) crawled through the surf to some rocks." He ordered the strongest of them, Lope de Oviedo, to climb a tree to observe the landscape. Lope de Oviedo reported they were on an island and he followed a footpath a little more than a mile to a settlement with huts, where he found earthen pottery, stores of fish and a dog.

The community was temporarily deserted, as Cabeza de Vaca explained, because "the Indians were gone to shoal-flats." Likely they were away to catch fish and dig for roots.

While one of the survivors (Lope de Oviedo) climbed a tree to observe the island, wood was reported to be scarce and trees may have been few on the island. Drift wood may have been among the sources the indigenous peoples collected.

He described the dwellings and the surface they were built on, as he revealed a very important detail:
"The houses are made of mats (thatch covering from local plant material); their floors consist of masses of oyster shells. The natives sleep on these shells - in animal skins, those who happen to own such."
Oyster shells were commonly used to form levees (reinforced with earth or sand filling) to keep tides out of seasonal camps that were placed close to the water. If higher ground existed in close proximity to the water, huts may have been constructed on better land. But the huts were erected on shells, indicating the entire ground profile may have been very low, soggy and damp, and better described as a coastal marsh than a barrier island. Some shell middens are still in existence in coastal regions, from the Florida coast to Galveston Bay (where a prominent one was located at Pine Gully) and they are sometimes protected by government parks and preserves.

When Lope de Oviedo climbed a tree and reported they were on an island, Cabeza de Vaca further revealed some interesting, though less obvious clues in the narrative that have to be taken into consideration:
"He (Lope de Oviedo) also said that it looked as if cattle had trampled it (the island) and therefore this must be a country of Christians."
Several ideas and possibilities can be considered:

The members of the Narváez expedition may not yet have seen buffalo (American bison) to that point, since they remained so close to the coast in marshes and wetlands during most of their conquest. Cabeza de Vaca described them later, after he reached the west side of an impressive bay and moved on into the interior of modern Texas and northern México.

The trampled appearance may have come from human feet, following common paths, and making deep impressions on a low, flat and wet island formed entirely of sediment deposits. Hundreds of Indians were reported to live on the narrow island through the winter.

Lope de Oviedo may have longed to return home and been hopeful, though he ended up remaining with the Indians whom he lived with for four years on the island, while Cabeza de Vaca spent a substantial amount of time living and trading goods in the interior. When the surviving expedition members left the region, Lope de Oviedo stayed with the indigenous people.
Further, Lope de Oviedo, described by Cabeza de Vaca as "our strongest man," is a very interesting character to consider for several outcomes that may have resulted, as he remained on the central Gulf Coast, alive for an unknown time:

When he decided to not continue the planned escape with Cabeza de Vaca and the three others who ultimately fled to Mexico City, citing the abusive treatment of a tribe in the vicinity of the bay they deemed Espíritu Santo, he returned with women who had made a journey far west with him on the coast, while men who came with them waited at an earlier location east of the bay. It suggests that the tribes were not friendly, as Cabeza de Vaca noted that women were more likely to be neutral in conflicts.

The record of indigenous peoples Cabeza de Vaca accounted for indicates that a different tribal group inhabited the lands between the "Island of Doom" and its dwellers, and the cruel ones (as he described them) in the vicinity of the prominent bay. Their territory was the coastal lands where the survivors who fled the Gulf Coast crossed four large streams between the island and the bay.

It also opens the possibility that Lope de Oviedo's relationship with the Indians may not be fully known or revealed in Cabeza de Vaca's account. He may have perished soon after the survivors moved west; he may have spent years with the tribe and exchanged unique cultural information, having a role in development of new knowledge and traditions in the region; he may have married into the tribal society. Those possibilities and more remained a mystery after the known survivors traveled away and crossed the continent, to never return.

Additional work in genealogy, anthropology and archaeology may one day connect additional evidence related to Lope de Oviedo and other survivors.

Another important clue may be the presence of rocks. They are rare on the Gulf Coast, but Cabeza de Vaca referenced them twice in the vicinity of the island. When the survivors crawled from the surf onto the shore, the "rocks" may have been shells, or possibly leftover river gravel from an ancient river channel. A primary way rocks made their way to the Gulf Coast was through rivers, which have carried them over millions of years and deposited them along the banks and deltas as what geologists call "river gravel".

Since rivers have moved, changing course over thousands of years, rocks are found, even in places where they seem unexplainable. The course of the Mississippi River has ranged wildly, once reaching the Gulf at Vermillion Bay, more than 100 miles from its present channel. Many of the islands that are found east and west of the current Mississippi River Delta are the products of sediment that flowed down the Mississippi. Many are the remnants of old promontories of the powerful river, the sole drainage for most all of the American lands between the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains.

Other places on Louisiana's Gulf Coast developed in similar ways. Though Vermillion Bay is the location of the oldest known southern watershed, or inland embayment, and delta of the Mississippi River, it still reveals its evidence from thousands of years past.

Not all of the promontories, especially of the oldest channels, have remained. As sea levels have risen slightly since the Little Ice Age, combined with modern subsidence (caused by the channeling of Louisiana rivers and the activities of modern industries, like canals and drilling operations), the phenomenon of lands that are vanishing today has also happened in the past, though likely at a much slower rate in the past.

While there isn't an accurate or detailed map of the coast five centuries ago or a guidebook to the earlier forces that shaped it, there is some interesting evidence to the vanishing past. Vermillion Bay (considered the oldest delta site of the Mississippi), Marsh Island, place names on historic maps, salt domes, seafloor contours, and the ecological environment (able to be experienced in person), all hold clues to the past.

Even the evolving role of the cheniers is critical to imagine the landscape on the Louisiana coast that existed when Cabeza de Vaca passed through the region from 1528 to 1532. Having a tree (the one Lope de Oviedo climbed) and possibly being lightly wooded, as wood was described as scarce, the island could have been an ancient chenier.

Sea levels were rising slightly since the early period of Spanish exploration began about 500 years ago to the period of successful European colonization of Louisiana in the Eighteenth Century, as the Little Ice Age was a significant global influence. However, unlike the modern period, subsidence was not a significant issue, as the lands were rapidly gaining sediment from unchanneled rivers (Mississippi, Atchafalaya, and others), as natural floodways. Industrial activities were not a major factor.

The environment of Marsh Island and the Shell Keys that are sometimes (often) noted on maps deserve attention for their suitability to fit the description of the island where Cabeza de Vaca was shipwrecked. Other possibilities to consider and study exist just below the surface of the water, including the Tiger Shoal and Trinity Shoal, off the
Vermillion Parish coast, generally south of Pecan Island, Louisiana and a location referred to as Tiger Point (also near Cheniere au Tigre).

While these and other places are submerged, they indicate islands have existed along that stretch of the Gulf Coast. The slight rise in sea level since the Little Ice Age is not the event that sank them, but it may have played a role. As salt water encroached on any plant materials that existed, the loss of root systems exacerbated the erosion of the residual sedimentary soil. Storms and water currents have reduced them to what they are today - shoals. One of them may even be the island Cabeza de Vaca landed on. In their vicinity may be the shoal flats he mentioned, part of the island with water over it, where the Indians were likely working to gather food.

Historic maps often indicate a variety of islands in that vicinity that are not well defined, nor do they exist above water today. An 1835 map shows an island in the vicinity of prominent shoals, southwest of Marsh Island, off the Vermillion Parish coast. Lacy found places on the coast off of Vermillion Parish where it is possible to stand on submerged sandbars only about one (1) to two (2) feet below the water surface at distances off shore where it would be expected to be much deeper. Several historic maps reflect possible islands as keys or shoals near that stretch of the Louisiana coast.

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Location of Bays - While on the "Island of Doom" and during his years wandering the forests as a merchant, when Cabeza de Vaca reported traveling far inland and back to the island several times (at least annually), as well as "forty or fifty leagues" (100-150 miles) along the coast, he did not note a large bay behind (north) of the island on the coast.

Though Cabeza de Vaca didn't report how far inland he traveled as a merchant, he reported: "I went into the interior as far as I pleased." He generally lived among the "people of Charruco in the forests of the main." He traded goods in the interior for a substantial part (possibly as much as two and a half to three years) of the four years he spent in the vicinity of the "Island of Doom" and traveled north into the interior. He also noted that he was aware that certain marriage rituals extended fifty leagues (up to 150 miles) into the interior.

Galveston Bay (600 square miles) is larger in size than Tampa Bay (400 square miles), where the expedition likely first landed on the Florida coast. It is a significant feature that he would have had obvious reason to report. Matagorda Bay, 422 square miles, is also smaller than Galveston Bay.

Serving as a traveling merchant between coastal and interior tribes to enhance his survival and quality of life, as Cabeza de Vaca wandered inland from the island and the coast, the bay would be a major, ever-present natural feature and a major obstacle to negotiate, with quite a lot of tributary rivers, marshes and side bays. Galveston Bay contains important archaeological sites and evidence that suggests it was well populated, with many active camps at the time, and it would have been necessary to describe it as an important center of activity and seasonal habitation in the course of the several years he would have spent there.

A bay, a combination of Vermillion Bay and West Cote Blanche Bay, exists behind Marsh Island, but it is not nearly as significant as an imposing feature or obstacle such as Galveston Bay. It is possible to imagine it was not singled out as one of the bays he reported. In studying the general location as the potential landing site, it is also a major reason to consider the Shell Keys and shoals that may have existed as islands to its south and southwest.

Note: the Shell Keys become an interesting possibility when considering that Cabeza de Vaca gave a distance to the mainland - "The distance to the main is two leagues (5-6 miles), at the widest part of the channel..." - since their position would mandate one of the few reasons to give that unusual measurement (widest point, rather than nearest point to other land) and it would be relatively accurate as a distance to the Vermillion Parish coast, Tiger Point and Cheniere au Tigre, rather than the more problematic Marsh Island (which was not well connected to the mainland, but closer to the Shell Keys). The extent of the Shell Keys is not known prior to the Twentieth Century (as they were designated the Shell Keys Reservation [National Wildlife Refuge] in 1907) due to change in sea level and erosion. They likely covered a much wider area and may even be an island noted on some historic maps. Providing a distance to the widest point, rather than the narrowest, may indicate that it was the most advantageous point to cross. On some historic maps, Marsh Island is shown as a more substantial part of the mainland than we know it today, though it is today (and probably was five centuries ago) less desireable to travel than the southeast coast of Vermillion Parish.

