Crossing the Continent 1527-1540

The Story of the First African-American Explorer of the American South

By Robert Goodwin
HarperCollins Publishers. 432 pp. $25.95
Dec. 14, 2008

Chapter One

Journey's End

The First Crossing of America, 1536

In the far northwest of Mexico, a posse of Spanish cavalrymen was riding deep in Indian country. History has marked these men as among the most bloodthirsty and brutal of the notoriously cruel conquistadors, the soldiers of fortune who forged the great Spanish Empire in the Americas. It was about the time of the spring equinox in 1536, the "ides of March," long believed to be a season when the Fates might conspire to destroy a man.

They had ridden far beyond the frontiers of their own world in search of peaceable Indians to capture and sell as slaves. A wave of fear had broken across the country. The inhabitants had fled high into the Sierra Madre or had taken refuge in the thick brush. No one had tilled the soil; there were no crops; the desert plain was barren; the fertile river valleys were emptied of people.

The conquistadors now reaped the harvest of those seeds sown in wrath and greed. Men and horses were weak with hunger. For days they had found no victims to enslave in that abandoned world, and they had no idea where they were. There was no one to guide them, nor lead them to water, nor give them food, and little grazing for their horses. They were hungry and thirsty, lost in the network of Indian trails that cut through the impenetrable backwoods of brush and thorn scrub, cactus, mesquite, and ebony, which closed in claustrophobically around them. The threat of ambush was unrelenting and terrifying in a land where the Indians used arrows poisoned with the sap of venomous trees. Their Mexican foot soldiers were restless.

This brutal band was led by a man called Diego de Alcaraz. He was hard and brave, a frontier man who lived in the saddle and a pirate who pillaged the land of its people. His creed was violence and his motive was greed. He cared nothing for the love of God, nor for the decrees laid down by his sovereign and the laws of Spain. He did his evil work far beyond any Spanish imperial jurisdiction, riding time and again deep into Indian country in search of peaceful victims he might easily enslave and send for sale in Mexico City.

But Alcaraz was worried that he had forced his posse of tough riders too far, farther north than any Spaniard had ever ridden before. With his men worn down by hunger and fear, he ordered a retreat, and they set out on the slow march south to the remote imperial outpost of Culiacán, the tiny military base they temporarily called home.

Culiacán was the farthest settlement on the most distant frontier of the vast Spanish Empire, a rough settlement on the green and pleasant banks of the San Lorenzo River. It marked the northern limit of a rich, fertile province known as New Galicia, ruled over by Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán, by almost all accounts a "natural gangster" and one of the most merciless and pitiless of men. Yet like so many conquistadors, he was as audacious, dynamic, and brave as he was bloody.

Alcaraz was cast in Guzmán's image; they were two psychopaths with a common, perfidious ambition. They sought out violence for violence's sake. They raped and pillaged, and with their plunder and the slaves they took, they could afford the cost of further violent missions. It was this cycle that had led Alcaraz and his men to overstretch themselves in the remote region they now hoped to find their way out of.

They backtracked for a week until they reached the lush and verdant banks of the Sinaloa River, where Alcaraz ordered his men to set their camp. This was some respite, at least, from the endless flat plain, covered in scrub. Some of the men thought they recognized the river. Early the following morning, he sent his most trusted man, Lázaro de Cebreros, to search for the trail to Culiacán, or for someone who could guide them there.

As Cebreros set out with three companions, he no doubt pondered the recent past. Only three years earlier, another slaving expedition to the region had found Indians wearing jewelry of horseshoe nails and other European objects. One man even had a scrap of material from a cape.

"Where did you get these things?" the Spaniards had asked. Eventually, they were told a grim story. A troubled Spanish ship had put into a nearby harbor, the crew had come ashore in search of succor and safety, and every one of them had been mercilessly massacred by Indian warriors.

Now, in the cool of early morning, as Cebreros and his companions went about their task, they suddenly tensed. Alert with fear, they sensed danger moving in the bush. Soon, Indians appeared. Cebreros watched as a group of fourteen or fifteen men approached along the trail. Instinctively, the Spaniards reached for their swords.

Then, as the Indians came closer, Cebreros noticed that these usually beardless men seemed to be led by a strikingly hirsute African, tanned deeply black by the relentless sun. Close behind him was a European, his blond hair and long beard bleached almost white. Both wore feather headdresses and carried the sacred rattles of Indian shamans or medicine men. Rude tunics sewn from deer pelts half-covered their nearly naked bodies. They went unshod, their feet deeply lined and cracked.

The two groups stared at each other a while. Then the blond man stepped forward. "Take me to your leader!" he ordered. He may have looked sinister, with his lion-like mane and Indian clothes, but he spoke with the familiar accent and arrogance of an Andalusian aristocrat.

Cebreros and his men were dumbfounded, struck silent by such a strange and improbable meeting.

These two men were Esteban, an African slave; and Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, a Spanish nobleman. One or two days' journey back along the trail were their two Spanish companions: Andrés Dorantes, Esteban's legal owner; and Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, a doctor's son. These four men were the only survivors of the disastrous expedition of 300 would-be conquistadors who had landed at Tampa Bay eight years before, filled with confidence that they could conquer Florida for Spain.


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