The survivors of a failed 16th-century Spanish mission endured eight years of privations before finding refuge
Brutal Journey: The Epic Story of the First Crossing of North America
By Paul Schneider
Holt, 366 pp., illustrated, $26
Texans know the story of Cabeza de Vaca, but almost no one else does. For Texans, who encounter it in the seventh-grade Texas history class that forms a rite of passage -- an introduction to the proud and peculiar realm of Texana -- the epic tale of the wanderings of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and his three companions during the 1520s and 1530s marks the first extended appearance of Texas in the written historical record. What many Texans don't know, or don't particularly care about, is that the 6 1/2 years the wanderers spent on the Texas coast were the sorry end of one of the most ambitious chapters in the saga of the Spanish conquest of two-thirds of the Western Hemisphere.
In ''Brutal Journey" Paul Schneider, who has written books on the Adirondacks and Cape Cod, places the Cabeza de Vaca story in its full context, and then some. He depicts the murderous envy Hernán Cortés inspired in his fellow Spanish conquistadors by his brutally brilliant seizure of the Aztec empire of Mexico. Pánfilo de Narváez resented Cortés, whom he considered a traitorous thief, more than most, to the point of leading a military force into battle against Cortés. As he generally did, Cortés got the better of the engagement, spearing out Narváez's eye and taking him prisoner. Narváez eventually won release, and thereupon petitioned the Spanish crown for permission to carve out an empire of his own, along the Gulf Coast of the future United States.
Schneider deftly explains the Spanish model of conquest, which differed less from that of the English than most Englishmen (or their American heirs) admitted. The conquistadors were soldiers of fortune but also businessmen; they borrowed money to purchase ships and provisions, on promises to share the profits with their backers. They recruited private armies, also on promises of future profits. The Spanish crown licensed the ventures in exchange for its own cut of the revenues, ideally consisting of gold and silver but also involving returns from trade, not least that in slaves.
Cabeza de Vaca was the treasurer of the Narváez expedition -- the king's accountant, whose job was to ensure an accurate rendering unto Caesar. (Missionaries, who typically arrived after the initial conquests, less effectively handled the rendering to God.) Start-up troubles of the expedition included the usual: foul weather, hunger, thirst, shipwreck, and desertion; but in April 1528, Narváez and his men arrived on the west coast of Florida. They soon found themselves in trouble up to their necks -- literally, when they had to march miles through swamps utterly unlike anything the Spanish had encountered in Mexico. They clashed with the locals, were eaten alive by mosquitoes, got lost, fell ill, and slowly starved till the survivors escaped aboard boats they cobbled together from driftwood. For weeks they bumped west along the Gulf Coast before grounding on Galveston Island (probably: much of the geography of the surviving accounts, and hence of Schneider's retelling, is conjectural).
By this time more than half the initial 600 men of the expedition had perished or vanished; the number of survivors dwindled rapidly in Texas. Narváez himself drifted out to sea and disappeared. Finally only Cabeza de Vaca, two other Spaniards, and a Moor named Esteban remained. Naked, shivering, ignorant of how to survive in that hostile environment, they were enslaved by Indians and held captive for six years before finally deciding to make a break for the settled parts of Mexico.
Schneider is guilty of a venial bait-and-switch; the ''first crossing of North America" promised in his subtitle doesn't actually begin until this point in his narrative. Half the book is buildup -- albeit fascinatingly informative buildup. Like every honest historian, Schneider is at the mercy of his sources, and the sources on the Narváez expedition are essentially two: Cabeza de Vaca's memoir, published five years after the ordeal, and a paraphrase of a report compiled jointly by the survivors (the report itself was lost centuries ago). Cabeza de Vaca's memoir is one of the great first-person accounts of early American history; the author has a compelling voice as well as an eye for detail and a turn of phrase, beyond the astonishing subject matter. It's no knock on Schneider that his version isn't quite as gripping as Cabeza de Vaca's (which is available in various translations, the most recent published in 1999). Schneider's explanations are better than Cabeza de Vaca's, but where Cabeza de Vaca is silent or skimpy, so, for the most part, is Schneider. And after devoting many pages to Texas (which is why those Texans love him so), Cabeza de Vaca covers the crossing of North America from the Gulf of Mexico to the Gulf of California in comparatively short order. The Spaniards and the Moor manage to pass themselves off as healers; their grateful hosts escort them through the mountains and deserts till they meet up with a party of Spanish slavers.
A few other deficiencies mar Schneider's version. To triangulate the accounts of the Narváez expedition, Schneider often supplies information from other expeditions, till sometimes the stories get confused. On occasion his enthusiasm carries him away, as when he writes of the ''great thousand-year-old" oak trees on the Texas Gulf Coast. Texas oaks grow faster than most people realize, and besides, nothing with so much exposure to wind lasts a millennium in that hurricane-ravaged country. And he works too hard to acquit the Karankawa Indians of cannibalism, which was reliably reported of that tribe almost as long as it existed.
But on the whole, ''Brutal Journey" is first-rate. Weaving anthropology, archeology, climatology, geography, and a half-dozen other disciplines into a riveting tale of courage, cruelty, and ultimately survival, Schneider does for Cabeza de Vaca and his comrades what the late Stephen Ambrose did (with ''Undaunted Courage") for Lewis and Clark. If Schneider isn't careful, he might be made an honorary Texan.
H. W. Brands is the author of ''Lone Star Nation" and, most recently, ''Andrew Jackson." He teaches history at the University of Texas at Austin.