Cabeza de Vaca indicated that he traveled 100 to 150 miles along the coast, but he didn't report that distance was all to the west, or that he saw the bay he later believed to be Espíritu Santo. Since the bay was 38-46 miles farther than the fourth "large stream" he crossed, it is possible he had not traveled to the bay. It is also possible that it was the territorial land of peoples he knew would be difficult to transfer to as he and the others wished to move west - the scenario he, in fact, described.

It is highly probable that the "people of Charruco in the forests of the main," which he became familiar with as a merchant, were groups that were culturally and strategically linked as the Caddo Indians of western Louisiana and eastern Texas and interior Plaquemine cultures of central Louisiana. They dwelled inland from where he lived a miserable existence, suffering severe illness and ongoing injury from pulling roots in the brackish waters along the coast, generally above the island location of his shipwreck. He described his goal to move to live among the more settled and successful people to the north:
"So I set to contriving how I might transfer to the forest-dwellers, who looked more propitious My solution was to turn to trade... This occupation suited me; I could travel where I wished, was not obliged to work, and was not a slave. Wherever I went, the Indians treated me honorably and gave me food, because they liked my commodities... I became well known; those who did not know me personally knew me by reputation and sought my acquaintance."

Cabeza de Vaca benefitted from a trade network toward the north and mostly reported his hardships to be related to severe winter weather. He was aware that his situation was going to be much worse traveling to the neighboring peoples along the coast to the west.

Cabeza de Vaca's trade routes probably followed rivers that flowed from the north to the south, where the Caddo and possibly the Natchez were settled, including the Trinity, Neches, Sabine and Red Rivers. While he did not mention the bay that was possibly Espíritu Santo, he also did not note seeing the Mississippi River again (which would have been a major highlight), or mountains, which are visible just north of the section of the Red River that forms the modern Oklahoma-Texas border.

It is most likely he had not yet arrived at Galveston Island and was not aware of the bay he and his fellow survivors believed to be Espíritu Santo. In the Joint Report that the three survivors (including Cabeza de Vaca) made upon their arrival in Mexico City, they provide clues and measurements from their landing site to the bay. Though Cabeza de Vaca wandered inland and along the coast, reporting that he traveled as much as 100-150 miles, he surely was familiar with most of the watersheds of the region, but again, he likely had not yet viewed Galveston Bay. It would be an omission almost as blatant as if he had not described the first encounter with the Mississippi River Delta.

But it is still likely he was very familiar with the river systems on the coast - he and the other survivors specifically mention crossing four "large streams" (as translated by Cyclone Covey). Since, according to the survivors' reported measurements, the streams were nearer the island, the bay was possibly outside the distance Cabeza de Vaca mentioned traveling along the coast (and in another coastal tribe's territory). The rivers were important to communities and served as their trade and travel routes. Based on landmarks or distances between them, the waterways probably provided important geographic information, like boundaries and locations of villages, to the tribes and Cabeza de Vaca, as well, as a merchant.

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Topographical/Physical Features - The description of "four large streams" on the coast, which separate the island and the bay, is a very specific topographical feature. In fact, in the "Joint Report", distances were given, based on either Cabeza de Vaca's knowledge, or the experience of Castillo, Dorantes and Esteban, who crossed them earlier than Cabeza de Vaca during the westward journey. There is no evidence to explain whether Cabeza de Vaca might have crossed them earlier, however, since he traveled more extensively in the region and the other three survivors later indicated (as he reported) that they had confidence in his ability to negotiate the waterways. He may have, essentially, crossed the very same water features, but at points farther inland than the others on their route.

It is important to be aware that traveling the coast does not absolutely mean precisely along the shoreline, or the ocean waters' edge. Ancient trails, as well as modern roads and railroads, were usually established on the best route with the least problematic terrain. Being on the coast has generally meant quick or easy access to points on the coast. On the Louisiana and Texas coast, local Indians may have utilized the most inland waterways, while a railroad planner might rather seek a route just north of the many bays and estuaries.

As an interesting part of the mystery, if his travels took him directly along the coastline to the west, it seems Cabeza de Vaca should have been aware of the shipwreck site of one of the boats (commanded by Enríquez and Suárez), which was later reported to him to have happened near the third stream. This incident was reported to Cabeza de Vaca by the other three survivors, who left the vicinity of the "Island of Doom" several years before Cabeza de Vaca. The three, Castillo, Dorantes and Esteban, may have traveled the coastline, while Cabeza de Vaca traveled a more inland route.

It would explain why Cabeza de Vaca was not aware of the Enríquez and Suárez boat that wrecked near the mouth of the third large stream until he reunited with the other survivors after crossing the four steams and the large bay. During most, if not all of the time Cabeza de Vaca spent on land along the Gulf Coast, he was familiar with the tribal peoples of the interior, adjacent to the coastal peoples, indicating he was prone to travel an inland course (possibly for greater safety, as well as easier travel). It also helps explain one reason why Castillo, Dorantes and Esteban were hopeful that Cabeza de Vaca could make their path better by guiding them on the escape to México.

Certainly, if Cabeza de Vaca was on Galveston Island and spent the time he described in the interior and traveling on the coast, with far fewer obstacles than the Louisiana coast presented, it should not have been unknown to him for so many years on the Texas coast, which is easier to negotiate while remaining close to the Gulf. For easier or safer travel on the Louisiana coast, however, he may have been prone to travel farther inland, above the inland bays and lakes that are part of the region's watersheds.

A similar comparison can be made about the statement(s) of Dorantes, Castillo and Esteban, who dreaded the bays and rivers they would have to cross to escape, and so they indicated they were glad Cabeza de Vaca was going to help them. Their reluctance to go farther indicates they had been in a region of more impassable marshes (as well, they remembered the conditions in Florida, including at least two day-long river crossings), but they were not yet aware that the land ahead was more solid and arid, with more dry prairies and many fewer marshes than the Louisiana coast. Of the survivors who had already crossed the four streams and lived in the vicinity of the substantial bay, Cabeza de Vaca noted:
"Andrés Dorantes said he had long entreated Castillo and Estevánico (Esteban) to go forward, but that they overly dreaded the many bays and rivers they would have to cross, not knowing how to swim."
It was on the route beyond this bay that he reported the range of the buffalo and the abundance of prickly pear cactus, and described the land as suitable for cattle.

He may have witnessed buffalo, or at least the hides, well before Texas, but may not have considered their abundance. He described:
"Three times I have seen and eaten them. I think they are about the size of those in Spain... Some are tawny, others black (he notes two subspecies)... These cattle come from as far away as the seacoast of Florida, from a northerly direction, and range over a tract of 400 leagues."
His estimate of 400 leagues, about 1,200 miles, is not wildly inaccurate (though it is doubtful he intended to provide a conservative estimate), but demonstrates a somewhat limited understanding of their vast range, probably not based on his personal experience, but rather communication with tribes across the lands where he traveled.

He noted prairies that he felt would make good pastures for domestic cattle. Later in the narrative, Cabeza de Vaca experienced and better described the buffalo herds, likely as they traveled across the modern state of Chihuahua, México.

The survivors' concerns about the rivers and bays would have been valid from experience traveling from Vermillion Parish to Galveston Bay. The land from Galveston Island, between the west side of Galveston Bay to Matagorda Bay, while concerning for non swimmers, was a transitioning landscape of grasslands and prairies, formed by lower rainfall amounts and more arid upstream watersheds, and cut by fewer impassable rivers. It would not be as big of a challenge looking ahead, if Cabeza de Vaca's experience as a merchant took place in the lands west and north of Galveston Bay, as it was from their more likely experience on the Louisiana coast.

As they traveled west from the "Island of Doom", Cabeza de Vaca described a few key features of the landscape. One very specific notation was four large streams on the coast between the "Island of Doom" and the potential site of the bay thought to be Espíritu Santo. To be mentioned in the narrative, the "streams" were surely more notable than the creeks and bayous we might think of as streams today.
Distances between the waterways were given in the "Joint Report", as follows:

From the point of landing on the coast after crossing over from the island to the first stream, they reported 2 leagues, about 5-6 miles.

From the first stream to the second, about 3 leagues, or about 8-9 miles.

From the second stream to the third, 3 or 4 leagues, or about 8-12 miles

From the third stream to the fourth, 5 or 6 leagues, or about 13-18 miles.

From the fourth to the bay, 15 leagues, or about 39-47 miles.

Working backward, 45 miles is a very good estimate from Sabine Lake or the Sabine River to points on Galveston Bay and/or its East Bay. Most of the other estimates fit the Louisiana watersheds (seen as prominent lakes and rivers), though it is very difficult to know what exact route the survivors' may have taken. Their mode of transportation between them is critical, though not specifically described, as they likely would have utilized the same methods as local indigenous people, as long as they were helped by local people - utilizing dugout cypress canoes. The narrative indicated that they were assisted by local people up to a point, "we worked along, with some Indians, until we came to a bay," as women accompanied them into a new tribal territory, while men stayed back (maybe with their canoes and possibly to avoid conflict).

watersheds - Sabine (Sabine River/Sabine lake), Calcasieu (Calcasieu River/Calcasieu Lake), Mermentau (Mermentau River/Grand Lake), and Vermillion-Teche (White Lake and the Pecan Island marsh [some historic references refer to it as Pecan Lake], formed around Pecan Island) - whether measured from exact points, or viewed in the larger picture of the significant waterways as marsh lakes, swamps and inland bays, as they have almost always appeared on historic maps, are very suitable to the proportions of the measurements provided. In fact, they are more suitable to the measurements and proportions of the measurements than other scenarios that can be surveyed to the east or west of the region between Marsh Island and Galveston Bay.

It is important to note: Cabeza de Vaca revealed that he and the other survivors stayed off of the immediate coast as they traveled down the Texas coast toward México. When they sighted a mountain range (for the first time during their long journey), he was aware of its distance to the coast (the Gulf of Mexico), almost certainly through his communication with local Indians, who were equally aware of distances by how long was required to travel them. The distance to the coast was probably always known to Cabeza de Vaca and the surviviors, because it was known tot he Indians. For much of the escape, it was the only known way to travel to New Spain (by following the Pineda map), and for some time the coast was the only hope of rescue by Spanish ships.

