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Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca and Company - An 8 Year Walk With Christ (1528 A. D.)



  In 1528, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, a veteran soldier of great and bloody wars, decided to embark upon more profitable adventures by becoming a conquistador. In a company of 570 plus men he went to Florida in the New World of the Americas to search for the legendary cities of gold.  Joining up with the Narvaez Expedition launching out of Cuba they sailed north and anchored off of present day Tampa Bay, Florida, which was wilderness at that time.  From there they traveled inland.  Slogging deep into the swampy forests in hot and heavy battle armor they encountered tribes of wretchedly poor Indians, none that seemed to have any notion of the lost cities of gold.  And the country they explored took its toll on their strength and resiliency.  The reality of being an adventurous explorer is nearly always greatly harsher than what the pleasantly fantasizing mind had envisioned.

  With exhaustion and sickness taking its heavy toll among them many lost hope of seizing upon some great treasure of gold, and finally, as a group, they decided to return through the terrible swampy wilderness to their ships. Their trip back was horrible.  They battled the humid wilds, the deadly sicknesses, and sometimes the fierce warriors of the territorial native peoples ; with great loss of life they finally made it back to the ocean - only to find their ships were mysteriously missing.  Their numbers now were down to around 400 men.

  They made a plan to survive. They fashioned simple open boats from available materials and put to sea hoping to reach Cuba, but the winds and the currents did not help them, and they found themselves far from land and dying hopelessly in the baking heat of the Caribbean.  Over a period of weeks the elements claimed the lives of all but about forty of the remaining conquistadores.  Some men resorted to cannibalism to survive.  Others resorted to praying for mercy and help from Jesus and God the Father.

  Finally, a day came when they saw land and made it to shore on what is now a coast of Texas in the Galveston area.  Their clothing had rotted off of them.  The surf actually sank their makeshift boats even as they swam for the welcome beach.  They literally had nothing. They were wretched, naked, ship wrecked misfortunates.  Once they had intended to attack and rob whoever they needed to in order to steal valuable gold.  Now they were as poor as humans could possibly become, and at the mercy of God. 

  Luckily for them a local Native American tribe living in that region had a very strange legend that one day gods would come from the sea with special powers, and despite their embattled physical appearance some of these native peoples believed these strange looking people with their exotic physical features might possibly be those gods. So, seeing the pitiful marooned survivors on their shores they decided to aid them instead of killing them or ignoring them.  They nursed them back to health.  After all, the strangers, despite their wretched state, had a strange and exotic appearance...light skin, great amounts of facial hair, etc., and they had, after all, come in from the sea such as it was foretold the gods would do.  

  For the first time in a long time the few remaining survivors felt hope.  At this point, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca was among the few survivors of this doomed expedition.

  For some weeks they were nursed back to health from the tribe's scant resources.  And they learned the  tribes language.  But eventually the tribe felt that it had become time for these 'gods' to show their godly powers, time for them to heal the sick among their benefactors since they had been hospitably received and fed for so long. The Spaniards finally confessed the truth, and conveyed to them that this was impossible because they were not healers, and did not have those powers.  The Natives, unconvinced, decided not to feed them until they did their part.

  Faced with a second round of starvation, weak and at the end of their rope, they prayed fervently to Jesus to be aided in this grim situation. They begged to be given the power of God so that their lives might be saved.

  In the morning when the sick were brought to them, they knelt and prayed with all their strength over them, calling on Jesus to heal. Nothing happened immediately, but the Spaniards, desperate and with no options, decided to act like the cures should not be expected immediately.  They went to bed like doomed men, afraid of what would come in the morning when their fraud had become evident.  But to their surprise, by the next day all of the Indians they prayed over had recovered. Of course more were then brought, but when they prayed over these, they too recovered and declared themselves healed by the next day.

  On and on it went. People from other tribes asked for them, and they became very sought after, increasingly famous among the many south Texas tribes.  At first they were literally 'celebrity slaves' to the tribe that originally aided them.  But sometimes by running away they would get to the next tribe, or sometimes their 'captors/hosts' would allow them to leave.  The Spaniards were, by this time, hoping to make it to far away Mexico City, where they knew that some of their countrymen could be found.  They began trekking west, their original hosts, now convinced that some great power rested with them  through their God named Jesus, allowed it.





  Over time they briefly dwelled with many tribes, and due to the decimating effects of later Europeans, European diseases, and warfare between native American tribes or against Europeans, some of these tribes that the Spaniards came to know and heal along with their odd or unique customs are hardly known of today except for Alvar's writings.

