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Age of Exploration
Cabeza de Vaca's Journey - Florida
Port of Entry by Donald E. Sheppard

Vaca's Annotated Narration from PBS

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 - Press for More The captains of his vessels would report finding Ponce's harbor just five leagues south of his disembarkation point when they left there for Havana. Stump Pass, at today's Englewood, is exactly that distance from the mouth of Charlotte Harbor; Narvaez had disembarked at Englewood.

Narvaez and DeVaca Landing Beach

Narvaez explored the country to see what it contained, traveling north until evening when he reached a very large bay, camped, then returned several days later. His ships were dispatched to Havana for supplies with orders to meet him further up the coast where, dispite his having seen a port, they all surmised Juan Ponce's good harbor to be.

After the ships left Narvaez again penetrated inland. He followed the shore of the bay for four leagues and captured four Indians who led them to their village at the end of the bay (DeSoto would land there eleven years later and call that place Ucita). There Narvaez was told 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) 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. They passed through Ucita, where Narvaez had cut off Chief Hirrihigua's nose, then headed northeast.

They crossed the Peace River just before reaching today's Arcadia, all within his ten to twelve league journey from Ucita. He continued north, inland of the Peace River, but was led by starvation over the Great Swamp, the only fording place on a river which flows across all northbound routes from Ucita. DeSoto's people would report crossing the same swamp, on the same river, at the same place and for the same reason eleven years later...

The Great Swamp - Drained todayNarvaez encountered several hundred Indians while crossing the Great Swamp with much difficulty, but was led to a village half-a-league away; today's Branchton. He found large quantities of maize close-by at today's Zephyrhills, still one of the richest agricultural areas in Florida. The Great Swamp - Drained today

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

Cabeza de Vaca to TampaWhen others re-crossed the swamp and went down the river's south bank toward Tampa (Fort Brook) they found a shallow bay, Hillsborough Bay (cut by the bypass canal today), on May 22, 1528, four days after New Moon. Spring Tides occured 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 shallow Gulf Coast, looking for them. DeVaca's Trail thru West Central Florida

DeSoto's people would use used a different
trail from the Great Swamp than Narvaez had used. DeSoto's trail would run down the Withlacoochee River and through today's Withlacoochee State Forest, over Florida's Rock Phosphate Ridge, across a river then on to the Suwannee River
. The natives which DeSoto's people would encounter on that trail, until they would reach the Suwannee River, would have no knowledge of Narvaez, probably because he had used a different trail northbound from the Great Swamp (black line on map at left).

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 Withlacoochee River, then on to the Suwannee River, a place Vaca would call Dulchanchellin - where they would cross that river with great difficulty. DeSoto's people would report that natives there had seen Narvaez.

Turpentine distillers - Author's Grandfather, Ed, on right FlatwoodsNear the Suwannee River both DeSoto and Vaca observed flute players on a road which Vaca says "was difficult to travel but wonderful to look upon.... In it were vast forests, the trees being astonishingly high." They were in Florida's flatwoods when they made similar reports, and both Narvaez and DeSoto used the same trail leading to Napituca, a village which Narvaez found and called "Apalachen." Napituca Village might have been in Apalache Province at that time, given the warring nature of that province and the European diseases (population movers) delivered by Narvaez.

The Aucilla River's Natural Bridges"The Lakes", says Vaca, "are much larger here.. as we sallied they fled to the lakes nearby... shooting from the lakes 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 the Indians.

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 as he described. 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."

DeSoto's Trail thru North Florida - Press for Detail A St. Marks River Pool
Vaca's trail below Napituca Village, at DeSoto's marching rate of four-and-a-half leagues per day, would have 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 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 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).

DeSoto's Chroniclers later reported, from their base camp at today's Marianna...

Inca says that Juan de Anasco was dispatched from that place to find the sea just before he was sent back down DeSoto's trail leading the Thirty Lancers. Anasco needed to mark the trees along that seashore in order to find Iviahica Apalache on his return from Ucita in DeSoto's ships . He first rode south to Aute, twelve leagues from Iviahica, today's Econfina. He reported crossing only two small rivers along the way, easy to cross; they are called Econfina and Sweetwater Creeks today. He camped along the way at Compass Lake, the half way point. Just over two leagues beyond Aute, after crossing a creek up to his horse's pasterns, Anasco came to the head of a bay; today's North Bay, just above St. Andrew Bay. The creek Anasco forded is called Bear Creek today and it, too, is the same with shallow water and a hard bottom. By skirting the bay, Anasco found the place where Narvaez built his boats, on the north shore of today's Bayou George.