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Description of the Bay - While the bay that the four survivors traveled to was not thoroughly described, there were important points made, with a couple being specific enough to identify several possible bays. Approaching the bay, Cabeza de Vaca reported it to be "a league wide and uniformly deep."

Upon seeing it, Cabeza de Vaca, as well as the other three survivors, believed it to be a landmark they were familiar with on Pineda's rough map of the Gulf Coast from 1519. Cabeza de Vaca noted: "From its appearance we presumed it to be Espíritu Santo."

They believed they had reached a prominent, mapped feature on their way to Pánuco, the closest landmark they were aware of when they first set out on the mainland in 1528. The town was established near the mouth of the Rio Pánuco on the Gulf of Mexico. (Note: Cabeza de Vaca and his three fellow survivors likely came within 200-300 miles of the Spanish settlement before they decided to cross the continent.)

Galveston Bay and Matagorda Bay have a remarkably similar shape. Neither are a league wide (about 3 miles). They are much wider. However, at various points, Galveston Bay's East Bay or Trinity Bay are suitable to the description, as are Matagorda Bay's East Matagorda Bay or Tres Palacios Bay suitable at some points. Cabeza de Vaca reported that the three survivors (Castillo, Dorantes and Esteban) had a more difficult crossing, taking two days, rather than one, which indicates they probably crossed at different places.

We have to believe they viewed one or both of the most prominent bays on the Texas coast, with Galveston Bay being most likely to be the one they deemed was Espíritu Santo, the first one they viewed after crossing four large streams, and Matagorda Bay also being likely, but probably not the one they arrived at first after leaving the "Island of Doom". To reiterate, that would imply they had lived on Galveston Island and in the interior north of it for several years, but inconceivably not viewed or reported Galveston Bay.

Castillo, Dorantes and Esteban, who traveled to the bay before Cabeza de Vaca, described that their route (being more close to the coast than Cabeza de Vaca's route) brought them to a peninsula that came to a point after four leagues (up to 12 miles or a little more) into the sea, which they reported was pointed in the direction of Pánuco.

While Bolivar Peninsula (Galveston Bay) and Matagorda Peninsula (Matagorda Bay) are similarly oriented, relatively pointing down the coast toward Pánuco (the farthest north settlement of New Spain, as far as Cabeza de Vaca knew atthe time), Galveston Bay's Bolivar Peninsula is closer to the measurement, though slightly too long to be an accurate measurement. In fact, their measurement is closer to Galveston Bay's Smith Point, just across the East Bay from Bolivar Peninsula.

They may have crossed from Bolivar Peninsula to Galveston Island, then from the island to the mainland on the west side of the bay. After getting to the other side, the three survivors reported to Cabeza de Vaca that they had traveled 60 leagues (150-180 miles) from the "Island of Doom". It is very possible that their estimate is reasonably accurate, depending on their distance from the island and bay (to the west and north).

Pecans were reported to be found in extensive groves about 30 miles above the bay. Indians were said to come from as far away as 90 miles to gather the nuts during the alternating years when they ripen.

From the west side of the bay, the four survivors went with the local Indians at the beginning of summer to vast patches of prickly pear cactus (to eat and gather tunas). To get there, they traveled 90 miles away from where they temporarily lived beyond the bay (west of it). Indians were reported to gather from all around the region.

After Cabeza de Vaca reunited with the other three survivors west of the large or prominent bay, described once in his text as a "great bay", he reported for the first time that he became aware of the practice of migrating to gather and eat the tunas. Had he been initially shipwrecked on Galveston Island, he should have been aware of one of the most predominant food sources of the people of the region, certainly as he became a merchant who was interested in the wants and needs of the indigenous peoples. The tunas were an excellent commodity.

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1909 Indian tribes map

   The Moving Mississippi
   The Research Effort
   Where the Search Began

Scientific Evidence
   Known Places
   Rate of Travel
   Gulf Coast Currents
   Weather Conditions
   The Island's Measurements

Geographic Evidence
   Location of Bays
   Physical Features
   Description of the Bay

Cultural Evidence
   Indian Tribes
   Foods and Environment
   Trade Goods
   Interior Travel

Summary of Evidence
The Potential Landing Site in Louisiana
   Coordinates of the Potential
   Landing Site
   Support for the Galveston
   Landing Theory

Why it Matters
DNA Search
More About the Story
Historic Context
Research Background
About misisipi

Cultural Evidence

Cabeza de Vaca described and, out of sheer necessity, took part in the critical lifeways and agricultural practices of the peoples throughout the lands where he traveled. His accounts included several primary anthropological interests, including foods, trade goods, customs, languages, and more.

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Indian Tribes - Cabeza de Vaca named a wide array of peoples, particularly during the extensive time he spent in the Gulf Coast region. Most of the names, however, are difficult, if not impossible, to trace in historic documents that follow his own experience. It is somewhat difficult to know, in some cases, whether the names he used are the tribes' names, or other inter-tribal clan names, place names or languages, though he described one group of people who used a name that described the forests where they were from (Charruco) and a social dynamic where two languages he named (Han and Capoque) were spoken by peoples who subsisted on an island. Whether he used their clan names or place names, some of the indigenous peoples may have been mostly or completely decimated by diseases, for which they had no immunity, brought by the Europeans. He described the genocide unfolding within days after the Europeans and Africans were shipwrecked on the "Island of Doom".

He was adamant that the island was inhabited, or shared seasonally, by two tribes. Popular history that maintains he was stranded on Galveston Island requires considering the Karankawa one of the tribes. The two tribes might then be two clans of the Karankawa, or the Karankawa and Atakapa, who were documented to inhabit coastal lands that are now part of southwest Louisiana and southeast Texas.

Based on the position of Galveston and the obstacle and natural barrier the Galveston Bay provides in the region, it would be surprising if Galveston was partially inhabited by a tribe from the east side of the bay (the Atakapa are described in that region).

If the island where Cabeza de Vaca's boat capsized was off the Louisiana coast, near Vermillion Parish, the two tribes may be the Atakapa and Chitimacha, or even two different clans or societies within the Atakapa and Chitimacha. The Chitimacha were historically reported to be divided into two social classes. A unique custom Cabeza de Vaca reported could be related to that possibility, as he described:
"They have a strange custom when acquaintances meet or occasionally visit, of weeping half an hour before they speak. This over, the one who is visited rises and gives his visitor all that he has. The latter accepts it and, after a while, carries it away, often without a word."
Cabeza de Vaca became a traveling merchant, in order to live better, as he saw it, since he so disliked the daily work of foraging for foods - fish and roots - in the brackish waters and swamps. He desired to live among more settled and prosperous peoples to the north in the forests, so it seems highly likely that he traded with the Caddo and Natchez, roaming between their settlements. They were the predominant peoples, grouped by culture, who inhabited the forests of east Texas, and west and central Louisiana. Though their territories reached into Arkansas and Oklahoma, Cabeza de Vaca surely did not roam that far, since he didn't report seeing the Kiamichi or Ouachita Mountains.

Depending on the width of his territorial range and the origin of his starting place on the coast, since he claimed to roam 100-150 miles, he may have met and dealt with inland neighbors of the Caddo, including the Natchez and possibly Houma. He did not report seeing the Mississippi River again, which he likely would have mentioned, so he may not have traded past the Atchafalaya Basin to the east, where the Natchez and Houma settled from the Red River to the Mississippi, and beyond it to the east.

When Cabeza de Vaca determined to leave the interior and travel west along the coast, he encountered an indigenous people he considered to be violent and mean. Their cruelty even inspired one survivor, Lope de Oviedo, to return to the "Island of Doom", where he had already lived among its inhabitants for four years, rather than attempt to escape to Mexico City. He described their treatment:
"We asked about the others (expedition members) and were told that they were all dead. Most had died of cold and hunger. But our informants' own tribe had murdered Diego Dorantes, Valdevieso, and Diego de Huelva for sport because they left one house for another; and the neighboring tribe, where Captain Dorantes now resided, had, in obedience to a dream, murdered Esquivel and Méndez. We asked how the living Christians fared. Badly, they replied; the boys and some of the Indian men enlivened their dreary idleness by constantly kicking, cuffing and cudgeling the three slaves; such was the life they led.

So we would know they had spoken the truth about the bad treatment of our fellows, they commenced slapping and batting Oviedo and did not spare me either. They would keep throwing clods at us, too, and each of the days we waited there they would stick their arrows to our hearts and say they had a mind to kill us the way they had finished our friends. My frightened companion Oviedo said he wanted to go back with the women who had just forded the bay with us."
On the west side of the bay were people Cabeza de Vaca knew as Quevenes. Between there and the "Island of Doom" were Deaguanes. On the island were people who used the languages he called Han and Capoque. An inland group near the "Island of Doom" were called Yguaces (Castillo and Esteban lived with them after leaving the island). The farther inland group in the forests where Cabeza de Vaca went to work as a traveling merchant were named for a place called Charruco.

The reputation of the coastal people for being mean (or more violent) beyond the significant bay (the "great bay"), all along the coast to as far as the Rio Grande Valley, convinced Cabeza de Vaca and his three companions to set their course west into the interior, which eventually led them across the modern state of Chihuahua, México, en route to the Pacific Ocean to reach Mexico City.

He reasoned, "Having found the people of the interior better off and milder toward us, we preferred to bear inland."

If the "Island of Doom" was located in the region inhabited by Atakapa and Chitimacha Indians, where Cabeza de Vaca reported that the Indians were shocked by an episode of cannibalism by the Spanish castaways, the second site of cannibalism (which he reportedly learned about from other survivors west on the coast, possibly in the vicinity of Galveston Bay), may have been in the region where Karankawa Indians lived.

Their reaction was not described. The second incident of cannibalism, if studied further, could possibly account for evidence of cannibalism attributed to the Karankawa or Atakapa Indians. It might be mistakenly attributed to them.

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Foods and Environment - Cabeza de Vaca reported the foods consumed by the indigenous peoples, as well as himself and the survivors. Their foods were mostly seasonal.