  Here is an excerpted paragraph from Alvar's translated diary, referring to one stretch of time: 

 "We remained with the Avavares Indians for eight months, according to our reckoning of the moons. During that time they came for us from many places and said that verily we were children of the sun. Until then Dorantes and the negro had not made any cures, but we found ourselves so pressed by the Indians coming from all sides, that all of us had to become medicine men. I was the most daring and reckless of all in undertaking cures. We never treated anyone that did not afterwards say he was well, and they had such confidence in our skill as to believe that none of them would die as long as we were among them."  End Quote

  Some tribes were wretchedly poor, and lived by traveling from one meager food source to another as each came into its season of bearing fruit.  Some tribes ate very little meat.  Alvar often records living for months upon the fruit of the prickly pear cactus.  They called these nutritious red fruit by the name 'tuna'.  They ate a lot of 'tuna'!  When I first read the translations of Alvar's account, I thought they were saying they ate the fish called 'tuna', but!    

  They themselves felt strange because they had not come on a Christian mission for God, but rather to plunder gold from such Indians as these they now healed. But they had unexpectedly received the gift of the Holy Spirit and so they used It, with ever increasing confidence that the Spirit would do what they asked It to for the glory of Jesus and the Father. 

  And as the weeks went by, their hearts were changed. Especially Alvar's.  Using a combination of prayer and natural remedies it is said that people he prayed for and treated never really failed to recover.  Such was their fame among the tribes they passed through that it was said that these bedraggled Spaniards were semingly all that any of the Native Americans they spent time among could talk about.  They were the news of the whole region.  The WHOLE region.  They were often the first Europeans encountered by the various tribes that they met with as well, and so they were their first exposure to Jesus and His teachings.  Sign language and words were used to teach, but Alvar shares that the Spirit provided clear communication between them and the Native peoples where ever they travelled.  They were able to converse effectively through words and signs.

  From being 'special' slaves, they gradually became traveling celebrities.  Word that they were coming to your village was apparently enough to cause an absolute frenzy of excitement and anticipation within any village.  Nothing of the sort had ever happened in the memory of any tribe in those parts.  It was essentially the biggest news ever.

  While living among one of the many tribes that they dwelt with during these years, Alvar's diary relates that this particular tribe shared their recollections of a very menacing and unworldly stranger that had lived around them and caused them harm about 15 or 16 years earlier.  It would seem like a fable, but they apparently insisted very strongly to the Spaniards that their words were true, and they showed them scars to prove it, according to this account, which is excerpted now:

  "These Indians and the ones we left behind told us a very strange tale. From their account it may have occurred fifteen or sixteen years ago. They said there wandered then about the country a man, whom they called "Bad Thing," of small stature and with a beard, although they never could see his features clearly, and whenever he would approach their dwellings their hair would stand on end and they began to tremble. In the doorway of the lodge there would then appear a firebrand. That man thereupon came in and took hold of anyone he chose, and with a sharp knife of flint, as broad as a hand and two palms in length, he cut their side, and, thrusting his hand through the gash, took out the entrails, cutting off a piece one palm long, which he threw into the fire. Afterwards he made three cuts in one of the arms, the second one at the place where people are usually bled, and twisted the arm, but reset it soon afterwards. Then he placed his hands on the wounds, and they told us that they closed at once. Many times he appeared among them while they were dancing, sometimes in the dress of a woman and again at other times as a man, and whenever he took a notion to do it he would seize the hut or lodge, take it up into the air and come down with it again with a great crash. They also told us how, many a time, they set food before him, but he never would partake of it, and when they asked him where he came from and where he had his home, he pointed to a rent in the earth and said his house was down below.

We laughed very much at those stories, making fun of them, and then, seeing our incredulity they brought to us many of those whom, they said, he had taken, and we saw the scars of his slashes in the places and as they told. We told them he was a demon and explained as best we could that if they would believe in God, Our Lord, and be Christians like ourselves, they would not have to fear that man, nor would he come and do such things unto them, and they might be sure that as long as we were in this country he would not dare to appear again. At this they were greatly pleased and lost much of their apprehension."    End Quote 

  Think what you will of that, but it is interesting! 

   As they traveled further a strange tradition began between tribes - some of whom were friends towards each other, and some deadly enemies; some of whom spoke the same language, some also who spoke very different languages.  But no matter what the situation, a peace was declared for the duration of the Spaniards visit, for the Spaniards would not tolerate violence between those tribes that chose to associate with them while hearing about Jesus.

  The strange tradition was this:

  The Indian tribes noticed that the Spaniards seemed contemptuous of wealth.  The tribes would give them gifts of food, but after taking what they needed, the Spaniards redistributed the rest, giving it away for free.  The Spaniards were given valuable clothing, but after replacing anything of theirs that might be worn out, they would give the rest to someone whose clothes were deficient.  In other words, it appeared that one of the qualities of this new God Jesus was that you had to despise wealth and posessions if you followed Him. 

