Review of A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, Andrés Reséndez

1 Nov

The age of European exploration and colonization of North America is filled with epic tales of adventure, as people from entirely different civilizations first came in contact. Europeans dreamed of creating colonial empires and gaining wealth and influence in a new land about which they knew nothing about, while natives were at first unsure how to respond to these curious visitors and what exactly their unexpected presence meant. Most of those who read this blog are likely at least casually familiar with some of the most noted early European attempts to find a foothold in North America, such as the famed entrada of Hernando De Soto and the establishment of the English colony at Jamestowne. From their stories many of us have derived some notion of what these first interactions were like and how exploration of the continent by Europeans proceeded. Few are likely very familiar with perhaps the most incredible individual story to emerge from the time period, however. In A Land So Strange, author Andres Resendez recounts the tale of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, who sojourned across the North American continent in the early 1500s after the disastrous failure of the expedition which brought him to the shores of the Gulf.

De Vaca was a part of an expedition under Panfilo de Narvaez, aimed at establishing settlements and other posts in Florida. The mission went awry almost immediately after it encountered the coast, however. Owing to poor knowledge of the area and inadequate maps, Narvaez badly misjudged his location and his colonization effort devolved into a desperate attempt at mere survival. Most of the men who accompanied him perished in grueling cross-Gulf voyage aboard makeshift rafts or starved in the coastal hinterlands. The few survivors who washed up on the shore of what is now Texas endured attack by Indians, exposure to the elements, starvation, and finally, enslavement by native groups where they were forced to perform hard labor. Some were indiscriminately killed for sport. That any made it through all this is incredible.

Somehow de Vaca and three others did, though; Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, Andres Dorantes de Carranza, and Dorantes’ enslaved Moor Estevanico. Despite coming into contact only periodically, they somehow hatched a plan to escape to Spanish settlements in Mexico together. Improbably, the group became recognized as medicine men, a status which allowed them to be accepted by different groups as they made their way west. They eventually became so secure in their status that, for reasons known only to them, they actually chose to press on into the western interior rather than make way south to Mexico after crossing the Rio Grande. Along their extended their journey they came into contact with ancestors of Plains Indians and made it all the way to the Gulf of California before eventually reaching a Spanish outpost and walking in to Mexico City among astounded residents in 1536. Their story was published in an account by de Vaca on his return to Spain, where it inspired no less an adventurer than Hernando De Soto. A Land So Strange is indeed an epic tale of adventure and sheer survival in some of the most adverse circumstances imaginable. It is highly recommended if you have an interest in the age of exploration. I listened to an audiobook recording of the title, which ran just a little over seven hours.



2 Responses to “Review of A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, Andrés Reséndez

  1. John Sledge November 1, 2022 at 9:40 PM #

    Nice review of an important book. If memory serves, they pushed on west rather than down the Mexican Gulf coast b/c of openly hostile Indians along that stretch.

    • The Historians Manifesto November 2, 2022 at 3:04 AM #

      Thanks for the kind words. They did push west for a while after encountering some hostility but if I understood Resendez correctly rather than try to go south a little further on continued to press westward, having become confident their role as medicine men would allow them safe passage. I might have conflated incidents as remembered in the audiobook version.

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