With his adventure divided by extremely different experiences while on the "Island of Doom", on the nearby coast and in the interior forests, and later after crossing four large streams to a bay, reported to be challenging to cross (possibly Espíritu Santo), after which many things they experienced changed, as the ecological regions changed. Most notable, as they left the immediate coastal plain, it is important to consider the foods he had access to and what the diverse environments produced. The zones Cabeza de Vaca described ranged as widely as canebrakes and grassland prairies.

Before going to the prominent bay, winter foods included roots from the sea, fish and oysters, followed by blackberries in the spring, and acorns and persimmons in the fall.

After reaching the bay, pecans, available every other year, become an important staple and were found in large groves 25 to 37 miles north of the bay. Blackberries remained a food source, as well as crabs and shellfish.

An important difference, perhaps among the most revealing evidence of his whereabouts, was the addition of the prickly pear cactus. Their fruit, known as tunas, attracted tribes from all around to feast on them seasonally. Given their historic range across south and central Texas, the tunas would have been an important food and trade commodity that he certainly would have been aware of if he lived in the interior and traveled west of Galveston Bay while he was a merchant.

Later in the journey, traveling over south Texas, probably over the South Texas Sand Sheet, as he continued to seek a route to Mexico City, he cited an array of foods: deer, fish, roots (two or three kinds), spiders, ant eggs, worms, lizards, snakes, salamanders, and ground bones of animals. He quipped: "I honestly believe that if there were stones in that land, they would eat them."

He learned of mesquite bean flour, peyote, and saw mountains that rose near the sea. At that point, he and his companions (the three with him who survived) determined to leave the coastal region and set their course inland, partly based on what they knew of the peoples Cabeza de Vaca traded with in the interior forests above the Gulf Coast.

The tunas continued to be the most desired, sustaining and sought-after food. They were dried and carried for nourishment by migrating peoples.

In a similarly revealing category that covered foods and trade goods, Cabeza de Vaca did not report the buffalo (American bison) before he traveled west of what was likely Galveston Bay. He reported that he was aware of them and noted two different colors of hides ("tawny" or brown, and black), which may indicate he had at least seen hides from the subspecies of plains and wood bison. His lack of dialogue about the buffalo before traveling to the prominent bay indicates he may not have fully considered their importance or abundance until he truly left the coast. As he toured the region as a merchant north of the "Island of Doom", he would have been acutely aware of buffalo while ranging from Galveston Island as a point of origin into the interior west of Galveston, but he may have had limited ability to see them or perceive their importance had he originated on an island on the central Louisiana coast and roamed into the interior by way of the more dense forests and especially while hugging the marsh-like Red and Sabine rivers

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Trade Goods - As a merchant, Cabeza de Vaca carried various types of sea shells (sea snails, cones, conchs, etc.) into the interior.

He brought products from the interior with him to the coast, including red ochre, flint, animal hides, deer tassels, canes and sinews.

From 1528-1532, he didn't eat, mention or refer to the fruit of the prickly pear cactus (tunas) as a trade good. He mentioned trading hides, as well as deer tassels, but specifically described the buffalo later in the escape, following the bay he considered to possibly be Espíritu Santo.

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Interior Travel - Journeying into the interior over several years made Cabeza de Vaca the best informed among the survivors. Though he crossed the four large streams long after the other three survivors, since (as he said) he wanted to convince Lope de Oviedo to go with him, he likely already knew of the four large streams and had a basic understanding of them from his travels. But he was likely farther inland.

Given the prominence of the streams featured in their reporting, in a land where the survivors crossed hundreds of them, the streams were surely unique - possibly important travel ways, or imposing natural obstacles. They may have been very unique features and/or an impediment to their travel. They may not have merited descriptions that would repeat the descriptions of swamps and lakes in Florida, but they surely weren't easy to cross, either.

Four lakes exist on the Louisiana coast (Sabine Lake, Calcasieu Lake, Grand Lake and White Lake), which are filled by interior watersheds and drain to the Gulf of Mexico. They appear on nearly every historic map of the area. A smaller, narrow body of water (a marsh, actually) bordering Pecan Island is sometimes shown (as on the map above), rather than White Lake, but in its same vicinity.

Given that Cabeza de Vaca had witnessed the Mississippi River in its natural, uncontrolled state (not channeled by levees as it is today, it spread out to a much greater extent), and he may have seen the Atchafalaya Basin (though it was not clearly described in the narrative, as far as we know), and since the four lakes are set in the swamps and marshes, he may have considered the brackish inland bays to be completely integrated with their watersheds. In fact, they were less defined five centuries ago in a way that is difficult to imagine today, due to many man-made changes to the modern Louisiana coast.

Crossing the four large streams, in this critical detail of the journey, Cabeza de Vaca reported:
"So we (Cabeza de Vaca and Lope de Oviedo) worked along, with some Indians, until we came to a bay a league wide and uniformly deep. From its appearance, we presumed it to be Espíritu Santo."
The passage, though vague, probably indicates he worked with local Indians, utilizing their method of travel in the region - since they worked together and traveled with a group of Indians much of the way - transporting goods and supplies in their canoes on water and portaging them over land between lakes and rivers. In south Louisiana, this was the best way to move about; the method was famously adopted by Acadian immigrants ("Cajuns").

Cabeza de Vaca didn't make it clear if the bay, or a section of the bay, or the inlet to the bay, is a league wide. And it is not clear if he ever saw or heard of the bay during his merchant career before he traveled to it by crossing the four large streams.

Additionally, there were descriptions of the Spanish who came to the area before the De Soto/Moscoso expedition, which were heard by Moscoso after the De Soto expedition crossed the Mississippi River, the Ouachita region (Arkansas), and traveled into modern East Texas (under Moscoso, following De Soto's death), but Moscoso apparently came to doubt the Indians who told the stories. There was probably a real base to the Indians' accounts, though maybe not from first-hand experiences.

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The evidence presented and described is mostly from the words of Cabeza de Vaca himself, in La Relación, and from him and two other survivors in the "Joint Report" they made upon reaching Mexico City in 1536. Material evidence may be found if new ideas are considered to locate the whereabouts of the castaways and the key sites they described in the existing texts. Some evidence may have been found and could be better assigned if new ideas are considered.

When possible, some of the evidence is confirmed by modern events and the work of current researchers who have gathered massive amounts of observations and data to basically "water map" the Gulf of Mexico.

Based on clues to his rate of travel, possible assistance from currents and other tropical climate and water dynamics, weather conditions, survey measurements (particularly of the island and between waterways), description of the land and bays, indigenous peoples, foodways, trade goods and networks, and his experience as a traveler and merchant, as well as the experience of others in the same locations during the historic time period, it is highly unlikely that the shipwreck site for Cabeza de Vaca's boat was Galveston Island. Evidence, however, may exist on or in the region of Galveston Bay.

The site of the shipwreck of Solis (who drowned while attempting to relaunch) and Cabeza de Vaca's boat, as well as Dorantes and Castillo's boat, was more likely on an island off the coast of
Vermillion Parish, Louisiana. A third boat (that of Enríquez and Suárez) was likely wrecked on the coast, close to an inland waterway near the coastal center of Cameron Parish, Louisiana. A fourth boat (commanded by Governor Narváez) traveled farther west and met an unknown fate, though most of the participants aboard his boat were known to have died. A fifth boat, the first one to sink (carrying Tellez and Penalosa), went down at sea off the coast of Louisiana, between the Mississippi River Delta and Marsh Island (Iberia Parish, Louisiana).
For reference, the boats under the following officers sank or capsized in the following order: 1. Tellez and Penalosa; 2. Dorantes and Castillo (November 5); 3. Cabeza de Vaca and Solis (November 6); 4. Enriquez and Suarez; and, 5. Governor Narváez.

From the shipwreck site, the four survivors (Cabeza de Vaca, Castillo, Dorantes and Esteban) traveled over four waterways to reach Galveston Bay, which may be the bay described on a 1519 map made by Alfonso Álvarez de Pineda as Espíritu Santo. They gained access or increased access to new foods, including the prickly pear cactus (opuntia) and its fruit (referred to as tuna), and mesquite beans, which were not previously described in the text as a source of food or a trade commodity. They left behind a much more challenging and problematic coastal environment of marshes and thickets in southwest Louisiana and southeast Texas. Mountains, prairies, buffalo and peyote became some of the new clues to the four survivors' whereabouts.

From the time Cabeza de Vaca's boat was separated from the boat commanded by Governor Narváez and shipwrecked on the Gulf Coast, and he became one of four survivors who walked to Mexico City and lived to tell their perilous tale, he also became the earliest chronicler of Texas peoples and places, as he traveled from the modern state boundary on the east side of the state, to the modern international boundary with México, which he likely crossed somewhere in west Texas.

While Cabeza de Vaca became the highest ranking leader of the expedition by default, after the disappearance of the Governor, his accounts during the flight for survival toward Mexico City revealed that he and the other two Spanish and one African survivor, who came with the expedition as a slave, became relative equals. Cabeza de Vaca later led an expedition as the Governor into the indigenous lands of South America, where new ideas gained and tested during his survival in North America played a role.

