Cabeza de Vaca's Florida, Alabama
   and Mississippi in Brief
Conquest Landings by Donald E. Sheppard

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THIS REPORT DESCRIBES:
CABEZA DE VACA'S FLORIDA NARRATION

Juan Ponce de Leon, who had sailed with Columbus, explored Florida's west coast and discovered Charlotte Harbor in 1513. He died from wounds received near there on his return to colonize in 1521. In 1528, Panfilo de Narvaez with Cabeza de Vaca aimed to colonize North America from Ponce's harbor but a storm kept them from first stopping at Havana for much needed provisions. Narvaez' fleet was blown into the Gulf of Mexico, leaving one ship behind. They found Florida several days later, but with 300 men, a critical food shortage and 42 sick horses, Narvaez was forced to land his army.

Stump Pass, Englewood

The captains of his vessels would report finding Ponce's harbor just five leagues, 13 miles, south of his disembarkation point when they left. Stump Pass, at today's Englewood, is exactly that distance from the mouth of Charlotte Harbor. Narvaez had disembarked there (photo below).
Narvaez and DeVaca Landing Beach

Narvaez would scout northwest until evening where he reached a very large bay, Charlotte Harbor, camped, then returned. The ships were dispatched to find the port, but if not, to Havana for supplies then meet him farther up the coast where, dispite his having seen the very large bay, they all surmised Juan Ponce's harbor to be.

After the ships left Narvaez penetrated farther inland. He followed the shore of the bay, Charlotte Harbor, for four leagues and captured four Indians who led them to their village at the head of the bay. (DeSoto would land there eight years later and call that place Ucita). Those natives told Narvaez about a province called Apalachen where there was gold, food and shelter.

"Taking them as guides, we started, and after walking ten or twelve leagues, came to another village... (today's Arcadia, mapped below) where there was a large cultivated patch of corn nearly ready for harvest, and some that was already ripe. After staying there two days, we returned to the place where we had left the men... and told them... what we saw and the news the Indians had given us."

With an army of 300 men and 42 horses but no livestock to drive, on Saturday the 1st of May, 1528, they departed in search of Apalachen. Cabeza de Vaca would describe 10 different areas along their Florida trail, all mapped below.

Cabeza de Vacas Florida TrailThe Narvaez "army" first passed through Ucita where Narvaez cut off the chief's nose, then inland ten to twelve leagues, to and across the fordable, 150 wide, Peace River into Arcadia. His army continued north to the Great Swamp, the only fording place of the Hillsborough River (photo below left) which drains Florida's massive Green Swamp and flows across all northbound coastal routes. DeSoto's people would report crossing the same swamp, at the same place for the same reason eight years later.

The Great Swamp - Drained todayZephyrhills aerial photoNarvaez encountered several hundred Indians while crossing the Great Swamp, but was led to a village half-a-league away. He found large quantities of maize close by approaching Zephyrhills, on some of the richest agricultural land in Florida (aerial photo below).

When Cabeza de Vaca was dispatched from there to find a harbor reported to be nearby (see aerial below), he encountered wetlands filled with oysters and a river he could not cross (the Hillsborough River at Rock Hammock, also on aerial). The Hillsborough River broadens just below the Great Swamp; raccoons eat the oysters there today. That once extensive swamp, on very flat land around Rock Hammock, would be substantially drained by Tampa's Hillsborough River Bypass Canal.

Cabeza de Vaca to TampaWhen others re-crossed the swamp and went down the river's south bank toward Tampa they found a shallow bay, (Hillsborough Bay), on May 22, 1528, four days after New Moon. Spring Tides were still occuring when they examined it. They could wade across most of it. The deep water of Tampa Bay looked to them like the Gulf of Mexico. They returned to camp with news that the harbor was too shallow for ships. Narvaez led his army up the Gulf Coast (map below), still looking for them. DeVaca's Trail thru West Central Florida







DeSoto's people would use a different trail from that area than the one Narvaez used (both mapped at left). DeSoto's trail would run north, down the Withlacoochee River and through today's Withlacoochee State Forest, over Florida's Rock Phosphate Ridge, across a narrow river then on to the Suwannee River. The natives which DeSoto's people encountered on that trail had no knowledge of Narvaez.

Narvaez' trail was, most likely, nearer the coast than DeSoto's, given that Narvaez was looking for his ships. He probably traveled north from the Great Swamp to Brooksville, then northwest to Crystal River and across the shallow Withlacoochee River, then on to the large Suwannee River, a place Vaca would call Dulchanchellin. DeSoto's people would report that those natives had seen Narvaez.