  So, somewhere along the way it came to be that a tribe would receive the strangers excitedly.  And all of the rich people of the tribe would give away all of their most prized posessions to the Spanish to show them that they prized knowledge of Jesus much more highly than such wealth.  Then they would learn of Jesus, their sick would come to be healed, and many from nearby would travel to receive and do the same.  Eventually, Alvar and his fellows would indicate that they were ready to travel again, and one day they would set out for the next large tribe, escorted by their previous hosts across long distances of wild and rugged terrain.  And for those who escorted them, it was a journey of hardship.  They took very little with them, and they had given away most of what they owned anyway.  Alvar said that, in the later years of their journey, over 1000 Indians might sometimes escort them.  It was hard for a sparse land to feed so many. 

  But when they finally arrived at the next village, whether it was a village of their friends or a tribe that was usually their foes, the escorts would confidently stride into the village they had arrived at and begin pillaging the residents of any belongings that they saw, even walking into their dwellings in many cases to seize such property as they desired.  

  But rather than reacting with hostility, the new village would allow this without objection, appearing to gladly surrender it.  In some cases they would even face the walls of their dwelling so that their face revealed no possible objection.  And the escorts, heavily loaded down with food and the plundered wealth of the new village, would begin their long journey home to their own village.  

  In this way, the new village displayed their lack of concern for belongings in light of the great gifts they hoped to receive from God - from the Spaniard's God, Jesus, that they were so eager to hear about.  All knew the recent stories of this God's remarkable deeds among previously visited tribes.  What was a fur coat compared to this?  What did a prized bow and arrow matter when a relationship with so powerful of a God could be obtained?  And of course, they in turn would be escorting the Spaniards to the next tribe....     

  Weeks turned into years. Some of the Spaniards own number died, unsavable it seems by this power of the Holy Spirit.  That power God seemed to reserve for the Native American Indian tribes of southern coastal North America and parts of Mexico. But, for those tribes the power was very powerful indeed.  Alvar several times notes that whoever they prayed for was healed.  The paralyzed regained their limbs use.  The ill became well.  The signs were abundant and amazingly powerful.

  They traveled and healed, and eventually there were only four of them left of the original 578 men (actually the original numbers vary some between accounts) when they finally reached the vicinity of Mexico City and encountered some genuine Spanish conquistadores. They had been travelling and healing for 8 years.

  Alvar was struck by the cruelty of the conquistadores whom they met towards the Indians. They were greedy and vicious, using the Native peoples for labor and as slaves and prostitutes. Of course Alvar realized that his group had once been similar. In fact, a terrible thing happened:  gradually his three friends reacustomed themselves to the lifestyle of conquistadores.  But Alvar never did. He never forgot the power of God that had traveled with his group of survivors, or the aid that the natives had extended towards his sorrowful group of castaways.  He spoke against his countrymen for all the evil that they did when the were supposed to represent a Christian nation.

   He never returned to his old ways, and he was eventually jailed for his loud protests against his own people. The tribes of Indians continued to recognize Alvar as a different sort of Spaniard and a sincere Christian, even after his friends reverted. He remained a champion for their Native American causes, though often to little avail.

  His career later involved work in South America, where again he was known for his interest in and compassion for the natives - an attitude said to be rare at that time in a Spaniard of the New World. 

   Alvar finished out his life as an advocate for tribes of the New World, and he was much disliked by his countrymen for it.  Eventually he returned to Spain, and there Alvar died a poor man, shunned by many of his own people.  He had lived an amazing life, and recorded things which, but for his writings, would be lost history.  But there was no worldly glory that came of it for him.  Yet it is very likely that if we get to see Alvar in heaven, he will not be a poor man at all. 

  Decades later, Christians in America were trying to reach out and share Jesus with newly discovered tribal groups in America.  It is a matter of record that this was usually slow work with little reward for years in some cases.  But some tribes in the south of Texas were quite different.  They would see the crosses the missionaries carried and hear the word 'Jesus' and they reacted with huge excitement.  They knew of this God, they would say, and of His great power.  Their recent ancestors had told the story of the 'children of the sun', who traveled from the east towards the west like the sun did, and who did amazing healings by the power of this God Jesus.  And they would listen to the missionaries with keen interest because of this. 

  Hopefully many of them repented, were baptized in Jesus' name, and were saved!  And told their families and friends as well! 

  Here is a site there you can go to read some of Alvar's translated diary directly:


©2017 Daniel Curry & 'Deeds of God' Website