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Summary of Evidence

Concise overviews of evidence are provided:

Scientific Evidence - The available evidence that we would call scientific evidence at this time is based on speed, or rate of travel, and the geology and hydrology of the Gulf Coast and Mississippi River, as well as Cabeza de Vaca's interest and ability to survey and provide measurements for places he visited. New science and technology, like DNA testing, will improve our ability to locate the places visited by the survivors of the Narváez expedition. [
Read More]

Known Places - Based on his description, as well as the account of the De Soto/Moscoso expedition years later, the Mississippi River Delta is a known location the expeditions visited. Geological evidence reveals its growing prominence (generally in its current channel) in the Gulf of Mexico five centuries ago. Provided Cabeza de Vaca's dates during the time he and the Narváez expedition members attempted to flee on the Gulf of Mexico (in their poorly built boats), the Mississippi River is a reliable point for distance measurements. [Read More]

Rate of Travel - To travel to Galveston Island, Cabeza de Vaca's boat would have traveled six times (6X) faster after crossing the Mississippi River than it did in the same distance before reaching the Mississippi River. He would have traveled twice (2X) as fast as the boats of the De Soto/Moscoso expedition only a few years later. Both are highly improbable, since Cabeza de Vaca's crew was in extremely poor physical condition (which turned much worse toward the end of their time on the Gulf of Mexico) and the boat (one of the boats of the Narváez expedition) was likely inferior to the boats of the De Soto/Moscoso expedition. [Read More]

Gulf Coast Currents - Ocean currents may have helped and hampered the westward progress of the boats. Cabeza de Vaca described northern fronts, which were generally not helpful to move a boat west at an increased speed. [Read More]

Weather Conditions - Cabeza de Vaca consistently referred to cold, even bitter cold, and the castaways dying from exposure to the cold, rather than the kinds of conditions more likely to be present in tropical weather that could have spawned a hurricane to drive Cabeza de Vaca's boat farther west. When his boat was shipwrecked, the people of the island were living as normal, with no evidence of a tropical storm, hurricane, destructive winds or high tides. He lived through a hurricane in Cuba and did not later note any kind of damage or destruction like it. Read More

The Island's Measurements - Galveston is twice the length of the measurement Cabeza de Vaca gave for the "Island of Doom". His measurement is close to the length of Marsh Island. There weren't many clues in the description to gage the elevation of the island, but the ones he offered indicate a very low, flat island, more like a flat marsh or promontory built up of river sediment, rather than a barrier island. He mentioned that the inhabitants built their huts on oyster shells, rather than on sand or dry soil above the water line. And he described what were possibly deep impressions made by foot traffic in mud or a wet marsh (which one of the Spaniards thought might be made by cattle). [Read More]

Geographic Evidence - It is important to consider the geography and ecozones that exist today, as well as the many changes to the environment that have ocurred over 500 years, and even over the thousands of years before that, when the Mississippi River met the Gulf of Mexico as far west as Vermillion Bay. Like the modern Mississippi River Delta, land similar to its promontories formed from silt carried by the river, along with river gravel. [Read More]

Location of Bays - While on the "Island of Doom" he didn't describe a major bay behind it, which he certainly would have done if he was shipwrecked on Galveston Island - either for its impressive size, as it is larger than Tampa Bay (which is likely one the expedition first viewed) and Matagorda Bay; or for the major obstacle it presented for inland travel and trade, as well as its prominence as an seasonally inhabited place. [Read More]

Topographical/Physical Features - The rivers between Vermillion Parish and Galveston Bay are proportionally closer in distance (to distances provided in the "Joint Report") and more suitable to the described challenge than the rivers between Galveston Island and Matagorda Bay. The four watersheds between Vermillion Bay and the Sabine River are also dominant features of the landscape. [Read More]

Description of the Bay - Given the similar shape and topography of Galveston Bay and Matagorda Bay, Cabeza de Vaca's description could be of either one. Galveston Bay, however, has a more prominent access pass between Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston Island. Though Cabeza de Vaca did not directly describe the pass (but rather a three-step crossing that may have involved going from Bolivar Peninsula to Galveston Island, to the mainland), there is reasonable likelihood that Galveston Bay was seen by Pineda and noted on his 1519 map (which Cabeza de Vaca was familiar with) as Espíritu Santo. [Read More]

Cultural Evidence - Archaeological sites in several locations on the coast consider the time period of the Narváez expedition, but yield only artifacts atributed to the indigenous culture. One aspect is cannibalism, which may need to be re-examined. Additional material evidence of the Spaniards likely exists and can be found by looking in newly considered locations. Some of those, however, are below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. [Read More]

Indian Tribes - Given what is known of indigenous peoples of the time and the geographic location of Galveston Island, it seems unlikely that the neighboring tribe to the Karankawa, the Atakapa, would share the island, with Galveston Bay as a major obstacle. It seems more likely that two peoples might have inhabited Marsh Island. It is also possible that two clans or social divisions within a tribe shared the island where Cabeza de Vaca was shipwrecked.

The Karankawa were reported in Texas history to be cannibals, or practice cannibalistic rituals, but the tribe Cabeza de Vaca lived with, on and off, for four years after being shipwrecked were against cannibalism. They may have been strongly against it, as Cabeza de Vaca reported he and the other survivors would have been put to death by the Indians had the discovered that some of the Spanish castaways turned to cannibalism in their attempt to survive. [Read More]

Foods and Environment - Had Cabeza de Vaca been shipwrecked on Galveston Island and traded goods in the interior, he would have had access to one of the most important seasonal food sources, tunas, the fruit of the prickly pear cactus. Though the prickly pears were found on the Gulf Prairies, east of the Edwards Plateau and the South Texas Plains, even if it was necessary to travel west from the Katy Prairie to find them in abundance, they would have been in both the range he claimed to travel as a merchant and the range he noted that Indians would travel to eat and collect them.

It was only after he traveled over four large streams to a bay (Espíritu Santo) that he described the buffalo (American bison) and its range, rather than simply noting its hides, which he had done earlier in his text. [Read More]

Trade Goods - Based on the trade goods Cabeza de Vaca was familiar with and traded over a wide range during his years in the interior, some of it east and some of it west of the bay he believed to be Espíritu Santo, it is much more likely he was far east of Galveston Bay for the first four years, rather than east Matagorda Bay (closer to Galveston Bay), and west of Galveston Bay for the latter two years. As an important example, tunas, the fruit of the prickly pear cactus, would have been an important trade commodity west of Galveston Bay. [Read More]

Interior Travel - Some of the survivors expressed that they had a fear of going forward to try to escape to Mexico City, as if they were not aware of the land ahead, which Cabeza de Vaca would have traveled and worked as a merchant. The Louisiana coast would have reminded them of their devastating experiences in Florida. Had their future consideration been based on the ecozone west of Galveston Bay, with more arid lands and more easily passable rivers, the concern would not have been so strongly amplified. [Read More]

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The Potential Landing Site in Louisiana

Cabeza de Vaca and the crew of his boat were most likely shipwrecked on an island in the vicinity of
Vermillion Parish, Louisiana, along with a boat commanded by Castillo and Dorantes. The island may be Marsh Island. However, it may be one that has submerged and mostly washed away, such as a remnant of a promontory of the ancient course of the Mississippi River (the Teche Delta region that formed approximately 4,000 to 8,000 years ago), or Shell Keys (an area that is vanishing and was once formed of many islets with much greater connectivity), or a barrier island that was in the place of several shoals that are found below the surface of the ocean today (of particular interest are Tiger Shoal and Trinity Shoal).

The possibility that the island does not exist above water today is a strong possibility. The modern Louisiana coast is famously losing land at a high rate due to sea level rise, but it started with another highly impactful phenomenon - subsidence - caused by loss of sediment from rivers that have been channeled by levees and a natural environment that has been crisscrossed by numerous man-made canals and the Intracoastal Waterway.

500 years ago, the coast was gaining ground and losing ground. The Mississippi River Delta in its modern position was growing from the sediment it carried, its banks and promontories were extending farther into the Gulf of Mexico, but as the ocean level was rising slightly during the end of the Little Ice Age, the coast was losing some of its shorelines, particularly the lowest islands. This continues to affect the coast today, as wetlands and even many important coastal archaeological sites that were active camps back when Cabeza de Vaca was there are threatened.

Though the historic boundaries of each of the four large streams (or watersheds) are not precisely known today, historic maps have nearly always depicted the four important marshland lakes that were an important part of the watersheds. They were also pretty certainly similar in similar character as the Atchafalaya and even Mississippi River, meaning they were common and their crossing presented a significant challenge.

Based on scientific evidence, the Vermillion Parish coast is the outside distance that two of the expedition's boats may have reached in ordinary circumstances, based on the days they were known to travel and the speed of their travel from the Mississippi River to the landing site (compared with their own earlier performance and the experience of the later De Soto/Moscoso expedition). Largely based on the narrative, geographic evidence is critical to the story, particularly the lack of notation or description of a substantial bay on the coast, just above the island, as the relationship of Galveston Island and Galveston Bay should merit. And based on cultural evidence, Galveston Bay (an important divider between distinctive ecoregions) is the strongest candidate for the one the survivors believed to be Espíritu Santo.

Based on the measurements given by the survivors in the "Joint Report", the distance from the first stream to the bay is about 68-86 miles. Half of that, 45 miles, is an excellent measurement between the fourth stream and the bay. The other measurements roughly suit the distances between the other streams, particularly proportionally. Depending on where the measurements are made based on the modern position of the channels, the distance to the first stream and the possible site of the island is slightly more than the total estimated by the survivors in the "Joint Report". Potentially, some of the full distance was not measured if the survivors traveled by canoe over the waterways, using some of the widest bodies of water or the closest points for portage. They may have even entered and exited the rivers and swamps at various points, nearer and farther, from the coast in order to use the waterways for their travel most efficiently.

Of the various possibilities throughout the central Gulf Coast region, the four watersheds - Sabine, Calcasieu, Mermentau, and Vermillion-Teche - are the best candidate for the four large streams described.

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Coordinates of the Potential Landing Site

Following are coordinates of potential (theoretical, not confirmed) landing sites and near vicinities:

Marsh Island, geo:29.566389,-91.846111 (exact, area)

Shell Keys, geo:29.420833,-91.845833 (exact, area)

Tiger Shoal and Trinity Shoal, 29.4, -92.3 (area, region)

The potential locations are listed so that geotags of archaeological finds may be compared.

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Support for the Galveston Landing Theory

Evidence that the boats carrying Cabeza de Vaca and the three other survivors capsized on the Gulf Coast near Vermillion Parish is substantial. There is also evidence, though less convincing, that indicates it was possible for their boats to reach Galveston. The odds are very low and the likelihood is that it didn't happen. However, it can't be ruled out with absolute certainty.

The highly accelerated rate of travel after the Mississippi River, compared with the rate of travel before the Mississippi, is one of the most challenging problems.

One drifter buoy set out in the Gulf of Mexico in 1995 (pictured above) traced a similar course that was possibly followed by Cabeza de Vaca's boat and, though it reached Galveston Island in a much longer timeframe, it demonstrated that the Gulf of Mexico currents are sometimes favorable for travel on the westward route to Galveston Island. Drifters, however, are generally intended to measure the current of water and not the movement of objects on the surface, since those are also affected by their weight, buoyancy, wind direction, as well as wave height and frequency.

Other drifters and maps of currents indicate that there are times (usually periods of one to three days) when currents are favorable nearer to the coast, where Cabeza de Vaca's and the other boats likely tried to travel, to varying degrees, on their westward course.