Turpentine distillers - Author's Grandfather, Ed, on right FlatwoodsNear the Suwannee River both DeSoto and Vaca observed flute players on the road which Vaca says "was difficult to travel but wonderful to look upon.... In it were vast forests (image at left), the trees being astonishingly high." They were in Florida's flatwoods (turpentine distillers at right) when they made similar reports. Both Narvaez and DeSoto used the same trail leading north from there to what Narvaez called "Apalachen," DeSoto would call it Napituca.

The Aucilla River's Natural Bridges Vaca says, "...in the province of Apalachen the lagoons are much larger than those we found previously..." DeSoto's people called them lakes - parts of the Wacissa River (mapped at right). Vaca continues, "...when we sallied they fled to the lagoons nearby... shooting from the lagoons which was safety to themselves that we could not retaliate", which is similar to the incident observed by DeSoto's army. Narvaez, apparently, did not have a sufficient army to surround them.

Then, Vaca says, the natives told them that the land and villages inland were very poor, but that by "journeying south nine days was a town called Aute...(with) much maize, beans and pumpkins and being near the sea they had fish." Biedma says these Indians told many great lies about the country further inland, and, I think, Narvaez had believed them; Narvaez had no Juan Ortiz to sort them out.

If Narvaez had been at Napituca, and departed to the south, as Vaca indicates, he would have encountered country exactly like he described (mapped below). That is, "The first day we got through those lakes and passages without seeing anyone, on the second day we came to a lake difficult of crossing... (but got through)... at the end of a league we arrived at another of the same character, but worse, as it was half a league in extent."

Map, Narvaez from Aute to Apalachen
A St. Marks River Pool
Vaca's trail below Napituca passed one side of the large "lake" adjoining Napituca's plain and then gone over Gum Swamp the first day, then over the East River Pool (photo above) and the St. Marks River near its mouth the next. Narvaez crossed these "lakes" instead of avoiding them because both the pool and the river's flats look like lakes (lagoons) and are almost impossible to hike around even today. They are at the distances from the village and of the dimensions Vaca described. Pioneer trails also crossed both of them at exactly the same places (inside of today's St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge; East River Pool has a causeway today where Vaca said he crossed it, but the St. Marks River's flats have been dredged for shipping).

Then, having been turned west by the Gulf of Mexico, Narvaez would have passed a plain (above today's Medart), more swamps (the Sopchoppy, Ochlockonee, and New River swamps), and a big stream which he called Magdalena; the Apalachicola River, all as Vaca reported. Eight days into their march, they came onto planted fields where they were fallen upon by the enemy.

The following day Narvaez reached and camped at Aute (today's Econfina, mapped above), where Vaca was dispatched on horseback to find an escape route from that hostile place. He rode down the same trail DeSoto's Juan de Anasco would ride from Aute to Bayou George. There Vaca found a place favorable for building boats, with cedar, pine, oak, palmetto, shell fish coves and a fresh water stream, but no rocks at Bayou George (pictured below, also see the Florida Township survey of 1831). That trail from Aute, about six leagues round trip to the bayou, was ridden many times by Narvaez' people to fetch sick men and food from Aute during the time it took them to build their escape boats. The Gulf of Mexico was still a great distance from that point.

The Vaca - Narvaez Boat Building Site

Press for Original Servay of Bayou George Vaca says, Beginning on the fourth day of August, on the twentieth day of the month of September, five barges of twenty-two elbow lengths each were ready." He continues, "On the twenty-second day of the month of September (1528) we had eaten up all the horses but one. That bay from which we started is called the Bay of the Horses. We sailed seven days among those inlets, in the water waist deep, without signs of anything like the coast. At the end of this time we reached an island near the shore..." the Gulf of Mexico.

"...and two leagues beyond found a strait between the island and the coast, which strait we christened Sant Miguel, it being the day of that saint (on September 29th). Issuing from it we reached the coast, where by means of the five canoes I had taken from the Indians we mended somewhat the barges, making washboards and adding to them and raising the sides two hands above water."

On September 30, 1528, Harvest Moon, they set out to sea towards Mexico. From time to time they would enter some inlet that reached very far inland, but found them all shallow and dangerous... often meeting wretched native fishermen.

Reaching Dauphin Island, at the mouth of Mobile Bay, Alabama, they heard a canoe approaching, then followed it toward Petit Bois Island, Mississippi. A storm overtook them. Several days later they entered Pascagoula, where they were attacked. Beyond, at Gulfport's Cat and Ship Islands, several men escaped just before they crossed Lower Chandeleur Sound into Louisiana.

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