The Vaca - Narvaez Boat Building Site
Anasco found crosses carved in the trees, carcasses of dead horses, and the forge Narvaez had built to smelt nails from stirrups to build his boats. Then, in order to mark the trees for his own return, Anasco followed along the shore of the bay to the sea, which was three leagues away. The Gulf of Mexico is one league south of the harbor's point, today's Panama City, then two leagues out the strait formed by the breaker island where he marked the trees, for a total distance of three leagues to the sea, as he reported. Vaca says Narvaez called that strait San Miguel when he sailed through it. Today the breaker island has been cut below Panama City to form a pass for ships, thereby avoiding the shallows at the mouth of the strait which Anasco would report months later on his return from Ucita in DeSoto's ships.

If Narvaez had been at Napituca and had departed to the south, as suggested earlier, he would have passed over Gum Swamp, East River Pool and the St. Marks River. Then, having been turned west by the Gulf of Mexico, he would have passed a plain (just north of today's Medart), more swamps (the Sopchoppy, Ochlockonee, and New River swamps), and a big stream which he called Magdalina; the Apalachicola River, all as Vaca reported. Just before entering Aute, Narvaez came onto planted fields where his army was fallen upon by the enemy.

Cabeza de Vaca's Trail thru North Florida
Narvaez survived and camped at Aute, today's Econfina, where the fields to its southeast are still cultivated today. That nine day trip from "Apalache" to Aute, at a marching rate of four-and-a-half leagues per day, would have totaled just over forty leagues, but the distance along the trails from what DeSoto called Napituca to today's Econfina is forty five leagues. If Narvaez marched at a rate of five leagues per day, however, he could have traveled that distance along the trails from Napituca to Econfina. Narvaez could march at that faster rate because he had no livestock to drive.

Vaca reports that during their 280 league trip through Florida, Narvaez never saw a mountain. Apparently he bypassed Florida's pride and joy, Tallahassee. DeSoto's people reported that they were the first whites ever seen near the Apalache Swamp, which confirms that Narvaez had taken a different route to the bay. Vaca's reported distance traveled through Florida to the bay, 280 leagues, would indicate its estimate along the trails and various diversions, not along paced and charted lines as was DeSoto's habit.

Econfina CreekNarvaez camped for several days in Aute (today's Econfina), where Vaca was dispatched on horseback to find an escape route from that hostile country. He rode down the same trail Anasco would ride to Bayou George. There he found a place favorable for building boats, with cedar, pine, oak, palmetto, shell fish coves and a fresh water stream, but no rocks (see the Township survey of 1831, Bayou George is depicted and described in the Field Notes exactly as Vaca described it). 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 the boats.

Press for Original Servay of Bayou GeorgeSince the water in Bayou George is shallow, Narvaez had to time his departure on favorable tides. According to modern lunar reports, that is exactly what he did: Narvaez completed his boats so they could be launched and maneuvered out of the bay on Spring Tides. That, I believe, was his first wise move in conquest but, no doubt, his last (the timing of the Narvaez Florida expedition is, perhaps, the most neglected event in Florida's history, despite the fact that his was the first; scholars have ignored critical activity dates from the time of the Narvaez landing, in relation to Easter Sunday of that year, to his departure in shallow draft vessels on Spring Tides). Narvaez would vanish, and his defeat would bolster the credibility of the natives who sent him there. Their lies, recorded by missionaries near Napituca years later, would be given credence by historians for centuries.

Desoto's trail from Ucita to the bay whe
re Narvaez built his boats was only 173 leagues long. Vaca's estimate of 280 leagues traveled by Narvaez to the bay probably included scouting for food, plus the distance from his landing site to Ucita, then the greater distance to the Great Swamp on his trail up the east side of the Peace River through Arcadia's rich but scattered fields. Narvaez never got to meet Chief Mococo or his fine people;
Mococo's Village was six leagues north of the route Narvaez chose to take to Apalache.


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