While the men who were to power and navigate the boats were described as sick, lethargic and near death, they may have exerted tremendous effort out of their desperation (though the effort was not described in Cabeza de Vaca's narrative) during the week following their crossing of the Mississippi River in order to achieve a greatly faster rate of travel than their own earlier effort (during the month before they reached the Mississippi), and also accomplish twice as much as speed as De Soto/Moscoso's crews.

Though the conditions or signs of a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico were not described in Cabeza de Vaca's narrative, as it is a suggestion some historians have made to explain Galveston as a point of landing, it is a slight possibility and the timeframe is consistent with what we presently consider the end of hurricane season, or actually about a week past its end. On record, tropical storms and hurricanes have formed as late as the end of December (Tropical Storm Zeta, December 30, 2005, and Hurricane Alice, December 30, 1954). From the time he and his fellow survivors were shipwrecked, he described the cold of a harsh winter that seemed to come early (compared with modern experience on the Gulf Coast) and get worse. While hurricanes are most often followed by hot and humid days, when the air is stagnant and still, Hurricane Ike, which made landfall in Galveston on September 13, 2008 and tracked over Houston, was followed by an unusual cold front that brought flooding rains and below normal temperatures (60°-79°, rather than the normal 70°-90°, with highs known to reach the upper 90s, or even 100°) for at least a couple of days to the Houston area.

The boats may have left from a point farther east on the Florida coast, which would improve slightly the extreme imbalance in the expedition's rate of travel before and after the Mississippi River. But given the distance estimate of the original surveyors, who swore they traveled 280 leagues (about 800-840 miles), from the original landing site ("The Cross") to the place where they departed (the "Bay of Horses") to try to escape the mainland, it seems they must have at least traveled to Apalachicola Bay. A site near the mouth of the St Marks River was reportedly corroborated by a contingent during the De Soto Expedition.

Some of the evidence of cannibalism found on the Texas coast could be from the incidents of the Spanish explorers turning to cannibalism that were described by Cabeza de Vaca.

His failure to mention Galveston Bay, if it was Galveston Island where he was first stranded, may be an oversight, though there would be no conceivable way to be unaware of it (and seemingly less reason to not report it), due to its massive presence in the region and its array of watersheds (Buffalo Bayou, San Jacinto River, Trinity River, and others). His delayed coverage of the importance of the fruit of the prickly pear cactus and the range of the buffalo would indicate his range as a merchant might then have been significantly smaller than he reported and his readers imagine.

It is important to note, however, that even if Cabeza de Vaca's boat did not reach Galveston Island, his was not the boat the lead boat. It was the third to sink or capsize of the five boats. If his, along with Solis and crew, was capsized in the vicinity of Vermillion Parish, on the same island where Dorantes and Castillo's boat capsized the day before, then the boat carrying Tellez, Penalosa and their crew might have sank (the first to sink) off the coast of Terrebonne Parish (or neighboring parishes of La Fourche or St Mary). The other two boats arrived at places farther west on the coast. The boat with Enriquez, Suarez and their crew was reported by three of the survivors to have capsized near a third large stream on the coast, likely along Cameron Parish. The fifth boat, reported to be carrying Governor Narváez and only a crew of two others when it drifted away from the coast, likely somewhere along the southeast Texas coast, may have capsized or drifted away. Its fate was not known, though its small crew was never heard from again.

In various efforts, the surviving crew members attempted to travel west on the coast to eventually escape to Mexico. The governor was reported to have transported many of the survivors of two of the boat (his and the crew of the fourth to become disabled, commanded by Enriquez and Suarez). Those who survived for a while on the coast were likely in position to reach Galveston Bay. Some of the ones who later left their "Island of Doom" reported on the others, including an incident of cannibalism. When considering the historic whereabouts of Cabeza de Vaca, it is important to understand the larger picture of the Narváez expedition and the fates of about 240 people, whose demises were spread out over 300-400 miles on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Texas.

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Cabeza de Vaca and the crew of his boat were most likely shipwrecked on an island in the vicinity of
Vermillion Parish, Louisiana, along with a boat commanded by Castillo and Dorantes. The island may be Marsh Island. However, it may be one that has submerged and mostly washed away, such as a remnant of a promontory of the ancient course of the Mississippi River (where the Mississippi River Delta was once in the area of Vermillion Bay), Shell Keys (an area that is vanishing and was once formed of many islets with much greater connectivity), or even a barrier island that was in the place of several shoals that are found below the surface of the ocean today (of particular interest are Tiger Shoal and Trinity Shoal).

The four survivors crossed four large streams that are the diverse and iconic watersheds of southwest Louisiana, which appear on most historic maps as a series of four lakes, though they were combinations of rivers, lakes, marshes, swamps and floodways to the coast. One of the boats may have landed near the mouth of the third stream and the Governor's boat may have ferried stranded survivors across it (the Calcasieu River) and the fourth stream (the Sabine River). None of the Narváez expedition members in those two boats are believed to have survived for very long on the coast.

Castillo, Dorantes and Esteban (three survivors who would later walk with Cabeza de Vaca to Mexico City) crossed the four streams to reach Galveston Bay. They were later joined by Cabeza de Vaca, who brought another of the Spanish survivors, Lope de Oviedo, over the same streams, though not necessarily crossing at the same points as the other three. Cabeza de Vaca mentioned working with some Indians (neighbors of the ones he knew on the island) to make the journey over the four streams, likely utilizing their canoes, since the "large streams" refer to significantly more complex watersheds. Not liking his treatment by the local tribe who inhabited the lands around Galveston Bay, Lope de Oviedo chose to return with women of the neighboring tribe to the "Island of Doom", the place where he was originally shipwrecked.

Once the four survivors rendezvoused west of Galveston Bay, they planned and eventually made an escape to México, where they sought refuge in the colony of New Spain. Passing between the prairies and the coast, eventually reaching the South Texas Plains, their foodways increasingly centered around gathering the fruit of the prickly pear cactus, tunas, and Cabeza de Vaca described the buffalo. Finally seeing mountains, a short journey from the coast, those of northern México, Cabeza de Vaca and his three companions set out to cross the continent, partly based on the experience they had with indigenous peoples in the inland forest environments of Louisiana and Texas. They preferred the interior peoples to those on the coast, both for their more comfortable lifeways (fixed dwellings, reliable food sources, etc.) and more favorable treatment of the castaways.

Based on extensive evidence, this version makes the most sense. But even if Cabeza de Vaca's landing site was Galveston Island, as Texas popular history maintains, Texas history needs to be re-examined. The tribe Cabeza de Vaca lived among for several years, and must have come to know quite well, strongly opposed cannibalism. Cabeza de Vaca noted the Spanish castaways would have been put to death by the local Indians had they discovered sooner that some of the Spaniards turned to cannibalism to survive.

As for what Cabeza de Vaca's more probable landing on the Louisiana coast means to the Texas story: his experiences are even more relative to the modern land that is today Texas, since they cover the entire Texas coast, starting with Southeast Texas (crossing the Sabine River and Galveston Bay) and following a route along the coast and, at times, roaming into the interior prairies and plains, all the way to the state's modern border with México, the Rio Grande. His written adventures, complete with mysterious encounters and bizarre anecdotes, continued to describe the Rio Grande Valley and Trans-Pecos Region.

In addition to being the first European to see the Mississippi River and American bison, he was also most certainly the first to see the mountains and canyons of Big Bend.

In the larger context of North America, Cabeza de Vaca's historic narrative ranks among the most important historic documents that covers critical events and an important period of time in the political and cultural development of New Spain, and the emergence of the modern nations of México and the United States.

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Why it Matters

The Americas were not born in the best of circumstances. The events of five centuries ago set its course to become a nation that would be a world leader in diversity, though one that struggles as much or more than any place in the world for the very conditions it made for itself.

Those who chronicled their earlier travels from Europe and Africa to the Middle East and Asia told wondrous stories of the relatable and the bizarre. Their adventures somewhat gradually transitioned over each neighboring peoples and their kind-of unique cultures, where there was at least a level of awareness and familiarity from one to the next. But that wasn't the case with the Narváez expedition and their surprise entrada into what is today the interior of the modern United States. Their goal at that time to colonize and form an empire, from the distant and unknown place where they originated, could not be imagined by the local peoples, who had not previously seen a man on a horse or utilized written language. There was no gradual cultural or racial transition, or relative cultural knowledge, along the way - only a most stark difference in lifeways and beliefs.

The coming of the diverse Europeans and Africans, with at least a couple of Aztec Indians in their group, was an omen - a portent of everything good and bad it would take for many generations to arrive in an inevitable, fully culturally integrated, pluralistic future.

As the outcome of the failed Narváez expedition to conquer and claim governorship of La Florida (the unknown extent of the southeastern United States), Cabeza de Vaca's journal of his travels, La Relación, is the earliest description of the people and places in the modern boundaries of the United States.

There are numerous important and even critical aspects of Cabeza de Vaca's narrative that concern modern people in the U.S. and México, and should also interest people around the world.

Descendents - As Cabeza de Vaca reported, numerous participants on the Narváez expedition abandoned the mission in Santo Domingo. He stated they spent 45 days gathering supplies for the expedition, "during which time the local inhabitants, by promises and proposals, seduced more than 140 of our men to desert."

Though he doesn't report further incidents where expedition members may have sought marriage or other companionship, they are likely to have happened. They are even possibly the reason for some of the conflicts between the indigenous populations and the Spanish foreigners once they entered the mainland. He reported abrupt and sudden changes in the treatment of the Spanish by the Indians. He noted an incident where a member of the expedition was attacked by members of a tribe the Spanish had just allied with. Cabeza de Vaca stated:
"The following day we made the chief's village, where he gave us corn. In the night, one of the Christians who had gone for water got shot with an arrow... All the Indians fled overnight... Apparently they had prepared for battle..."
Why the soldier would go on his own to get water, away from the relative safety of the larger group, is a mystery with few rational answers. In another mysterious night time event, Cabeza de Vaca reported:
"...many canoes of big, well-built Indians - unarmed - came out to speak, then paddled back ahead of us. We followed them to their houses at the water's edge close by, and stepped ashore. In front of the dwellings stood many clay jars of water and a great quantity of cooked fish, all which the cacique of this land offered our Governor before leading us to his "palace"... In the middle of the night, the Indians fell on us without warning - not only the Governor's party in the cacique's lodge, but also our sick men strewn on the beach... Not one of us escaped injury."
In another instance, a Greek and an African left the expedition with local Indians, whether by choice or by force, to possibly escape into the interior of the central Gulf Coast, maybe for safety and a chance to survive. One Spaniard, Lope de Oviedo, chose to remain with the indigenous people who inhabited the island ("Island of Doom") where he was originally shipwrecked with Cabeza de Vaca.

With modern technology, DNA testing of indigenous peoples could help identify sites visited by the Narváez expedition members by helping identify the full range of their ancestry.

The story is important to provide context to stories handed down and DNA test results that may be found in deep-rooted populations across the modern southern United States. Since the source of some information, or even legend, can be confused with other expeditions and settlements (such as De Soto's or Coronado's expeditions), it is even more important to understand a complete picture of the Spanish entradas.

Indigenous Peoples - The book reveals the names of tribes and clans that were not ever reported again in history. They may have been lost to extinction by disease, or by military and cultural dominance by invaders, including colonial powers and other indigenous tribes. Substantial indigenous history has been written and assigned based on the descriptions Cabeza de Vaca provided. Many Indian peoples (their lifeways and traditions, as well as positive and negative practices, ideas and attitudes that linger) are described based on earlier interpretations of his history and popular beliefs about the whereabouts of Cabeza de Vaca when he wrote the first accounts. Locating his route in the lands where he traveled, or at least considering its difficulty (or even impossibility) to locate, is critical.

Accurate History - Through its clues and fantastic twist of motives (where desperation for survival replaced the role of the conquerors), as well as a slight inclination toward objectivity (note that Cabeza de Vaca doesn't present a particularly flattering account of the Spanish colonizers, though he somewhat hopelessly wants to return to the world he knows, and present widely varied descriptions and opinions of the Indian tribes and their cultural and religious practices), the text presents extensive opportunities to try to determine accurate history.

Sociology - Cabeza de Vaca's narrative is a useful beginning point in the study of women in indigenous society, as he described the role and actions of women in numerous instances across several tribal cultures. The book also lightly touches on race relations and attitudes about slavery in lands where survival was dominated by necessity, as Cabeza de Vaca even thought himself a slave among some of the indigenous peoples he lived among and was very unhappy with his working conditions.

Historic Locations - Archaeological sites, specifically related to the Narváez expedition that was completed by only four survivors, might be located with new and potentially more accurate information. And some that are known might be better preserved and explored. At this time, indigenous archaeology sites that date back 500 years (and possibly many more centuries), to the very real possibility that Cabeza de Vaca sighted or even visited them, are being lost due to water erosion on the edge of the coastal bays and marshes.

Interest in History - The oldest account in Louisiana and Texas history is highly relative to world history. Cabeza de Vaca's gripping story of survival, along with his concise discussion of colonial intentions and the impacts on native peoples, provides tangible interest and incentive for more people to study history.

Interest in Literature - La Relación is among the most interesting historic accounts and travel journals, and is a highly inspirational entryway to other forms of literature. It has the potential ability to revive interest in reading important literature and pursuing life-long interests in knowledge of history and culture.

Moral Dilemmas - The book and other episodes in the life of Cabeza de Vaca present moral dilemmas that are important to history and the modern world. It raises questions about religious values in its historic time period and demonstrates the faith many people experience and can identify with today in any struggle for survival or to overcome extreme hardship.

Human Interest - The story and descriptions of interactions between peoples of diverse cultures, and their varied states of social and technological advance, are critical to the understanding of the history of civilizations and the modern world. The account covers two civilizations in many very different states of progress, as the Spanish were people with written language and forged metal tools, and the indigenous peoples practiced an array of community and agricultural development to limited subsistence in harsh environments.

Cabeza de Vaca's account also serves as a study in the states of development of civilizations, as all peoples of the world experienced the conditions of the indigenous peoples and the technologically advanced European invaders, including their foodways, economies, changing motives, propensities for conflict, religions and beliefs, and even their perilous existence.

Interest in Science - Cabeza de Vaca's account provides clues (broad and specific) and opens the door to extensive scientific study using many new technologies and modern applications.

Stories of Survival - In modern terms, as we try to relate the experiences of the past to modern people, it is a reminder that the Gulf of Mexico was a dangerous place and remains so today (as most wilderness places are). Tropical Storm Nate forced the abandonment of an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico on September 9, 2011, leaving workers stranded in an escape craft for three days. Four of the ten men died while waiting rescue on the sea.

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DNA Search

There are possible descendents of several noted members, including
Lope de Oviedo, of the Narváez expedition whose heritage may originate on the central Gulf Coast.

For people with indigenous ancestry of tribes of the Gulf Coast - Atakapa, Chitimacha, Choctaw, Biloxi, Apalachee, and others - or southeast and southcentral interior tribes - Wichita, Caddo, Natchez, and others - who have taken DNA tests and gotten results that indicate their heritage includes Spanish, Morrocan, Greek, or broader regions including the Iberian Peninsula, Mediterranean Europe, Middle East or North Africa (that is not believed to solely derive from recent relatives of the past two centuries; i.e. African, European or Middle Eastern ancestry from earlier than the past six to eight generations), Project misisipi is interested to hear from you.

Contact us by sending a message to the Texas Museum of Culture or Imagine a Museum Facebook Pages.

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More about the Story

Cabeza de Vaca's account is a study in humanities and social sciences: places and peoples; roles of women and slaves; religions, beliefs and moral values; and conflicts and strategies (for peace and violence). Even more so, it is a basis to think about the fateful decisions of the expedition leaders, and the implications of the blatant intentions of the colonial powers (their quest for power and riches, supported by their self-righteous civil credentials and their faith), and the simultaneously abrupt and slow motion genocide of the indigenous peoples that was set in motion.

The cultural exchange and conflicts launched with the Narváez expedition, as well as others during the earliest entradas, resulted in significant and impactful legacies in the history and culture of Texas, New Mexico and México (such as the demotion of Spanish aristocracy in México during the Mexican War of Independence, 1810-1821), and continues to have bearing on issues of the modern United States and México.

While the expedition failed, it led directly to the conquest of the southeastern and southwestern United States by De Soto and Coronado, whose parties coincidentally neared each other (Coronado to the central Texas Panhandle and Moscoso to east Texas), coming just a few hundred miles apart, in 1541 and 1542.

In its unusual way of providing insight into loosely associated topics, the book even foreshadowed the decline of the Spanish Armada, as Cabeza de Vaca noted the poor condition of the Spanish galleons upon leaving Veracruz on his return to Europe.

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Historic Context

From the time Hernán Cortés conquered México (specifically, Tenochtitlan, the greater Mexico City region) (1519-1521) to the excursions nearly two decades later of Hernando de Soto and Luis de Moscoso Alvarado (1539-1543), and Francisco Vásquez de Coronado (1540-1542), relatively few people know what happened in between and what set those events in motion, The story of Panfilo de Narváez and his quest for La Florida is deeply entwined with Hernán Cortés and his success in México, and what followed. The Narváez expedition and Cabeza de Vaca's participation, which resulted in his direct witness and the account that survived the unknown, but most certain death of Narváez near the Texas Gulf Coast, is the comprehensive link and history that unfolded between the conquests of Hernán Cortés and those of Hernando de Soto and Francisco Vásquez de Coronado.

Where Narváez had a bad falling out with Hernán Cortés in México, and set out to conquer La Florida in 1527, the four survivors of his failed expedition retuned to Cuba and Spain by way of the growing Spanish empire in México, where Hernán Cortés was still exploring and expanding the limits of the future nation of México. In 1539, one of the four survivors of the Narváez expedition, Esteban (aka Estevánico) (an African who came to the "New World" as a slave), led the excursion, headed by Fray Marcos de Niza, into modern Arizona and New Mexico that would result in Esteban's death and Coronado's invasion, and the eventual Spanish colonization of Nuevo México, or what is now the American Southwest.

Clearly, by the time of the entradas, as Ferdinand Magellan had already circumnavigated the globe, the Spanish conquistadores were not looking for a passage to India, but rather to establish colonies led by powerful governorships, and to extract the material riches and slaves from the land. Cabeza de Vaca noted trade goods and metals, and even valued animal skins and hides, but also (possibly strategically) withheld information.

Cabeza de Vaca's own story is multifaceted and deviated from the trend, beginning with government service and participation in Spanish military campaigns in Italy, and seemingly ending with his harrowing journey over thousands of miles across the southern United States and northern México, covering roughly 5,000 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific (and unknown hundreds or thousands of miles as a merchant in the Louisiana and Texas interior), on foot and raggedy, barely seaworthy craft.

He went on to survive an almost equally surreal episode in the Rio de la Plata (a colony covering parts of modern Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay) as the Adelantado Governor, becoming an enemy of the Spanish aristocracy, which resulted in his imprisonment by established, wealthy landowners in the region. They did not like his notions of fairness in dealing with the indigenous peoples, who they fully intended to exploit. Though complex, his downfall was brought about by his many years and cultural experience, living among indigenous peoples of the Gulf Coast and northern México (where he admired some and truly disliked others), his desire for peaceful interaction with them, and possibly by his deepened faith following his survival over a decade in North America.

Born in Spain about 1490, Cabeza de Vaca first came to the Americas in his mid to late 30s, surviving ten years of the Narváez expedition (1527-1536), often in peril or near death, into his mid to late 40s. After his second cross-continent adventure in the "New World", working to establish a camino real overland from the Atlantic Ocean to Peru, for which he was appointed in 1540 and started in 1541 at about age 50, he returned to Spain as a prisoner in 1545. Though exonerated, he lived in poverty and died at about age 70. He published a new book - a combination of the adventures - La Relación and Commentarios.

La Relación is the earliest written description of the interior of the modern United States. It is a skewed, winding account, bouncing between overwhelming despair at times and other moments of the most wondrous adventure. In it, Cabeza de Vaca tried to be even handed, giving positive and negative assessments, and to provide for government and anthropological interests. Near the end of the journey, the epic story develops into an editorial statement. Profoundly (and angrily), Cabeza de Vaca stated his disagreement with the Spanish enslavement of the Indians.

There were earlier visits to the coast, known as La Florida, by other would-be colonizers, though they were generally short lived and revealed very little information about the people or places. In fact, Cabeza de Vaca described the grave sites or coffins of what were possibly Spanish visitors to the coast of Florida sooner, though their story was unknown.

Among the earlier visitors to the coast were:
-Juan Ponce de León, Florida, 1513 and 1521

-Pedro de Salazar (or Diego de Salazar), possibly South Carolina (scout for Ayllón colony), 1514-17

-Alfonso Álvarez de Pineda (mapped the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, but made no known journal or report), 1519

-Lucas Vazquez de Ayllón, possibly South Carolina (died in the new colony in 1526), 1526

The Spanish conquests in the "New World" were tumultuous, to say the least, but they were also central to the larger international events of the times, including Spanish and Portuguese competition for wealth throughout the world, and the contradictory means of war, invasion, inquisition, slavery and religious reverence used to secure it.

In 1537, Pope John III declared indigenous peoples of the Americas are humans, leading to laws that prohibit their enslavement.

The Spanish entradas and globalization of the Americas brought profound and irreversible changes to the indigenous peoples' isolated lands. Many vignettes - as the Indians first saw men on horses, the Spanish first described the American bison and opossum, and crossed the Mississippi River, experienced a deadly Caribbean hurricane, and even practiced surgery - make up the big picture of change that no one in that time could have understood or foreseen, though some warned of it and Cabeza de Vaca attempted to steer it in his later exploration of South America.

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There are a series of goals associated with the effort to more thoroughly consider the landing site of the two boats carrying Cabeza de Vaca, and about 90 other Europeans and Africans, at a place called the "Island of Doom", as well as where two of the other boats may have landed, and where one sank in the Gulf of Mexico (potentially two of them sank in the Gulf). They include:
-To further academic research on the subject of Cabeza de Vaca and his book, La Relación

-To further educate the population about the historic journey and its broader context

-To seek additional evidence related to the Narváez expedition, including
DNA test results and archaeological finds

-To promote academic symposiums on the Narváez expedition and Cabeza de Vaca's account

-To achieve designation of a National Historic Trail on the Narváez/Cabeza de Vaca route

-To promote interpretive centers in key sites on the historic trail, including one located near the Gulf Coast between New Orleans and Houston (the region covered by this project)

-To promote an international educational and interpretive trail for academic and cultural exchange

-To advocate for a museum about the early Spanish entradas and indigenous peoples

-To advocate for a system to add geotag metadata to information needed for research of historic subjects and places

Note: Given the impact of Cabeza de Vaca's account as the oldest comprehensive story written about the people and places in the modern United States, the perilous expedition's impact on the indigenous peoples and its own members, and its ranking as one of the most fascinating travel adventures and survival stories in the world, several major cities in the region - where many of the epic's true hardships were described - should be interested to create such an important educational center or museum.

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The initial source for the translation of Cabeza de Vaca's La Relación is Cabeza de Vaca's Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America, Translated and Edited by Cyclone Covey, 1983, Reprinted by University of New Mexico Press from 1961 print edition by The Cromwell-Collier Company. It is utilized in the quotes above, though other translations have been accessed and compared to best understand the story, including:

Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca: His Account, His Life and the Expedition of Panfilo de Narváez, (Three-volume set), 1999, University of Nebraska Press

The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca, edited and translated by Rolena Adorno and Patrick Charles Pautz, 2003, University of Nebraska Press

La Relación, 1905 translation by Fannie R. Bandelier (aka Fanny Ritter Bandelier), originally published in The Journey of Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca: From Florida to the Pacific, 1528-1536, by Adolph Francis Alphonse Bandelier, reprinted by Houston Institute for Culture for limited educational and research uses

The Mapping of the Entradas into the Greater Southwest, by Dennis Reinhartz and Gerald D. Saxon, 1999, University of Oklahoma Press

The Account: Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca's Relación, Translated and Edited by José Fernández and Martin Favata, 1993, Arte Público Press

The De Soto Chronicles: The Expedition of Hernando de Soto to North America in 1539-1543, by Lawrence A. Clayton, Edward C. More, Vernon James Knight, Jr, Charles Hudson, et al., 1995, University of Alabama Press

Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun: Hernando de Soto and the South's Ancient Chiefdoms by Charles Hudson, 1998, University of Georgia Press

Note: Cyclone Covey is one of the translators whose transcript has been utilized to understand the narrative and journey of Cabeza de Vaca. However, from the point that the expedition crossed the Mississippi River Delta as it traveled west, utilizing earlier information by Cleve Hallenbeck and others, Covey generally locates Cabeza de Vaca and the other survivors in places that are quite far off the path that Lacy accepts. While the assertation of evidence covered in this document - that the boat carrying Cabeza de Vaca, and the boat carrying Castillo, Dorantes and Esteban (which wrecked near the same island), may not have reached Galveston Island, though others in the expedition may have - is limited to that region, the path discussed by Covey and the path Lacy thinks was more likely are highly divergent.

Covey's information describes Cabeza de Vaca traveling west across the Edwards Plateau and High Plains into and across New Mexico, while Lacy is inclined to believe the survivors generally crossed the South Texas Plains and Trans-Pecos Region, and the northern Mexican states on their route toward the Pacific Ocean. Lacy more strongly supports Cabeza de Vaca's ability (from his travel and communication with tribes) to gauge distances and his awareness of his position in relationship to the coast in the evidence, or clues, Cabeza de Vaca presented about the journey.

Though more than 100 sources were used for historic information and scientific data, key additional sources include:

Louisiana State University, Coastal Studies Institute (maps, graphs and data)

The National Academies Press, The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (historic Louisiana coastal information and data)

University of South Alabama, Department of Civil, Coastal and Environmental Engineering (maps and data)

University of Miami, Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (maps and data)

United States Geological Survey (USGS) (historic and modern topographical maps)

National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory (maps and data)

National Weather Service (Division of NOAA), Houston Intercontinental (Airport) Temperature and Climate Graphs (September 2008 climate data for Houston, Texas, and other location data)

National Hurricane Center (Division of NOAA) (historic information and data)

U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (Gulf of Mexico topographical mapping)

Botanical Research Institute of Texas

Key in-person field work: Study of Gulf of México currents and drift; Visual survey of Galveston Bay and Matagorda Bay; Visual survey of the Mississippi River Delta; Visual survey of Galveston Island and San Luis Pass; Measurements of Louisiana and Texas coastal rivers and estuary/bay systems; Travel experience over coastal lands (on foot) and waterways (using canoes, rafts and motorized craft); Visual survey of Newmans Lake (near Gainesville, Florida), a historic production site of cypress dugout canoes; and, Research visits to archaeological sites in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and New Mexico.

Further sources accumulated and utilized include: historic maps, state historic markers, NASA and NOAA scientific images and information, and much more. They are being sorted and referenced to determine which are most relative to the specific assertion of this article and the region it covers. Additional specific information from them will be added to web pages and social media that will be linked to this article.

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Research Background and Bio

Lacy has worked as a researcher, journalist and photojournalist. He started as a scientific Photographer for the University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering, where he studied methods to capture images for research and documentation purposes.

He gained his earliest experience as a surveyor and mapmaker, working from age 14 through is college years for his father's civil engineering company. As the founder of Lost Dutchman Expeditions (aka Expediciones fotográficas de las barrancas y los rios), he additionally worked as a travel planner and tour organizer, learning logistic and safety practices, with most of the educational adventures involving hiking and boating, from the Sierra Madre mountain ranges of México to the American Southwest and Gulf Coast, among many other dramatic locations.

Lacy was the executive director of Houston Institute for Culture for 17 years, during which he researched and produced radio programs on historic subjects, and published the 1905 translation of La Relación by Fannie Bandelier for educational use in classrooms and workshops he taught. He funded, organized and presented more than 600 public programs (more than 800 including relative university programs), and offered additional educational classes, workshops, academic conferences and youth programs.

He has been a presenter of numerous cultural, economic, historic and recreational topics, including cultural literacy, digital storytelling, genealogy, music, photography, travel, and history of pilgrimages and long-distance walking, as well as many others.

Lacy is director of the Digital Story Resource Center and a founder of Imagine a Museum and the Mile Zero Trail Association, and is presently involved in other non-profit organizations, and research and archive efforts.

He developed concepts and presently advocates for visionary projects, including a Houston Museum of Culture, or Texas Museum of Culture, and a museum based on the first Spanish entradas and their records and impact on indigenous peoples of the southern United States, among other interesting projects. Lacy is working to achieve an innovative, new National Recreation Trail, as well as a National Historic Trail, to also serve as part of an international educational and interpretive trail, based on the narrative of Cabeza de Vaca and the other survivors of the failed Narváez expedition.

Lacy conducted cultural resource surveys and inventories for Gulf Coast communities following hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and compared the cultural assets and interests of cities across the U.S. He advocates for civic and social/anthropological action (like development of programs, research, interpretive centers and museums), in the fields of community improvement, environmental education, social sciences, quality of life and meritorious visitor interests.

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This Website is hosted by the
Digital Story Resource Center.

Promotion of the goals described above is conducted by Imagine a Museum and Texas Museum of Culture through websites and Facebook.

Mile Zero Trail Association is working to achieve designation of a National Historic Trail and an International Educational and Interpretive Trail on the historic route of the Narváez expedition, and Cabeza de Vaca's escape to Mexico City and eventual return to Spain.

Additional support is provided by Houston Story, Vision for Houston, and others.

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About misisipi

Just as Cabeza de Vaca's account, La Relación, was the oldest written descriptions of people, places and events in the modern boundaries of the United States, the first Spanish-language newspaper was titled El Misisipí. Originally published in New Orleans in 1808, the periodical took its name from the Spanish spelling of the indigenous word for the Mississippi River.

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The project is conducted by volunteers of several organizations. We generally utilize social media for contacts with the public, due to the functionality for people who are interested to engage in discussions. You may be interested to help, or you may have specific information to share, which may need consideration or expert interpetation. From a message (posted in the "Send Message" feature) in one of the groups listed below, an appropriate volunteer will contact you if you would like to provide information by email or phone.

Join us at one or more of these social media websites:

Texas Museum of Culture Facebook Page

Imagine a Museum Facebook Page

Mile Zero Trail Association Meetup Group

Mile Zero Trail Association Facebook Group

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© Copyright 2018 by Imagine a Museum and Texas Museum of Culture